Credentials, Elitism and Web 2.0

Ask professionals for a synonym of trust, and the most common answer will be “credibility.” Explode credibility, and you’ll often get “credentials.” Credentialization is a second cousin to branding and influence, and of course plays a role in trust.

But what happens when you over-stress credentials? Case in point: the reaction of some library science traditionalists to the phenomenon of Wikipedia.

Arguing the traditionalist side is Michael Gorman, former president of the American Library Association and a highly credentialed library scientist, in the Britannica Blog. In his post Jabberwicki: the Educational Response, Part II, Mr. Gorman the librarian lets loose on the barbarians:

"…attempts to downplay the central part literacy [which Gorman defines as “the ability to interact with complex texts and the ability to express complex ideas in clear prose”] plays in the life of the mind are malign attempts to come to grips with the changes being wrought by the digital revolution through abandoning the fundamental values of learning that have obtained in Western societies since classical Greece…

"…The same goes for the theories of different “intelligences.” Intelligence is the ability to think quickly and logically, to absorb new ideas and to incorporate them into existing knowledge, to express ideas clearly in speech and writing—in short, to learn and grow in understanding….

"…Perhaps these are elitist ideas? So be it. Learning and education are enterprises in which the academically gifted prosper and are justified in prospering. That prospering benefits the individual, but it also benefits society. A leveling academy that rewards semi-literacy and tolerates ignorance is, by definition, dysfunctional. We should be seeking to reward the intellectually gifted, not least because societal progress depends on their intelligence, understanding, and wisdom.

"[Wikipedia raises]…the central proposition that one can gain useful knowledge from texts written by any Tom, Dick, or Sally with time on his or her hands. Do we entrust the education of children to self-selected “experts” without any known authority or credentials?

"With the rejection of professionalism has come a widespread rejection of expertise—of the proper role in society of people who make it their life’s work to know stuff…

"…[it is] good to respond [to digitization] with changes in the ways in which we do things as long as those changes are firmly rooted in an intellectual meritocracy. In turn, that meritocracy must be based on respect for expertise and learning, respect for individual achievement, respect for true research, respect for structures that confer authority and credentials, and respect for the authenticity of the human record.

All right, translation for the hoi polloi. What’s at stake here? The values of western civilization, it would appear.

How is that so? Because the collaborative nature of wikipedia threatens “respect for structures that confer authority and credentials,” which then undermines respect for learning, hence meritocracies.

I also favor meritocracies, but don’t agree with his logical linkage to the rest. Which means either my logic is wrong, or his is. I vote for his.

Here’s a rule of thumb: when a highly credentialized person equates threats to credentialization with threats to western civilization, smell bombast.

Another rule: When someone starts a sentence with “intelligence is…”, what follows is bound to be complete twaddle. Intelligence “is” whatever the writer wants to define it as being; using the verb “to be” doesn’t endow the writer with metaphysical insights beyond those of anyone else—not even self-confessed elitists. Don’t state what “is,” unless it’s clearly meant to be argumentative; instead, argue what is useful to assume.

Credentialism is a disease in academia these days. Universities brag about the number of faculty with top-school PhDs. The BA now does what the high school diploma used to do—serve mainly as the cutoff point for any meaningful job. The line of sight between education and any meaningful sense of competence is getting more obscure, not less. I doubt that Tom Peters could get a job teaching MBAs at a regional state business school, because he lacks “credentials—“ as defined by the credentialled.

It happens in religion, universities, governments, and businesses. A successful idea creates an institution, which creates bureaucracies, which then strive to perpetuate their own existence. Credentialization begins as anti-anarchy; it ends with frenzied warnings about the threat of un-credentialled hordes battering the walls of civilization.

I’m not at all sure we have to “choose” between Wikipedia and academic excellence, but I know I’ve gotten the W habit. I learned it from my son. One more case where I trust my experience over credentials.

Methinks Mr. Gorman doth protest too much.

0 replies
  1. Lark
    Lark says:

    You do have an uncanny ability to cause me to read and write way more than I should.

    And by now – you already know – this is one hot-button topic which irritates me to no end…

    … Because I really must weigh in again!

    It’s well-and-good the world possesses credentialed idiots like the ones you cite, but wouldn’t the world miss the non-credentialed idiots, like me, to keep them in their place?

