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The Case Against Credentialism

Welcome to the College Fix time warp, where we take you back in time–way back to December 1985–when The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote about the dangers of credentialism, long before anyone ever thought of such a thing as a higher-ed bubble.

Even as modern America honors the successful entrepreneur, it reflects the tremendous pull exerted by the security, dignity, and order of the professionalized world. The basic tenet of this culture of achievement is that he who goes further in school will go further in life. American society is often described as a meritocracy, in the sense that those who show the most pluck and academic merit will prevail. The Houston housewife who labored in obscure solitude on her first novel, picked an agent’s name out of a magazine, and then sold her book last summer for $350,000 is a figure from the first culture, that of self-help; if she uses the money to send her son to Andover, Yale, and Harvard Law, he will be citizen of the second, the meritocracy.

The rise to professional status is one of the most familiar and cherished parts of the American achievement ideal. What immigrant saga would be complete without the peddler’s grandson receiving his M.D.? But such an ideal is also at odds with most analyses of what the society as a whole needs if it is to continue to achieve. If everyone has the tenure and security that come with professional status, who will take the risks?

NOWHERE IS THE TENSION BETWEEN THE TWO CULTURES, the entrepreneurial and the professional, more evident at the moment than in American business. At just the time when American business is said to need the flexibility and the lack of hierarchy that an entrepreneurial climate can create, more and more businessmen seem to feel that their chances for personal success will be greatest if they become not entrepreneurs but professionals, with advanced educational degrees…

Fallows showed great prescience with this piece. It’s never too late for American’s to wise up and heed his words.

A college degree isn’t the same thing as a successful life–intelligence, discipline, good character and determination are so much more important. This is the sort of idea Paul Tough tried to point out in his recent book How Children Succeed.

We would be wise, as a society, to reject the false security of credentialism in favor of more dynamic and achievement-based definitions of success. Whether for individuals or for societies as a whole, success requires risk.

Read Fallows’s full article here.

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