Fame can come easily and overnight, but excellence is almost always accompanied by a crushing workload. Psychologists have put specific dimensions to this aspect of accomplishment. One thread of this literature, inaugurated in the early 1970s by Herbert Simon, argues that expertise in a subject requires a person to assimilate about 50,000 “chunks” of information about the subject over about ten years of experience—simple expertise, not the mastery that is associated with great accomplishment. Once expertise is achieved, it is followed by thousands of hours of practice, study, and labor.But surely this calculation does not apply across the board. In many fields, information and interaction are not easily divided into 50,000 chunks in the same way that $50,000 can be divided into 50,000 chunks of one dollar each. That fact bears on the problem of credentialism as a barrier to getting a job.
Credentialism? It means an emphasis on acquiring academic credentials in a field before one can be hired. Before I go any further, let me make clear what it does not mean: Obviously, we want our nurse practitioner to have credentials, that is, to have learned human anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and medical procedure and ethics to the satisfaction of her educators before she treats you.
But so many courses today offer a different, cloudier picture. Consider business courses, for example. In “The Case Against Credentialism” in the Atlantic in 1985, James Fallows observes,
The rise of the M.B.A. has occurred during precisely the era in which, as anyone who follows business magazines is aware, the content of graduate business training has come under increasing attack. “We have created a monster,” H. Edward Wrapp, of the University of Chicago's business school, wrote in 1980, in Dun's Review. “The business schools have done more to insure the success of the Japanese and West German invasion of America than any one thing I can think of.” I'd close every one of the graduate schools of business,”[...]
Credentialism evades this fact by padding and lengthening courses, raising fees, and marketing prestige or exclusivity. If all that added up to productivity in running a business, US firms would not need government help.
The problem came home to me when I was doing some editorial work years ago on a textbook for sales personnel, as part of a business course. More.
Part II: Those less well-advertised reasons why credentialism is so important today [...]
The usual explanation is that more and better education results, which helps students, prospective employers, and society in general. Maybe credentialism does all that. But here are some other things is also does:
* It keeps younger potential competitors out of the work force for several extra years. That can be better news for government and industry than for the students who must finance those years by incurring debt.
* It makes achievement in getting credentials sound as important as achievement in the field itself. That’s problematic. Does getting high marks in a certificate course in hotel and resort management show that a person can run a hotel or resort? Possibly, but so much of what we really need to know can only be learned on the job.
* It forms an industry for the people who create the courses and grant the credentials. That’s not a bad thing in principle. In practice, its value depends on the true relationship between credentials and later performance. More.
Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.