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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Academic credentialism

I've always found that the more stock a person puts in having gone to a prestigious school, the dumber he is. This isn't a vague but positive correlation: it is, in my experience, almost a straight line correlation. Saying you're a graduate of such-and-such a school is a substitute -- and a poor one -- for demonstrating intelligence through your own words and actions.

People get into Harvard for all sorts of reasons. Some because they're legacies and their parents donated money. Some because they were good athletes. Some because of affirmative action. And a few, like me, get in because they were faculty children.

Some of these people would have gotten in anyway. But most wouldn't have. So what exactly does it mean that they have Harvard degrees?

When I was in college, graduating wasn't hard. The dumbest guys I knew at Harvard -- and you'd be surprised how dumb they were -- graduated at pretty much the same rate smarter people did. They took easier courses, or they cribbed other peoples' papers, or they just graduated with worse grades.

So what exactly does it mean that they have Harvard degrees?

And the people who get in purely on their "smarts" tend to be grade grubbers. They're not necessarily smart, but they study hard, are pretty good at short term memorization, and can spew facts back on tests. They generally take great pride in their grades, and to them, their GPA is proof of how smart they are.

But we've all known enough of these people to know that, really, they're not that smart. They're almost never witty, they can't think for themselves, and they're generally only founts of received wisdom.

So what does it mean that they have Harvard degrees?

The smartest people I've known were not grade grubbers. They just explored various subjects because they found them.... interesting. Those subjects, whether lowbrow, middlebrow, or highbrow, simply held appeal for them. So these people were mostly autodidacts, and formed their own opinions about those subjects.

Most of the academically credentialed, when it comes right down to it, don't really trust their own opinions. (For good reason.) So they tend to recite middle of the road, "respectable" opinions, since their worst fear is that someone might think them off-kilter somehow.

And therefore, these are the same people who are most easily conned into believing in various forms of political correctness. (These days, "educated" is just a synonym for "brainwashed.")

These are the same people who recite cliches as if they're imparting the wisdom of the ages. (The more you use cliches, the more apparent it is that you cannot think for yourself.)

These are the same people who would say, with an airily dismissive wave of the hand, "Oh, I would never listen to anything that Neanderthal would say." (Shouldn't an argument be judged on its own merits?)

And these are the same people who recite their credentials as if this is proof that what they say must be correct. They may not be quick, they may make a lot of mistakes, and others may find their company deadly. But, they have the diploma, so they must be smarter than those who don't have it.

I've always found that the best measure of a person's sanity and intelligence -- but especially sanity -- is their sense of humor. To be funny, one must have a sense of the absurd. And to have that, one must have a strong instinctive grasp on reality. (When was the last time you heard someone boast of his academic credentials and then say something truly funny?)

The next time you hear someone ask for your academic pedigree, as prelude to reciting his own, you should hear three things: first, he's not really that smart; second, he's probably pretty closed-minded; and third, he's a snob.


Shaun F said...

John - The academics that I have known do tend to think that because of their credentials they are "above" others - in a more learned fashion. I've known four professors, (all drunks ironically) and they knew it all! When I beat one of them at chess when I was 15 that definitely wounded his intellectual pride.

"They're not necessarily smart, but they study hard, are pretty good at short term memorization, and can spew facts back on tests. They generally take great pride in their grades, and to them, their GPA is proof of how smart they are."

The above statement reminds me of those types that master the art of behavioral based interviewing - they know the right answers and get the job - but in general aren't terribly competent.

I also find auto-didactic people generally better read, and more informed about issues than educated types. I was at my barbershop last Sept, in my home town, and I identified as "auto-didactic" and one of the customers said "You people are dangerous." which I interpreted to mean, we aren't easily brainwashed.

I don't think their is much room for trusting ones opinion in academia. But I don't know. I just figure so much of what one does is tied into research grants and funding - those two issues tend to influence the one's academic opinion.

Isn't there an expression "He's educated above his level of intelligence?" In Canada, the Federal Government pay for MBAs for senior leaders. So you can imagine at the top, there is little room for divisive opinions. You have a bunch of people that all think the same. So in a way by default unless you drink the kool aid, you won't be promoted up the ranks.

John Craig said...

Shaun --
We agree!

I'd interpret "You people are dangerous" to mean, "you people question the status quo."

I've never heard that expression "he's educated above his level of intelligence" before, but i like it.

