In the good-spirited movie “Accepted” a bright teenage underachiever named Bartleby Gaines (Justin Long) comes up with a creative solution to having been rejected by every single college and university he has applied to: Namely, create his own school! Joined by a small cadre of friends who are having their own difficulties with the world of higher education, they concoct a fictional college (South Harmon College of Technology – S.H.I.T.) and set up a web site. When Bartleby’s father hands him a check to cover first semester costs ($10K USD) and asks to visit the campus, the boy and his sidekicks realize the only way to keep their charade alive is to fabricate a physical campus! They promptly locate and rent a collection of dilapidated buildings that once housed a psychiatric hospital and proceed to transform these into South Harmon’s campus. With comedian Lewis Black lured into playing the role of S.H.I.T.’s “Dean” – the stage is set for a headlong dive into fun, adventure and a series of twists and turns that culminates in a thoroughly predictable though heartwarming ending. In-a-word what starts out as a smokescreen to fool parent’s winds up becoming a crucible of learning that wins the hearts and accolades of parents and state accreditation officials alike. And, perhaps most importantly, along the way Bartleby and his cadre of fellow out-of-steppers poke good-natured fun at the traditional academic pecking order, assembly-line education, corporate greed, hypocrisy, credentialism, elitist thinking and (ahem) accepted notions of what constitutes success. In short, they rock the boat in ways and areas it needs rocking (Needless to say, if you never saw “Accepted” please do so.)
Among the many issues raised in one way or another during the course of “Accepted” is the matter of what constitutes a valid education. IMHO if a person’s education equips them with the skills and knowledge needed to perform competently in their chosen profession, trade or vocation then their qualifications AKA credentials — however obtained, e.g., apprenticeship, distance/online/at-a-distance/virtual, OTJ, etc. — whether accredited or not — have been validated. If, for example, an accountant who mastered accounting by a combination of on-line courses and OTJ training and work performs professionally as well as the holder of a regionally accredited accounting degree then she is indisputably an accountant. Along this line: In Vermont a person can become a lawyer without having ever attended law school (What he or she has to do is apprentice under a licensed attorney for 4 years and then pass the state bar exam.)
One gentleman who has delved deeply into competency in a profession or field as constituting perhaps the most reliable yardstick of being qualified (to be engaged in it) is author Charles D. Hayes. Here is a taste of his line-of-reasoning from the preface of one of his popular books titled “Proving You’re Qualified“:
“Credentials are an attempt to offer proof that we can do what we say we can do. I say attempt because anyone with experience in the workplace can attest to the fact that credentials cannot be counted on a proof of competence. Establishing credentials should be no more complicated that proving competence. But proof of competence should consist of more than evidence of school attendance, effective use of short-term memory, and an ability to adapt to a classroom environment.”
“I have more than 30 years of work experience in varying types of employment settings. I’ve been a U.S. Marine, a police officer, a factory worker, a salesman, and a publisher, and I have spent more than a decade and a half working for a major oil company. In all of my experience I have never been able to discern definitive differences traceable to levels of formal education among people performing similar jobs. I have worked with and for people with impressive degrees who were, without question, incompetent. I have worked with and for people with little formal education who were exemplary employees whom you would never suspect lacked any knowledge with having. On numerous occasions I have seen people with no experience perform tasks better on the first attempt than people who had been performing the same task for years and had spent considerable time studying their field.
I have witnessed hundreds of conflicts over which employees should be promoted and which credentials should be required for a given job. I am convinced that our system of qualification does as much harm as it does good. Competence should be more important than credentials, and knowledge, no matter how it is obtained, should count more that proof of attendance in what are often ridiculous qualifying exercises. For the sake of businesses, individuals, and learning institutions, evidence of competence should be possible through the demonstration of a person’s effort, not limited to what it is “thought” the person knows.
The ability to shoot straight can be quickly demonstrated, whereas a certificate that says you can shoot straight may be counterfeit. Why, then, does it make sense to accept certificates instead of target practice when choosing shooters? Why are people known to be expert marksmen asked to step aside to made way for people who have shooting certificates but are unable to hit the broad side of a barn? Thank goodness we do not do this with airline pilots. Airline pilots have to prove they know what they are doing under the direct scrutiny of others who have already proved their own competence: would that such demonstrated ability carried more weight in other areas. Take instruction, for example. I have watched enthusiastic individuals with no formal credentials conduct training sessions and hold audiences spellbound. Their high interest, coupled with hands-on experience, engenders a genuine enthusiasm for learning among the trainees. In contrast, I have observed people with graduate degrees in teaching whose training exercises were so dull a as to quash anyone’s curiosity about the subject matter.”
If you are tempted to dismiss the “many roads to Rome” thesis inherent in this blog post, watch “Accepted” and read Mr. Hayes book. Then join me at South Harmon and we’ll hash it all out as part of the course “Walking Around Thinking About Stuff.”