Daily question: Credentialism

Paul Graham in After Credentials:


What cram schools are, in effect, is leaks in a seal. The use of credentials was an attempt to seal off the direct transmission of power between generations, and cram schools represent that power finding holes in the seal. Cram schools turn wealth in one generation into credentials in the next.

Think about where credentialism first appeared: in selecting candidates for large organizations. Individual performance is hard to measure in large organizations, and the harder performance is to measure, the more important it is to predict it. If an organization could immediately and cheaply measure the performance of recruits, they wouldn’t need to examine their credentials. They could take everyone and keep just the good ones.

Large organizations can’t do this. But a bunch of small organizations in a market can come close. A market takes every organization and keeps just the good ones. As organizations get smaller, this approaches taking every person and keeping just the good ones. So all other things being equal, a society consisting of more, smaller organizations will care less about credentials.

The era of credentials began to end when the power of large organizations peaked in the late twentieth century. Now we seem to be entering a new era based on measurement. The reason the new model has advanced so rapidly is that it works so much better.

Unlike innovation the notion of credentialism as the “currency of mediocrity” doesn’t get covered as much on the internets. It’s not new. James Fallows’ “The Case Against Credentialism” in the Atlantic, for example, was published 23 years ago. But recently, the availability of affordable educational loans and the marginal utility of college degrees with respect to their escalating price have come into question.

Do you think credentials are unavoidable and/or efficacious?

4 thoughts on “Daily question: Credentialism

  1. One of the promises of social computing/networking is the speed and diversity of available input: professional/personal, mediated/direct, general/focused, etc.

    The promise is that, in aggregation and with easily accessible access to produced work, it becomes easier to get a 360-degree appreciation of a person and his ‘credentials’.

    We have a generation or so to go before this becomes practically applicable, but at least the promise of just-in-time ‘credentialing’ by multiple (and potentially competing) sources may evolve.

    Measuring, of course, remains a problem, as this introduces the equivalent of PageRank/peer review to a wider network of input/qualifiers. But it isn’t as if we haven’t seen any failure of peer review either.

  2. As I said on the Twitter, I mostly agree with Graham.

    The part where I don’t completely agree is where he says that measurement is the solution to credentialism’s problem.

    In academia we have a current problem of an unholy alliance between credentialism and measurement (and magerialism) which is attempting to measure the impact of research output. To cut a very long story short what this has lead to is ranking (credentialism!) of various research journals by “quality” and “impact factor”. The goal is to publish as many papers as possible in the highest quality journals.

    Obviously, part of the problem is that my example comes from academia, home of credentialism.

    • Measurement per se has its place, however if “you make what you measure” (Graham: http://www.paulgraham.com/13sentences.html ) is true, then what you decide to measure directs and influences what you make. What if you measure the wrong thing? Of what if the thing that you measure ceases to be the best thing to measure? Of what if measuring X for group A makes sense, but group B only cares about Y?

      My point about measuring research quality is mostly a whinge because as a qualitative researcher in a field that tends to cross discipline boundaries (“design research”) we are somewhat disadvantaged by the way the scheme is shaping up.

      In the more general sense, once measurement of a particular thing achieves legitimacy, it becomes the test for which you need to build/design/write/publish.

      Basically, like a good social scientist, I think that measurement is contingent and brings with it quite a lot of baggage that cannot be ignored just because the credentialist alternative can be shown to be flawed.

      There are times when credentialism works or is more efficient that some other model. There are other times and contexts in which measurement (of _something_) is more efficient. Unless you can know in which case(s) either model is best, I don’t think you can’t label one as better than the other.

      I’m not saying there are no absolutes. But this is not one of those times.

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