A degree removes personal responsibility

As I mentioned in my previous post, education is simply the process of replacing ignorance with knowledge. This has clear value and can be clearly measured.

Our educational system, built on the Prussian paradigm, seems to have once been about education -replacing ignorance with knowledge – but is now more about commodification of a knowledge, which I suspect, is part of what’s driving educational reform down the entirely wrong path.

Our current educational system culminates with a degree, a product earned by a learner by completing required curricular sequences in either a high school or college. In each case, the purpose of your degree is to communicate with the next step – colleges or employers – that you have the requisite skills to be successful. The degree allows the admissions counselor or human resources officer to pawn off on someone else the task of assessing your skills: if you’ve earned a degree from a SUNY school in education, for instance, I know you have been taught what NYS has mandated new teachers learn. A degree becomes a shortcut to evaluating a candidate’s qualifications against others.

Do degrees actually communicate this information? Sometimes.

Consider two exceptions: the individual who has earned a degree without actually mastering content and the individual who has mastered content without earning a degree. I would suggest that these exceptions are far more common that we want to admit. Research supports this idea for freshmen entering college: in fact, the large number of high school graduates who are ill-prepared for college and require non-credit, remediation before accessing degree-bearing content has both spurned the shifts in the Common Core State Standards in literacy and math and has pointed to the ineffectiveness of a high school diploma in communicating that the bearer of said degree can do any damn thing we assume it means. On the other extreme, look at Nick D’Aloisio, Aaron Swartz, Christopher Paolini, S.E. Hinton, or any number of so-called child prodigies who are achieving what adults dream of before, in some cases, having gotten a drivers license (another purposeless piece of paper).

So if a degree no longer communicates to the marketplace what it used to, where does that leave us? Well, the way I see it, it leaves us needing to change the way we view it, both as students pursuing degrees and as individuals (hiring managers, college recruiters, etc.) who rely on these degrees to communicate to us and alleviate our information burden.

Whenever we rely on a degree – essentially a certification, granted by some aspect of the intellectual hierarchy asserting a candidate’s proficiency – we distance ourselves from the onus of taking personal responsibility for our choices. And whenever we allow someone else, especially The Government, to make these decisions for us, we get imprecise answers for our very precise problems. If I were to hire a doctor to treat an ailment with my lungs, I would want to know that s/he had the proper licenses to practice medicine in my state: I would also want to know what they know about lungs like mine, what experience they have treating a variety of lung issues, what methodology they tend to use in diagnosis and treatment, what research they have conducted into lungs (with whom, when, published where, and peer reviewed as…) among a bunch of other things informed consumers ask. While all doctors have degrees and licenses, not all doctors have experience working with my specific ailment. If I chose to farm out the hard work of researching which lung doctor is the best for my specific issue to someone else, or simply took anyone with a degree from Med School X because they had a “good” degree, I cannot guarantee that the treatment I will receive will be appropriate for my ailment.

Likewise, if I farm out the hard work of assessing each candidates qualifications, interests, and experiences to a degree-granting institution like a high school or college, I am removing myself from having to take personal responsibility for my choices. A degree is only valuable if you depend on a hierarchical system to do this vetting for you.

So, what can we do about this? I believe, as I mentioned in a previous post, that you must be the change you want to see. Therefore, the best thing to do, the only thing to do, is to change your own behavior and therefore act as a signpost for others.

Stop valuing a degree. Recognize that people are very complex and that a degree is far too simplistic a manner of communicating what you want to know: are they ready to contribute to my organization? Recognize that sussing out this information takes time. Recognize that it requires you to know what your objective is, and what you are looking for from a potential collaborator, employee, or new student. Quit pawning off this work on institutions who are not answering your questions with the current product – a degree- anyway. Actively seek to engage with people to find out what their proficiencies, dreams, passions, and skills are; stop pigeonholing individuals into a niche they don’t actually fit into. Value complexity, and recognize that people are vastly complex… far too complex to allow any degree to communicate to you their worth, their potential, or their skill set.


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