Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Questioning credentials

I had written earlier about a revolt in the world of college admissions, and how the dean of admissions at MIT was trying to defuse a high-pressure system that encouraged people to exaggerate their credentials. Now, sadly, that very same dean of admissions has quit her job because she lied about her own credentials on her original resume for her first job with the school. And not a small lie, either . . . she fabricated three college degrees, when she had only attended college for one year and never graduated.

Jones must have been exceedingly popular and well-loved, because no one seems have a shred of schadenfreude for the incident, and the tone of everyone's announcements have been regret and sadness, not outrage and calls for reform. (Although someone, somewhere must have it in for her, since it was an anonymous phone call that tipped off the administration.)

When somebody screws up, and then we find out they falsified their credentials, people are outraged that an incompetent managed to dupe us. But the story is more complicated when someone who is obviously talented, highly skilled and very effective in their career turns up with false credentials. We're unhappy that the system has allowed someone to cheat, because that undermines the validity for all the people who paid their dues. Why spend half a dozen years working hard to get degrees, when you can just pretend you got them and still get the job? Jones' dismissal was clearly a matter of integrity and ethics, not competence.

But what's more troubling to the colleges (and those who attend them) is not a question of people counterfeiting credentials that have real value. It's worse than that. It's the sinking realization that maybe the degrees don't have that much value to begin with. If someone can have a successful twenty-eight year career with high visibility, and nobody could tell that she didn't have the degrees she claimed, can the degrees really mean that much? Could it be that a college degree is not all it's cracked up to be?

A college degree is not so much a certification of competence as an insurance policy against incompetence. Just because someone has degree, doesn't mean they will be good at a particular job. It just lowers the odds that they will be utterly unqualified. Employers look at college degrees as a proxy for real experience. Once someone proves they can do a particular job and do it well, the degree is somewhat superfluous. Which is probably why so many people lie about their degrees: once they get their foot in the door and prove their worth, they figure, "No harm, no foul."

I certainly don't want a world where more and more people lie about their accomplishments. But I wouldn't mind it at all if people start to give real-world experiences and demonstrated ability more consideration than degrees, diplomas, and certifications. That might lead people to focus more on really learning what they need to know to be successful, instead of just chasing after a potentially meaningless piece of paper. Which, in fact, was what Marilee Jones has been telling us for years.



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