Credential Culture

by Nathan French
File under: Fake Culture15 Aug 2013 13:40 EDT

A credential.  It doesn't necessarily indicate achievement — it indicates a potential for achievement.  And today, the line between "potential" and "fake" is a little blurry.

A credential, in essence, is a form of social endorsement.  Gaining a credential, like a college degree, indicates that certain cultural authorities are willing to endorse you.  You have been able to live up to a code of conduct that they have established.  You can play the game by the rules.  Thus, a credential like a college degree has value when operating elsewhere within the culture — it tells other authorities that you aren't going to break the toys if they let you play with them.

Credentials are a kind of fiat currency, in that they have no intrinsic value and are subject to inflation.  The value of most credentials today, especially college degrees, is determined by a principle of exclusion.  The more people excluded from possessing a certain credential, the more valuable it becomes.  Thus, a Harvard degree is the highest college credential because Harvard must turn away the largest number of potential students.  Harvard's 'elite' status is created by the vast number of people who want in but are denied entry.  Harvard's 'elite' students are not primarily defined by academic achievement or intelligence — they are defined by the fact that they have managed (by cunning, by birth, or by accident) to slip through the Cambridge firewall while so many others remain unhappily outside.  If no one actually wanted to go to Harvard, the degree would be worthless.

Today's 'elite' class is created by the exclusion of an underclass.  It's a neurotic condition, akin to the condition of people who try to boost their self-esteem by belittling others.  The sad fact is that the underclass actually collaborates in this process.  It props up the 'elite' class by continuing to value 'elite' credentials, despite recognizing the emptiness of those credentials and despite recognizing their own unjust exclusion.  Through such servile behavior, the underclass proves itself to be worthy of its underclass status and justifies the prejudices of the 'elite'.  It's an ugly cycle.

Bear in mind: the idea of an elite class is not intrinsically bad.  The Soviet-style concept of "smashing the rich" is itself a form of underclass servility that indicates envy of the so-called elite's empty achievements.  In a fair society, there is still an elite class — but it wins its 'elite' status on the basis of real achievements, productivity, intelligence, etc.  To some very small extent, true elites might still exist today in the business world, especially the tech industry (Bill Gates?  Steve Jobs?).  But in terms of college, forget it.

Let's say you received a degree from Harvard.  An 'elite' credential.  Now, what does one do?   You possess a slip of paper indicating that you have almost unlimited potential.  This seems like an achievement in itself, right?  For the rest of your life, you will always "be capable of something great" even if you decide to spend it working at McDonalds.  Why do anything at all?  Or why even strive for anything?  Like the beneficiary of a Calvinist "unconditional election", your actions are unlikely to ever live up to your potential.  If you try, you will probably just embarrass yourself.  A nice dilemma, perhaps, but the question remains: what does one do...?

It turns out that there are lots of employers eager to hire you.  

Why?  Do they think you will really do "a great job" at whatever task they give you?  Are they impressed by your hypothetical intelligence and productivity?  No, they want to hire you because they want boost their own credentials.  "We're a top corporation, we have Harvard graduates on our staff".  They're collaborators in credentials game, too.  And they can use their credentials to do things like secure large investments or a line of credit, receive adulatory press coverage, boost share prices — things that increase company profits despite the fact that the company isn't productive.  In their weaker moments, the company heads might recognize the reality of the situation, but what can they do?  How could they be productive, with so many Harvard graduates working there, and how could they survive without credentials in a credentials-based culture?  They are forced to perpetuate the system for the sake of their own survival.

Clearly, this fake, inflationary system is unsustainable.  It will inevitably lead to a crisis of credibility, a condition in which the value of credentials will be at first cancelled altogether and then re-evaluated according to a more realistic standard.  It will inevitably lead to the implementation of a kind of 'gold standard' in credentials.

And like the gold standard, a rational credential system used to exist in this country.  In the 19th century, or even the first half of the 20th century, having a college degree primarily meant that one was interested in reading and writing as a profession.  Going to college simply meant that one liked studying.   College was — surprise, surprise — a place of scholarly learning, and not a clearinghouse for "the leaders of the next generation".  Your degree simply indicated that you were an "educated person", and the admissions process was hardly laborious or exclusive.  Your degree implied very little in terms of general potential.  You could return to your hometown in Maine and spend the rest of your life as an anonymous schoolteacher, or you could move to Washington DC and try running for office.  Either was considered appropriate, and certainly very little was expected on the basis of a degree alone.  

It perhaps isn't surprising to note that this country was also far more productive then.  What a poor state of affairs when unpopular, non-credentialed outsiders like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison could scoop up all the investment capital.  How lucky we are now, to have this Facebook thing.

Of course, the big shift came in the 1960s, with our favorite generation, the Baby Boomers.  Actual academics were evacuated from the US educational system.  Instead, students were taught how to be 'socially acceptable.'  Without a real curriculum, there was no other basis for grades and achievement.  But even as late as the 1970s, someone like Steve Jobs — an 'underemployed' Reed College dropout — was able to secure the vast capital necessary to produce the first line of Apple computers.

If you want this sordid game to go away, the solution is simple: don't participate.  Don't value fake credentials, and don't try to identify with the servile underclass — or the 'elite'.  Develop productive ability, even if it seems like a liability today.  It's a big world out there, full of people who have no special preference for places like Harvard.  And soon, very soon, the inflated values of those credentials will come crashing down.  How many more criminal Harvard MBAs in headlines do you think it will take before credibility is completely eroded?  We're counting. 

Follow us on Twitter
Friend's email:    Your email:  


X-Citizen says:16 Aug 2013 0:18 EDT
I took my degree and ran. Wish I could pin my escape on Obama. Bush was bad enough to think about exit.
Anonymous says:15 Aug 2013 23:42 EDT
Amen, Any Non Mouse!
Any Non Mouse says:15 Aug 2013 22:13 EDT
Yes, when my parents were young it was a high school diploma... Everyone had to have one. And now that just about everyone does, they're worthless.

Today, one must have a college degree. "They" will tell you that you can't have a career without it.

However, many of those in possession of them are pulling lattes or beers, or delivering pizza and waiting tables. They have learned a hard lesson about inflation or dilution of value. Or I guess I should say they "could have learned" because the truth is that they still blame others for holding them back.

THE MAN is standing on their neck...
Name: (optional)