The most damning testimony against higher education today may be that students have not rebelled; they are evidently incapable of it. Two things prevent such rebellion. One is the inability of high school graduates to take their own education in hand. We do not teach them to become self-learners. I am continually amazed at the number of adults who assume that, if they are to learn anything new, they must "take a class."
The second obstacle, pointed out in Borgmann's analysis, is the fact that, for extraneous social reasons, we insist on the academic degree. It is one of the revealing facts about the Information Age that it is the supreme Age of Credentials. Not just credentials as such (about which I have no complaint), but wooden credentials degrees, certificates, diplomas, and licenses based solely on "measurable outcomes," such as credit hours and standardized test grades, with scarcely any reference whatever to the actual inner accomplishment and capability of the certificate bearer.
Being married to a registered nurse, I have been able to note the unfortunate inferiority complex within that wonderfully humane profession. (I think "doctor-envy" might be a good name for it.) In order to raise the standard of respectability for nurses, the governing bodies try to define an ever more proprietary training that can be seen as the nursing profession's own. They pile on credit-hour requirements in vacuous subjects. (You haven't seen gobbledygook until you've tried to read three consecutive sentences in the typical "nursing theory" book.) And they continually raise the barrier for "outsiders" who might have traveled by a slightly unconventional route.
So it is that a nurse who has worked in a particular field for fifteen years and may be one of the best healers around can find himself blocked from advancement, while someone else whose sensibilities were sufficiently dulled to endure endless hours of post-graduate make-work marches straight ahead. And a nurse trained in Switzerland has no hope of practicing in this country without going back to school for a couple of years to duplicate his education.
The same syndrome afflicts virtually every profession. (Was it Mencken who said, "Every profession is a conspiracy against the public"?) Just think of the educational establishment, with its obstacles for non-credentialed outsiders, and its protection of incompetent insiders. In general, the closed professional circle, protecting itself through artificial requirements, is one of the pressing social ills of our day.
The credential problem threatens quickly to become even more acute with the aid of new information technologies. A few years ago the European Commission was trying to create a smartcard-based European Accreditation System. According to Joe Cullen of the Tavistock Institute, which assisted with the project, the idea was to "set up permanent and accessible skill accreditation mechanisms that will allow individuals to validate their knowledge however it has been acquired."
Central to this vision is the use of new technologies such as personal smart cards that will allow citizens to record their training and experience on portable, computer-readable curriculum vitae. Another set of applications involve the use of remote, electronic assessment and testing systems that can allow individuals to obtain qualifications and credentials that in turn can be recorded on their personal skills card, perhaps via existing frameworks such as the European network of chambers of commerce, or even at home (Cullen 1997).
The goal is admirable. But, as with so many cases of computer-enabled "flexibility," the flexibility easily turns out to be a higher-order rigidity with a vengeance. At the very least one can say this: electronic credentials are not likely to lessen the importance of numerically scored, standardized tests.