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.