I was reading this article about EduPunk in The Tyee yesterday, and it got me thinking. (Ironically, something else I thought was that I wanted more thoughtful meat, and more concrete history and policy in that article.)
For every formal job I’ve ever had, I’ve been either over- or inappropriately credentialed. I have a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and a master’s in educational studies that, despite snobby academic eye-rolling by “real scientists”, may as well be in developmental psychology.
In the last eleven years I’ve been hired as the coordinator of a community centre’s after-school program, a travel-camp counselor, a substitute teacher, a magazine editor and the community dude at a web start-up.
(That’s not very much formal hiring; most of the time I work by cobbling together contracts or by writing books.)
To be clear, I’ve never not been hired on account of being over-credentialed. It’s just that my credentials were never very relevant to the work I sought.
Note that I’m not saying I’ve been overqualified. I reject the notion that credentials equal qualification. Book learnin’ ain’t the same as actually doing. This is why the EduPunk article got me thinking about this.
Except in the case of professions like doctors and lawyers that undeniably require a tremendous amount of study and apprenticing, I think a default reliance on professional credentials is dumb. Of course some fields involve a tremendous amount of learning and mastery, and some people learn best in a school setting or enjoy taking classes. That’s all well and good. My point is just this: When you’re hiring a web designer and your two final candidates have five years’ worth of portfolio for you to judge, do you care which one has an MFA?
No, you don’t. You judge their work on its own. It doesn’t matter if their skill and craft developed in a classroom or in an office or in a lean-to.
To most people school is just school, to some it’s the bee’s knees, but to others school is a place where learning simply can’t happen. I, for example and despite being in school till I was twenty-two, learned very little in the classroom. I’m just really good at being a student. Even when I was bored to tears, which was much of the time, my overdeveloped sense of achievement kept me focused on earning high marks. I’m uncomfortable failing, see, and so on paper I’m the perfect student. In reality, I spent most of my time in the vast majority of my classes completely zoned out. If not for that overdeveloped and totally insane need to get A’s, I would certainly have gone mad and would have dreamed of dropping out. In the few classes that really engaged me, I devoured the material and my imagination took me to countless new places I would have dedicated years of study to. But I only had a semester, and that was that.
So, oh my gods am I glad to see a DIY movement taking hold in education. What’s unclear from The Tyee article, though, is that there’s expertise available to those DIYers. But that’s not what’s got me writing right now.
See, despite my dismissal of credentials as relevant, in my freelance work I’ve been keenly aware of the legitimacy my credentials bring â€“ the illusion of legitimacy, that is. At the first hint of doubt on someone’s face as we discuss my ability to learn the job I’m applying to do, I mention something or other about grad school. It’s amazing what people assume you’re capable of when you’ve already managed to jump through the hoops and navigate the politics and bullshit of academia. Or maybe we’re mostly just programmed to equate respect to initials â€“ M.A., B.A., etc. Even when the degree you have is in a branch of study wholly unrelated to the job.
But here’s the thing, dear creators. Take a look to your left and another to your right and you’re likely to find a high school drop-out who’s written a best-selling book. You’re likely to find someone in their thirties who’s been successfully self-employed for twenty years.
Every day you read blog posts giving you invaluable advice on how to run your business, inspiring you to create, teaching you new skills â€“ all written by people who not only don’t have an MBA or an MFA or an education degree, but who don’t have a GED either.
You might be inclined now to wonder who those folks are. To maybe not take them as seriously as you had. But why? Do you take my posts about creativity any more seriously knowing that I did research with babies for two years and get all nerdy excited about creolization?
No, you don’t. And you shouldn’t.
You value the words of these creators, you value their work and their generosity of knowledge because you’ve benefited from them. Because their work and their personalities have proven themselves. Hell, some of them may even be publishing anonymously. So you don’t even know their name, yet you learn from them, become inspired by them, consider their advice.
Our creative world is all the richer for the varied backgrounds of the people we keep company with and learn from. I felt stress and pain through much of my formal studies because I’m interested in too many things and couldn’t choose. But I lived in a very small world back then, and I didn’t know the option of dropping out was even available to me. I believed drop-outs were destined for poverty, addiction, crime and tearing up their families. I was a very naÃ¯ve and easily intimidated kid. So I can only try to express to you in words how much I admire and learn from the people who are so much like me, who have such varied interests, who read such fascinating and entertaining books, who make me think hard about so many things, and who did have the presence of mind and the fortitude of spirit to be true to themselves when they were young. Who sought the kind of learning they needed.
Of course I don’t regret my education. I may be totally cynical about the ivory tower, but I know I was not only lucky to have the opportunity to go to university, but to have it be an expectation placed upon me from a young age. But I also grew up being told that I needed a university degree to make something of myself. And now I know that’s just not true.
It’s proven again and again by the brilliant, creative, successful people I have the utter pleasure of working with every day.