Our family is not good at filling out forms. It’s just not our thing. Life would be easier if we had an enthusiastic stenographer in the tribe – someone who loves a form and a deadline – but such a creature doesn’t exist in our immediate bloodline.
Every engagement with bureaucracy appears to be last-minute, and consequently, stressful. This leads to intense – but blissfully short and ultimately entirely inconsequential – arguments about why we aren’t more organised.
It also means we tend to pay over the odds for everything because we are the people who make decisions late, and so we are the vulnerable prey of rapacious airline-pricing models and the like.
Recently, we nearly missed the CAO deadline for the same chaotic reason that no one really remembered it. One of our family friends, horrified that we might imperil the future of one of the children, galvanised us into action and into the system.
The experience got me thinking about the system, particularly the process. By this I mean the college process and what could be termed Irish “credentialism”.
Credentialism matters in a world, or more accurately an economy, where everyone needs a credential bestowed by “qualified” others, such as certified institutions. Credentials are the reward given to the individual who jumps through a series of educational hoops.
We are living in the world of credentials. Most Irish parents are prepared to believe that having a credential – a piece of parchment – will render our children more prepared for the outside world. The credential is some sort of careerist dynamic that may propel them forward, leaping over someone else or at least offer a quasi-professional protection against the vagaries of the working world.
This certainly was the case when I was younger, when a third-level credential served as an entry into a rarefied white-collar world. All data backs that historical link between third-level education and pay and conditions. Looking forward, there are reasons to believe that this will not be the case.
Could credentialism be the enemy of creativity?
Revolution in ideas
In 1447, a German tinkerer called Johannes Gutenberg unveiled a contraption that would change the world: the printing press. This led to a revolution in ideas that sparked a re-evaluation of God, the heavens, and science. The printing press reset the world by massively reducing the cost of knowledge.
Between 1450 and 1500, the cost of books in Europe dropped by 60 per cent and continued to fall. For example, in the late 14th century it had cost the equivalent of 208 days’ wages, which given the medieval proclivity for holidays and festivities was well over a year’s wages, to pay a scribe to write a single prayer book for the Bishop of Dublin. By the 1640s, in England 300,000 popular short books were being sold, each about 50 pages long, costing just two pence each.
At the time, the daily wage for an unskilled labourer in England was 11 pence. It was about half that in Dublin but those wages would rise dramatically as construction of Georgian Dublin started in the late 17th century. By the time Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels, books were affordable and easily within range of the average Dublin, English-speaking, tradesman.
This dissemination of information changed the world. The ancient was replaced by the modern, mysteries by science, absolutism by the Enlightenment.
When you liberate the brainpower of so many people with books, an enormous human energy is created, as lights go on in so many curious human brains. As problems are solved, everything is thrown into question and the world begins to spin. Such massive disruption to the old order destroys the old economy and creates a new one.
Fast forward to today and consider what connectivity is doing to our brains, our world and our economy; Today’s connectivity is the new printing press.
In the past the link between education and income was based on the value of the stock of knowledge you had in your head. If you were educated to university level, you had a stock of knowledge that not many others had, and therefore it was valuable. From this reasonably exclusive value, a stream of income was derived.
Add to that networks, experience and structure and, over time, you have permanent income.
Therefore, the credential process was the gatekeeper to this scarce knowledge. If you didn’t jump through the hoops, you didn’t have the knowledge. University was like an 18th-century guild – a bit like being a barrister today. The guild set the price, and once you were in the club, your income had a pre-ordained floor. The ceiling was up to you.
Today, the value of the stock of knowledge is falling because anyone can access it online. Connectivity is liberating millions of brains and giving brilliant people access to knowledge that used to be the preserve of the few. It matters less whether an institution blesses you or not.
The stock of knowledge is being debased. Education is no longer about access and credentials but attitude, character, and a willingness to keep learning all your life.
This means that we all have to embrace risk, but credentialism is all about avoiding risk. In fact, the professions have always been about laying-off risk. It is all about de-risking, about insurance rather than risk.
For many, third-level education is an insurance policy. It promises something permanent in a world where connectivity is making income transient, loose, and unstable. Is it a false promise?
Credentialism seeks to generate a permanent stream of income from a finite stock of knowledge – or at least that was the understanding. That is the logic underpinning the great Irish CAO hysteria, all the grinds, the mocks, and out-sized pressure imposed on teenagers.
Don’t get me wrong: some pressure is good, and hard work and application are the making of any person.
But as I look at the global economy, credential-ism strikes me as yesterday’s idea.