    I think, therefore, it’s so… so it’s not so idiotic… to think smart people like you… could see through the pseudo-intellectual fog of it all too.

    And woe it be unto any zealot who might disagree with me. To my simple way of non-linear, chaotic thinking… standing outside of those superimposed lines and boundaries… perpetuated by the ballyhooed class… credentialism is practically worshiped by these dimwitted apes… and vastly overrated by the easily-impressed…

    … If not always… by the dumb-and-dumber.

    Hell, I learned this back in school!

    Oh yea… what school did you say you went to?

    Well, you know, I got my B.A. here, and my B.S. there… and then I got my doctorate… from wooh-wooh-u…

    … You’ve got your bona fides then, huh?

    I can’t tell you how many times I could barely keep my eyes open in that 8:00 class I finally dropped. By 1:00 I was still sleep-walking… and my poor little old pea-pickin’ brain kept thinking "escape, escape… escape now… from this silly turmoil".

    Once, when I desperately wanted to impress a pretty, disinterested girl to skip class and go shoot some pool with me (and getting nowhere fast), I interrupted our self-important professor to ask how the assemblage of words he was incessantly spewing – about practically nothing – would square with one of Einstein’s famous observations.

    To which he properly, if grudgingly, replied, "And what does relativity have to do with our discussion here, pray tell?"

    "Forgive me for the interruption, sir, but Einstein said, "Only two things are infinite – the universe and human stupidity. And I’m not so sure about the former."

    In the eruption that followed… the icy-cold chill in the windowless room… was all sweetness and light… and sensing the professor was about to let me have it in front of everyone else still laughing…

    "From where I sit, there has to be some truth to this, so would you excuse me?  I’ve got an uncontrollable urge to flee!"

    Charlie, you don’t believe a single word I have to say, do you?

    Believe me; it’d soon be forgettable if you did!


  2. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    "Universities brag about the number of faculty with top-school PhDs."

    Makes one wonder – if your own PhD grads aren’t up to your own standards what does that say?

    Given that I don’t have even a B.A. this topic is one I tend to dance around, since my views on it smell of sour grapes.  Nonetheless my observation is that the vast majority of jobs that require a B.A., don’t, and that the vast majority of people who have a B.A. remember almost nothing of what they supposedly learned.  University (and despite my lack of credentials, I have spent enough time on campus to know what I speak of) has become about the piece of paper, not about the learning.    People go, because they must, do what they must to get the grades/credential they need and once it’s done, it’s done.  It’s just another hoop to jump through.

  3. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Ian, since I worked as a recruiter for several years, I’ll address the degree inflation issue.

    You’re absolutely right that most jobs that require a degree (or a Microsoft certification!) don’t really require that piece of paper.

    However, when there’s a glut on the labour market, and managers / HR departments / recruiters are swamped with resumes. In order to triage those paper candidates with a minimum of investment, they raise the bar by adding hoops like degrees, certifications, years of experience, etc. Thus, degree inflation. (Of course, the best companies still find ways to skip the degree inflation trap and hire great people.)

    My humble prediction: when the baby boomers all finally retire, and we face a crisis labour shortage of experienced workers (along with the knowledge transfer crisis), the pendulum will shift and degrees will pale in importance next to hiring *anyone* to get jobs filled before your competitor hires them.

    Charlie, you’ve done a tidy take down of Mr. Gorman based on his use of latinate words and concepts of intellectual gatekeeping. All well and good. But you’ve also given yourself a rhetorical advantage by using the Wikipedia as your example — which, for all its faults, is a great source of information on breaking news and geek news, and provides a good starting point to gain an overview of a new topic.

    Based on what you’ve written in this post, is it safe for me to assume you are just as much a fan of the Conservapedia? After all, it is no more hampered by the sins of credentialism than Wikipedia is. (I hope the irony isn’t lost on you that the various tag lines of Conservapedia are "The trustworthy encyclopedia," and "A conservative encyclopedia you can trust.")

