Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Reputation versus Credentials

Last Friday I went to the opening of an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) exhibit at the university. It had a sculptor and an engraver showing off their work. I was impressed with the work of the engraver. He was a true craftsman, cultivated an early-1900's feel to his work, and was dressed in vintage clothing. He had set up his studio and tools in the art gallery, so we could learn how he did his work. You could tell that he was good and that he really loved what he was doing.

My grandfather was an engraver. I have one of his engraving tools, although I thought it was a leather-working tool. I now understand more about what he would have been doing. My grandfather never got a college degree. I will ask my family more over Thanksgiving, but as far as I know, he never had any formal training in engraving. I assume that, like most people of that time, he learned his many skills by practicing on his own, doing an apprenticeship, or taking odd jobs.

At the exhibit, I met one of the Tae Kwon Do black belts and started chatting. He had a stainless steel beer stein that he wanted engraved with a coat of arms, and was going to hire the engraver to do it. He was very happy to find someone who could do that kind of work. This is the only time I have ever met an actual paying customer at any of these artist exhibits.

I was also happy to see someone keeping an old craft alive. I hope that the engraver has a good future and that the market rewards him for his work. But it really bothered me that he was getting a Master's degree. He is probably going to end up with a lot of debt as a result of this training, and I do not think that it will really help him. Engraving is not something that you should get a degree in. It is something that you should do, and get paid for, and get better at with practice. There is no theory required, no long period of essential studying and training before you can be trusted, like with science or engineering. In the past, engravers like my grandfather never messed with any of that. 

I see the existence of an MFA in engraving as a symptom of something wrong with our society. We have become obsessed with credentials. Everyone seems to accept that the only way to advance in life is to go to college and get a degree in what you want to do. This is silly. If I wanted to hire an engraver, or any kind of artist, I would not care if he or she had an MFA degree. I would want to see samples of the work and talk with other customers. If the engraver had started engraving work right out of high school in a society that supported this career path, he would probably be a successful businessman by now, and would probably be a better engraver as well.

The area my parents live in supports a vibrant industry of potters. They will often go to pottery shows and buy good, hand-made pottery from these local artists. I am fairly sure that most of these potters do not have any kind of degree. They learned by doing, as part of the family business or an apprenticeship. From what I can tell, the quality of their work, in both technical and artistic terms, is much better than the pottery I see displayed at the exhibitions here.

I know why the obsession with credentials developed. Until the great urbanization of the late 1800's, there was no need for credentials in most things. People knew each other, and they knew who did good work. Even in things like law and medicine, there were no credentials. You were a lawyer if people were willing to pay you to do law. Word of how you did got around, so you had to do good work to maintain your reputation.

When people moved to cities, this source of information disappeared. It became much harder to get information about people, and so it became easier for incompetent and fraudulent people to take advantage of ignorant customers. In response to this, there was a demand for some kind of minimal quality control. If you moved to a new city, you would have no way of knowing which doctors were any good because you did not know any previous patients, but with a credential you would have some assurance that the doctor met a set of professional standards.

Unfortunately, over time the credentialing process was captured by professionals who used them to keep their own wages up. By making it much harder for other people to become doctors or lawyers, the existing doctors restricted competition and got richer. They claimed that the restrictions were for the benefit of consumers, but the restrictions were never applied equally to all of the professionals. They were just imposed on the new ones, and they gained the force of law, so it was impossible to opt out of the system and choose an uncredentialed service provider.

Young people choosing careers saw these high wages, and devoted lots of effort to gaining the credential. Over time, the credential started to lose any meaning; it was just an artificial hoop to jump through, as this article on law school demonstrates:

PHILADELPHIA — The lesson today — the ins and outs of closing a deal — seems lifted from Corporate Lawyering 101.
"How do you get a merger done?" asks Scott B. Connolly, an attorney.
There is silence from three well-dressed people in their early 20s, sitting at a conference table in a downtown building here last month.
But the three people taking notes are not students. They are associates at a law firm called Drinker Biddle & Reath, hired to handle corporate transactions. And they have each spent three years and as much as $150,000 for a legal degree.
What they did not get, for all that time and money, was much practical training. Law schools have long emphasized the theoretical over the useful, with classes that are often overstuffed with antiquated distinctions, like the variety of property law in post-feudal England. Professors are rewarded for chin-stroking scholarship, like law review articles with titles like "A Future Foretold: Neo-Aristotelian Praise of Postmodern Legal Theory."

