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Who Should Certify Competence?

Written by Gary North on December 19, 2015

Back in 1971, I was interviewed for a teaching position at an obscure Michigan college, one which was officially Christian but which survived only because of the state scholarship program that funneled several hundred nonsectarian, often secular students onto the campus. I had sent the dean my vita, and he hastened to tell me that he was not quite sure my academic training was adequate for his college’s high standards. “Well, I’ll tell you,” I replied, “I’ve just had an offer from Michigan State, so I’m not sure I am even in the market right now.” “Oh, that’s different,” was his response. “We’d be happy to have you teach here.”

As it turned out, I wound up on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education, so I never had the opportunity to find out if my academic training was up to his school’s standards. But the following year l happened to visit the school, and l dropped in to see one of the administrators. I am not sure whether he had been the same one I had spoken with the year before, although I think he was. He went on at some length describing the “upgrading” of the school’s faculty. There was one professor of mathematics, he assured me, who was about to be fired because he had not earned his doctorate. He was a fine teacher, of course, but there were standards to be met. In short, he was competent, but he was not certified. (This administrator went on to a bigger and better obscure college, having done his work in wiping out careers in Michigan.)

Certification vs. competence: Which is it to be? Of course, it would be nice to have both, but Christian colleges are strapped financially, and they cannot afford both. In fact, given the nature of bureaucracies, especially academic bureaucracies, they cannot be sure of anything except certification. There are no measurements of academic competence that are easily examined, since each field is so specialized that aging faculty members are hardly able to judge the competence of their younger, more energetic colleagues. If anything, competence in the classroom is a threat to the self-esteem of those who are tenured, and who also make the decisions. But certification upgrades their departments, and therefore lends prestige to them. What those doing the hiring really want is to hire new men with superb credentials and only mediocre performance subsequent to the earning of those credentials.

Even the credentials are taken on faith. I know of at least three people who faked their credentials in the conservative-libertarian movement. Forged academic credentials are among the easiest in the world to produce, and once a man has his position, he is probably safe. I know of one man–intellectually first rate, as a matter of fact–who had forged his academic credentials, and he remained on the faculty of a state university in the southwest for over 20 years before anyone found out. He published excellent articles throughout his career, too–a man of true competence. Naturally, he was fired.

Monopoly Returns

Max Weber, the Great social scientist who died in 1920, perceptively analyzed the modern university in his posthumously published essay on “Bureaucracy.”

The development of the diploma from universities, and business and engineering colleges, and the universal clamor for the creation of educational certificates in all fields make for the formation of a privileged stratum in bureaus and in offices. Such certificates support their holders’ claims for intermarriages with notable families (in business offices people naturally hope for preferment with regard to the chief’s daughter), claims to be admitted into the circles that adhere to ‘codes of honor,’ claims for a ‘respectable’ remuneration rather than remuneration for work done, claims for assured advancement and old-age insurance, and, above all, claims to monopolize socially and economically advantageous positions. When we hear from all sides the demand for an introduction of regular curricula and special examinations, the reason behind it is, of course, not a suddenly awakened ‘thirst for education’ but the desire for restricting the supply for those positions and their monopolization by the owners of educational certificates. Today, the ‘examination’ is the universal means of this monopolization, and therefore examinations irresistibly advance. (From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills [New York: Oxford University Press, 1946], pp. 241-42.)

(For the rest of my article, click the link.)

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