    And likewise, if credentialism is to be avoided, may I take it that you are just fine if your son’s school system teaches the religious idea of Intelligent Design in his science class? Because after all, if we aren’t hung up on credentials, and we aren’t intellectual elitists who demand experts, then we shouldn’t have a problem with non-scientists without even basic knowledge of how science operates teaching religious dogma as scientific fact. Should we?

    On the other hand, if your answer is no to either of these questions…how do you reconcile that with what you’ve written above?

  4. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Charlie, I should add that I hope you realize that, while I’m having fun playing devil’s advocate above, I am also genuinely interested in how Conservapedia fits into your argument.

    I find that really, the issue with gatekeeping is that no one thinks of themselves as a barbarian, and so while we’re ultimately okay with some kinds of gatekeeping (we want our cardiac surgeon to be a certified expert, not a passionate amateur), as individuals we are prejudiced towards setting the standards high enough that they keep all of those *other* barbarians out (cf Conservopedia), but low enough that they let us, or our conveniences, in (cf the mass popularity of Wikipedia).

    More serendipity — reading  "Judging Books by Their Covers" about physicist Richard Feynman’s stint selecting math textbooks for the State of California’s Curriculum Commission, I came across this quote:

    "This question of trying to figure out whether a book is good or bad by looking at it carefully or by taking the reports of a lot of people who looked at it carelessly is like this famous old problem: Nobody was permitted to see the Emperor of China, and the question was, What is the length of the Emperor of China’s nose? To find out, you go all over the country asking people what they think the length of the Emperor of China’s nose is, and you average it. And that would be very "accurate" because you averaged so many people. But it’s no way to find anything out; when you have a very wide range of people who contribute without looking carefully at it, you don’t improve your knowledge of the situation by averaging." (my bolding)

    Somehow the wikipedia came to mind.

    The whole article is excellent, and relates directly to the issue of  how trust systems work (or not work) when we delegate the responsibility of setting standards, choosing gatekeepers, defining academic excellence, educating our children, and defining our culture — and what the role of commercial systems and non-experts can play in such a system.

  5. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Trust Shaula to ask the tough questions!

    First, let me offer a tuning to your suggestion that degrees are used by employers as an efficient method of triage.  I find that is somewhat true, but that it is mainly a rationalization, and not the real reason.

    The real reason has to do with institutionalized avoidance of accountability.  Phil McGee suggests that all management problems boil down to a tendency to blame, and an inability to confront. 

    What drives employers to use degrees is that it gives them a rationalization for never having to make judgments–and socially acceptable plausible deniability for doing so.  You are quite right to point out that the best organizations refuse to operate by that logic, and actually have the nerve to make judgments on their own, and to take accountability for those judgments.

    Which is a nice lead-in to your comments about encyclopedias and consistency.  I don’t have a lock on truth here, but here goes.

    First, I was blissfully unaware of Conservapedia until you told me of its existence.  My first reaction was, wow, fair and balanced 2.0, where’s Rupert Murdoch behind the curtain?  And it does sound a bit like Fox.   But that’s just my bias.

    I looked at their entry for "evolution," figuring that might be a good test case. And, for me, it was.  I made a considered judgment that their entry appeared relatively tortured, focused in a fairly heavy way at explaining away the majority point of view on evolution, and at pains to offer up the minority view.

    Just to be clear, my use of Wikipedia was not my choice, but Mr. Gorman’s.   And my point of view is it’s a free world, just as we can and should be free to watch (or not) Fox TV, we should be able to read the "trusted, conservative non-encyclopedia encylopedia."  I don’t expect to spend much time on it myself, however.

    I urge anyone, however, to check it out.  In particular, check out their self-description.  I happen to agree with their philosophic point that there is no such thing as a purely "objective" description.  I got that from reading Edmund Husserl  and other phenomenologists I’ve forgotten (at a university). 

    But I take that like I take the woodworking rule that there’s no such thing as a 90-degree angle.  True also; but it doesn’t stop you trying to make your joints as humanly perfect as possible.  (Sidebar: the best glued butt-joints for long pieces of joined wood?  Do a decent job, then glue it up–then cut again straight down the glue-line on a table saw.  The closest you’ll get to perfectly joined edges is a cut made with both sides of the same table saw blade cut at the same time).

    Conservapedia doesn’t think like a woodworker, however.  They suggest that since someone else has (in their opinion) a liberal bias, they ought to have a conservative bias, and as long as they’re clear about it, fine. 