This credential-seeking is a huge waste of resources. I would guess that 90% of all college degrees, and probably a lot of advanced degrees as well, could be replaced by some combination of an IQ test, personality test, on-the-job training, and a close look at high school performance. 

The system of credentialing, of putting vast amounts of effort into a single line on a resume, is not suited for the modern world. We need to understand that it developed as a temporary fix to a temporary set of social conditions. With modern information technology, we can do much better. We can get something that looks more like the reputation-based system of social interaction that allowed people to start productive careers without wasting so many tears of their lives.

By this point in the semester, I know a lot of information about my students that would be very valuable to an employer. I have a good idea of their intelligence, dedication, discipline, attitudes, work habits, and attendance patterns. Any teacher who does more than lecture and give standardized tests can say the same thing.

But all of that information will be crammed into a sausage maker and turned into a single letter grade. Anyone who actually has any hope of graduating will fall into one of only three categories: A, B, or C. The cutoffs are maddeningly unfair and arbitrary. Sometimes the difference between an A and a B is very small, especially compared to the wide variety of aptitude, from genius slacker to dim workaholic to true overachievers, that all gets thrown in the 'A' bucket. Then that grade will be mixed in with a bunch of others and turned into a GPA. The end result is so worthless that employers have almost no idea about people, and so they force them to go through a long and messy screening process.

Compare that to other systems that have been developed to report information about people. Ebay's feedback system is basically a copy of old-fashioned reputation and gossip, and you can learn a lot about a seller in a short time. A more relevant comparison is credit reports, which do a good job of reporting the relevant information about people. Think about how easy it is for reliable people to get a loan, compared to how hard it is for them to get a job. A visitor from another planet, or from our own past, would be amazed at how easy it is to get people to hand you tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars based on a promise to repay, compared to how hard it is to get them to agree to give you a regular check for a promise to work.

It would be easy to make transcripts as useful as credit reports. Teachers could rank the students in their class, from best to worst, on attributes like punctuality and reliability in addition to cognitive skills like critical thinking. We could choose a few attributes from a list to describe each student. With good interface design, the entire process would take less effort than grading a single set of essays or free-response tests.

Students should be able to see all of their reports, which would give them useful feedback and allow them to post a complaint if necessary.

This could be combined with a wide array of standardized tests that allow people to demonstrate competence in everything from accounting to welding. Then various reporting agencies would take the raw data and figure out how to analyze it to produce useful reports for prospective employers.

It is easy to envision a world in which the process of job applications, even interviews, becomes redundant. Employers would tell the job requirements to the reporting agency of their choice, and  then get reports that score all high school students on those requirements. As students progressed in their education and accumulated skills and a reputation for a good work ethic, job offers would start to show up the way that credit card offers show up in my mail. Students would quit school whenever they were offered an attractive salary. The employer would then be asked to report information, much like the school did.

It may seem off to skip the interview process, but numerous studies have shown that interviews are much worse at selecting ideal candidates than subject-matter tests. Charismatic narcissists routinely get hired over people with actual skills. Job interviews could someday be seen as a relic of the days when reliable information about people was so scarce that it was seen as necessary to try to guess their character and competence from a five-minute conversation

The concept of such a comprehensive 'digital reputation' might scare people. It should not. This kind of information would allow people to be matched with jobs that are better suited for them, giving a higher salary and quality of life.

1 comment:

writelhd said...

Interesting thoughts. I agree that there are lots of different types of "A" students, especially considering that grade inflation sometimes makes "A" the default.

I don't think employers care much about your grades, it is only ever higher levels of academia that use grades as one of the bases for acceptance into their programs. It is a combination of luck and who you know that gets employers to hire somebody fresh out of school, because most people who graduate school don't know a thing about how to job search and network, but I doubt employers give so much as a cursory glance to the GPA line on you resume. Perhaps if grades meant something about dependability, intelligence, etc, employers might start to care.