Saintly Thoughts

The Myth of Certification

We live in a society obsessed with the certificate.  Before we accept the premise that another human being is intelligent or adept at performing a particular task we insist upon seeing a piece of paper certified by some professional authority--whether that authority be a government, a trade group, a school, or a self-appointed guru--attesting to that individual's mastery of a particular set of skills.  I am reminded of the words spoken by the Wizard of Oz to the Scare-Crow when he declared (to paraphrase) "In Kansas there are men who haven't any more brains than you have.  But they have one thing that you haven't got, a diploma."  This simple satirical truism seems to be intentionally overlooked by all the august institutions of our society, packed as they are with certified "experts" who trade on the veracity of their own hard won (and expensive) pieces of paper.  How is it that a society that claims to value education has become so enamored with the supposed "proof" of that education that it holds up the symbol of the thing more than the thing itself?  Perhaps it is the result of living in a complex and fragmented society.  Where few people have any direct personal knowledge of the intelligence and moral rectitude of others, a piece of paper might serve as a useful short-cut to determining who is worth asking questions of.  I suppose that this is all well and good.  But the problem comes when we mistake the symbol of a thing for the thing itself, and I would submit that in a world in which standards of achievement are constantly degraded to ensure that more and more people are able to attain certificates of "mastery" that is precisely what we have done.  Any intelligent person knows that the best means to master a new skill is almost never to sit in an interminable seminar (whether with others or individually) soaking in the knowledge of some speaker declaiming a canned (and likely oft recycled) speech for which a certificate will be provided.  Rather, the most efficient means of acquiring a new skill or expertise is either to engage in the practical process of performing the skill you are attempting to acquire, to sit down individually with a person who is both actually skilled and reasonably able to communicate, or in the last resolve to research and study materials at ones' own direction.  And the best certifications declaring mastery provide many opportunities for just such a process, and to the extent that one has actively and intentionally engaged with such a certified program of study, one might be justified in holding up their own piece of paper as accurate proof of true mastery.  But the person who has acquired such skills outside of the ambit of such a certified course of study is no less skilled than the certified professional, and in fact may be more skilled than the person whose mastery is attested by a mere piece of paper.  

What then are we to do?  I am not suggesting the whole-sale devaluation of professional certification.  Certification may still be a useful short-hand so long as the process by which the certification itself is attained is not devalued.  But this requires a society in which fewer certificates are given to fewer people.  Rather than boasting at the percentage of college graduates in a society, we should instead produce fewer college graduates of higher education and caliber.  This means accepting that not all people are capable of being certified at these higher levels, but also recognizing that certification itself is not some sign of higher moral worth.  How will we know when we have achieved this goal?  When there are fewer masochistic idiots touting PhDs in such driveling "specializations" as leadership and process management, and when we are far less surprised to find people of astounding curiosity and intellect with little more than a rudimentary "formal" education.  In short, when we have come to internalize a basic truth: that certification and education are separate things, and can (often) run contrary to one another.