    This is an argument that was hashed over in newspaper boardrooms for many decades–how to keep an editorial voice separate from news reporting, and both  separate from advertising.  It’s a noble goal, even if approachable only asymptotically.   For the same reason, we say no one is without sin, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t  oughta at least try not to kill your neighbor, etc.

    Would I be pissed if my son’s college taught "creationism?"  Darn right, and it has nothing to do with credentials or academic respectability.  It is because I, myself, of my own true volition, found out how to think, and I think the creationist arguments are complete and utter crap.  As someone elegantly said recently, it’s like the rooster crowing because he thinks it makes the sun rise.  I want my son to hear about those things, so he can come to his own judgment, but he doesn’t have to waste much time on it to get there, the logical errors are pretty clear.

    Just to be clear, I think universities are great; education is still a pretty good thing (I think even Lark on a given day might concede that–though not on every day).  And there’s a lot to be said for learning.

    What I’m ranting about is when credentialism gets used to keep others down; or to justify avoidance behavior by rationalizing it as efficiency; or when it gets used to defend crappy thinking. 

    Here’s another paradox: many academic credentialists say they’re arguing on behalf of learning for learning’s sake.  But if that were true, they’d have to grant the legitimacy of people like Ian thinking for themselves, rather than insisting on credentials as a pre-requisite for teaching others the ability to do so. 

    Or something like that.  I’m not sure I’ve got a fully formed point there.   But that’s probably the fault of my junior English teacher who hadn’t yet finished her doctorate when she was allowed to practice her incompetence upon me.  Sure and it wasn’t my fault.

  6. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    I think Charlie’s comment about "blame" hits the the bullseye.  If you hire someone who’s credentialed, and they turn out badly, well, who can blame you?  If you "take a chance" on someone who isn’t, and they turn out badly – well, you too can be blamed. 

    (Although my experience in my last corporate job at a big multinational was that about 80% of all hiring was driven by referrals. I used to ask all new hires, "so, who do you know", it was rare they didn’t know someone.

    Credentials only really work when the system hasn’t been compromised or flooded.  In terms of the conservative movement, religious conservatives in particular, but conservatives in general saw that they needed credentials to be taken seriously.  So they did a few things.  One of those was to create their own universities, like Liberty U, whose law school graduates have flooded into the Justice department under the current Republican administration (and have, frankly, proved that they weren’t taught the same sort of law that other institutions teach.)

    They’re was also a huge explosion of think tanks, so that you could hire intellectuals who weren’t university associated (and who you wanted to use in ways the university doesn’t always like (not always correct, the standard faculty contempt for public intellectuals disgusts me) ) and call them "fellows".  Once named fellows, and being given a salary, they were considered "credentialed" and more authoritative than some random rube – but really, all it meant is that someone was willing to pay for their services.

    Back in the law world – the Federalist Society, who provides almost all Conservative judges, while not strictly a credentialing service, effectively operates as one.  Your odds of getting a federal judgeship are damn near zero under a Republican administration if the Federalist Society doesn’t like you (and most are members).

    What has risen on the sides then is an explicitly partisan credentialing system.

  7. Michael D.
    Michael D. says:

    My industry could tell you a thing or two about Credentialization, there are hundreds of credentials in my field,  many of which only demonstrate ones ability to cough up  6 or 7 hundred dollars.  I have long thought that if you gave students the chance to deposit money into a machine and either receive a credential or  an education the majority would prefer the credential. 

  8. Michael D.
    Michael D. says:

    The article your post does speak to the misuse of a credential. However, the journalist used the abuse of a credential and inappropriate recommendations to attack companies and a line of financial products.  I would not have been so concern if this journalist had gotten all of the facts straight. (A discussion of these details is beyond the scope and nature of this website)  

    I agree that many individuals in the financial planning community need to take some of the lesson on this website to heart. The reality, however, is that the percentage of complaints in the financial services industry is less than 1% of consumers, much lower than other industries.  Just as important as financial advisors acting with integrity, it is important that financial journalist act with integrity and not engage in sensationalism.

    There are regrettably, bad advisors in all products lines.

  9. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    First off, thank you for your detailed reply, Charlie.