Good point, the Academy these days is an extremely close-minded place, and you question the liberal orthodoxy at your own peril, generally at the expense of your career. So, yes, there are probably a lot of people who are more insightful and open-minded than they appear at first.

Anonymous said...

Bloggers and the people who comment at blogs tend to be very smart people. Another term you heard when George W. Bush was President was that he was intellectually incurious(not quite dumb but close). I did not hear that about Barack Obama but I think they both may have been guilty. I am curious about the term incurious. What if George W. Bush spent 6 months in Dallas living as a gay man, would that have shown that he is curious? How curious are these journalist? Will I see someone from the New Republic on Naked and Afraid tomorrow night? Mostly, they think they are smart because they get their opinions from Larry Summers and other bright folks so they don't have to independently come up with their own solutions. Since their experts are smarter than the other sides experts, they win.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Thanks for the implied compliment (I think).

Journalists will generally always try to imply, and sometimes even say, that Republicans are dumb, whereas they will rarely hurl that accusation at a Democrat, especially a black Dem, and certainly never the sainted Barack Obama.

Curious doesn't necessarily have to mean adventurous. I'd describe myself as the former, but not the latter. So I can't throw stones at the New Republic journalists for not appearing on Naked and Afraid.

Well, they assume their experts are smarter....just like they assumed that both Al Gore and Rhodes Scholar Bill Bradley were smarter than George W. Bush back during the primaries in 2000. So wasn't it ironic when it turned out that Bush had higher SAT's than both of those guys?

High Arka said...

(Search "on it own merits" and adjust to "on its own merits.")

You should make an exception for people who have to recite their credentials for employment purposes. Physicians often call each other "doctor" in hospitals, not because they think they're all great (well, they do, but that's still not why they title each other), but because when everyone is in used scrubs it's hard to tell which of the people in the room are doctors, nurses, pharmacists, receptionists, et cetera, ergo which are allowed to do certain things. So if you know someone and call them "Nurse Jones," everyone there knows "Ohhh, so she shouldn't be making the incision unsupervised," or "Don't ask her to hold the key to the RX backroom." If you're a doctor and you introduce yourself as a doctor, they don't give you the normal time-wasting crap that everyone else gets at front desk, security, triage, et cetera. (Call your physician's office at a busy time and see if the recorded message gives you a special option to press if you're calling from another doctor's office.)

In universities, there can be an even higher preponderance of jerks saying it unnecessarily, but sometimes it has its place, such as when a librarian is confronted with ten badly-dressed thirty-year-olds with scraggly beards and flip-flops, and only one of them is the professor. And if you're that librarian and you don't end up calling that one "Dr. Stein," she gets offended that you thought she was a grad student and your hours are cut back. Or if the professor doesn't introduce herself as "Dr. Stein," and then the librarian asks for her student ID card to access the microfiche.

So, while I endorse the spirit behind your post, 100% of the time, it's not an instant identifier of asshole-ness. That type of thing happens a lot with businesses, when someone has to identify their department and their rank in order to not get made to wait on a couch for 45 minutes by a secretary who doesn't realize who she's treating like a normal peon.

John Craig said...

High Arka --
(Thank you, that correction has been made.)

I would definitely make an exception for people who have to recite their job title for efficiency's sake, except that it wouldn't really be an exception since that's not whom I was talking about. Academic credentialism is a little different, it's about people who put a great deal of stock in their degrees, and where they obtained them, and who think it makes them smarter.

Within the university people tend not to drop the name of their university, because there'd be no point. Most of my experience with academic credentialism is with people who have left the Academy, but whose self-image is still closely tied to their alma mater. And I knew too many dummies at Harvard, and have met too many smart people with no impressive academic resume, to put much stock in a degree. And the worst are those who drop the name of their university as if that settles an argument. (As I pointed out, an argument should be judged on it own merit.)

Again, I wasn't talking about the time-saving tactic of using one's title to cut through red tape; merely the ego-stroking tactic of dropping (college) names. (Which IS "an instant identifier of asshole-ness" -- I like that phrase, by the way.)

Anonymous said...

One of the few good things about Hong Kong and Japan is it is still possible (at least for now) to work your way up without college. You can get a basic desk job and start from there. Downside is almost every single job has horrendous hours. Gwo lou si (I checked in Japanese to see if you already know, its Karoshi) or overwork death.

The USA needs to do what is being done in Europe and encourage technical schools. You can get a 100K a year being a welder. You can earn twice as much being a powerplant repairman in Hong Kong than a customer service agent. The USA left wants to encourage more college for everyone.
Even for women (and the rare man) who will choose to be a stay at home parent afterwards.

Anonymous said...

Another great post.

In the job market having a degree from a prestigious college does score over having a
degree from an obscure one. Surely, your having a Harvard Degree did make it easier snagging
the right job? Will any of the blue chip companies hire an auto-didactic learner?


John Craig said...

Ga --
Yes, technical schools are a great idea; the idea that everyone has to go to college is way overdone, especially with us having turned into more of a service economy. For too many kids, college is just a fun thing they do because their friends do it, and they don't take their studies seriously.

John Craig said...

Sherie --
Thank you. Yes, the Harvard degree did help in the job market. But the extent to which people are impressed by it is generally in inverse proportion to the number of Harvard graduates they've known.

Part of what I meant to describe (but forgot to) was the phenomenon of people who think that if they took a course on a subject in college, that makes them an expert on that subject, and if you didn't take a course on that subject, no matter how much more you know than them, you shouldn't argue with them, because they're the expert. All people usually do for a course is read one textbook and listen to a professor. But somehow, some people think that if they've read that book in the context of taking a college course, they know more than someone who just read the textbook on his own. ("Don't argue with me about nutrition -- I took a corse in college about it!")

Anonymous said...

John, I definitely agree with most of what you say here. I have a follow-up question, though. Do you think that an Ivy education is at all superior to the one to be had at, say, an average state university? Surely, a decent education can be found at most colleges, if you take the right professors and apply yourself. But do you think that it is fair for an employer to think that an Ivy-educated job applicant probably has been exposed to a more rigorous set of standards? That the applicant is probably better read and more analytical, and has at least decent writing skills to have gotten in/gotten through? Julie

John Craig said...

Julie --
I think that most honest people will tell you that what an Ivy education says about you is that you were smart enough to get into the Ivy school in the first place. The Ivy education itself is sort of secondary. That, like any college education, you can make of what you will. It's certainly possible to graduate with a minimum of work and without really learning all that much. Or, if you're really fascinated by a subject and want to learn more about it, you can do extra reading on your own. Or, if you're just ambitious about, say, getting into med school you can apply yourself and grind away and make sure you memorize everything you need to know to get good grades and ace the MCATs. But those are things you can do at an average state university as well. So.....really, what the Ivy education shows is that you did well enough in high school to be admitted in the first place. (Or, that at least you benefitted from those other factors I mentioned.)

Despite all the cynicism I showed in this post, though, I'd have to say that, on average, Ivy students are going to be brighter than those at an average state university. But there are so many exceptions -- at both the Ivy's and the state schools -- that making assumptions about someone based on their alma mater will often get you in trouble. Then again, an employer isn't going to have time to really get to know every applicant for a job, and so most of them use the school as a proxy for intelligence.

I'd actually say that the SATs (or ACTs) are a better proxy for intelligence -- they have a .9 correlation with IQ, and it's my overwhelming impression that admission to an Ivy has a lower correlation. So if I were hiring for a job requiring brains, I'd ask for the SAT scores. (Then again, the counterargument to that is that high SATs with a low GPA probably indicates laziness, which is something employers also have to be concerned about.

Anonymous said...

To Julie's comment...

I have an engineering degree from a relatively small private university (less than 5k undergrads) that tends to carry a reputation as being a "hard" school. The majority of my coworkers have an engineering degree from the local state university (large public school). I only have a bachelor's degree, many of my coworkers have bachelor and masters degrees (in engineering) from the state school. Realizing we have many of the same textbooks at our desks (that we kept from college), it turns out some of the books used in my undergraduate classes were books they didn't get to until their graduate level classes.

So it would appear from my narrow experience that I was taught more material in my 131 credits or whatever it was than they received at the state school for the same undergraduate degree.

Steven said...

The media points out that people with liberal opinions or those who vote for left wing parties are more educated on average as if smarter people are left wing or those opinions are the correct or enlightened ones. It might just mean that the longer you spent in the education system, the more indoctrination you received.

As a not very conscientious graduate of a second rate university, I agree with the article.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Good point, more "education" = more indoctrination.