    I agree that there is a huge problem with fear-driven hiring decisions, and that a general hiring philosophy of CYA isn’t going to build a great organization.

    You wrote: "First, I was blissfully unaware of Conservapedia until you told me of its existence.  My first reaction was, wow, fair and balanced 2.0, where’s Rupert Murdoch behind the curtain? "

    While there’s no Rupert Murdoch on this one, but, Conservopedia was founded by right-wing activist Andrew Schlafly, son of high-profile right-wing activist and anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly. 

    For a fun exercise in comparative "fair and balanced"  reporting, you can always compare their bios in SourceWatch, Wikipedia, and Conservopedia:

    Back to Wikipedia and elitism: I thought you and your readers might enjoy the op-ed that Wikipedia-cofounder Larry Sanger wrote on Kuro5hin in 2004 titled Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism:

    (…)As a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise. As a community, far from being elitist (which would, in this context, mean excluding the unwashed masses), it is anti-elitist (which, in this context, means that expertise is not accorded any special respect, and snubs and disrespect of expertise is tolerated). This is one of my failures: a policy that I attempted to institute in Wikipedia’s first year, but for which I did not muster adequate support, was the policy of respecting and deferring politely to experts. (Those who were there will, I hope, remember that I tried very hard.)

    I need not recount the history of how this nascent policy eventually withered and died. Ultimately, it became very clear that the most active and influential members of the project — beginning with Jimmy Wales, who hired me to start a free encyclopedia project and who now manages Wikipedia and Wikimedia — were decidedly anti-elitist in the above-described sense.

    Consequently, nearly everyone with much expertise but little patience will avoid editing Wikipedia, because they will—at least if they are editing articles on articles that are subject to any sort of controversy—be forced to defend their edits on article discussion pages against attacks by nonexperts. This is not perhaps so bad in itself. But if the expert should have the gall to complain to the community about the problem, he or she will be shouted down (at worst) or politely asked to "work with" persons who have proven themselves to be unreasonable (at best).

    I know, of course, that Wikipedia works because it is radically open. I recognized that as soon as anyone; indeed, it was part of the original plan. But I firmly disagree with the notion that that Wikipedia-fertilizing openness requires disrespect toward expertise. The project can both prize and praise its most knowledgeable contributors, and permit contribution by persons with no credentials whatsoever. That, in fact, was my original conception of the project. It is sad that the project did not go in that direction. (…)

    . . .

    You may wish to read Langer’s entire Wikipedia op-ed (and ensuing commentary) on Kur5hin.

    I got there via an HBS case study on the wikipedia entry for "Enterprise 2.0," via its write-up on HBS Working Knowledge title How Wikipedia Works (Or Doesn’t), which also both make worthwhile reading.

    The elitism vs anti-elitism arguments that Sanger raises apply to communication / organization / management issues for businesses:
    – how do you make sure that "horizontal organizations" don’t devolve into mob rule?
    – Are your noisiest/most adamant member (/employees / managers / customers) necessarily the wisest?  (E.g., the classic error where tech companies design products for their noisiest users, vs the majority of their users)
    – how do you ensure that the people who know their stuff can make themselves heard vs the people who are the most popular, have the best connections to upper management, or have the biggest power / popularity base?

    In my own personal utopia, I’d like to think it is worth working for openess / inclusion / engagement and at the same time maintaining a respect for expertise (which obviously is not always the same as credentialism).  And at a practical level, I recongize that the subjectivity at play here makes this a difficult goal (that probably works better in small, cohesive groups and doesn’t necessarily scale well, or at least not easily).

  10. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    To anyone interested in this topic; do yourself a favor and follow the several links that Shaula included in her comment above.  I find them fascinating.  Thanks Shaula for taking the time to post them.

  11. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Charlie, here’s a late-breaking comic twist to the discussion.  Encyclopedia Britannica has just announced that they are going to follow a modified Wikipedia model.

    God lies in the details, of course, and the specifics of wikifying Encyclopedia Britannica are very interesting, and for that matter promising. Eliot Van Buskirk of describes it liked "Wikipedia mashed with LinkedIn." 

    This should be fun to watch develop, and I hope the project lives up (and not down) to its promise.


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