Education: more, please

In a post on education at CT, Chris

floats a hypothesis for commenters to shoot down if they want to.

However, since most of the commenters agree with Chris, it looks like I’ll have to provide the other side of the debate. I’m also not linking to any evidence, though I discussed a fair bit of it here

I’m going to argue, contrary to Chris and most of the commenters on his post that there’s no reason to suppose that, in aggregate, the proportion of the population undertaking post-secondary education is too high, and every reason to continue trying to remove obstacles to participation in education for students from poor and working class backgrounds. Further, I don’t think credentialism is an important factor in explaining observed changes in participation in education or the labour market.

A basic problem in assessing the argument is the need to get the background conditions right. Roughly speaking, over quite long periods, average education levels have risen greatly, but the wage premium for education hasn’t changed much and neither has social mobility. In a static economy, that would suggest support for a credentialist hypothesis in which the additional education was simply a race for positional goods.

But the economy isn’t static. The proportion of jobs in occupations that traditionally did not require post-secondary education is declining steadily, while the proportion in jobs requiring education is rising. Pretty clearly, this is the result of technological change leads to a steady expansion in demand for skilled/educated labour at the expense of unskilled labour.

Given this trend at the aggregate occupational level, it seems reasonable, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, to impute growth in average educational levels within occupations to changes in the work being undertaken

With this interpretation, we need a steady expansion in education levels just to keep pace with technological change. Where, for one reason or another, participation stagnates as it did in the US in the 1970s, an increase in the wage premium for educated workers is a likely result (this isn’t the only reason for the boom in inequality in the US from the 1980s onwards, but it’s one reason).

If we’re going to get labour market conditions favourable to more social mobility and less inequality, it’s not sufficient to expand access to education. Growth in education has to outpace the rise in relative demand for educated workers, and growth in access to education for students from poor backgrounds has to outpace the growth in participation among the middle and upper classes. On average, we haven’t managed to do this, and it’s not surprising therefore, that the results hoped for by advocates of expanded education haven’t, in general, been delivered.

Turning specifically to credentialism, I’ll start with the labour market I know best, that for academic economists. The requirement for a PhD is now almost universal, which was not the case thirty years ago in Australia or the UK. In my judgement that’s because the knowledge and skills required have increased, and not because of credentialism. If lawyers, nurses and other professions similarly rely more on formal training and less on ‘sitting next to Sally’, I’m willing to believe that similar processes are going on (in addition, the same technological changes that I’ve mentioned already mean that, whereas Sally once found an unskilled trainee useful for a wide range of tasks, she now finds him a burden who just gets in the way)[1].

Among the pieces of evidence against the credentialism hypothesis, one of the most compelling, in my view, is that self-employed people have education levels comparable to, or higher than, those of the workforce as a whole. If education was a matter of getting a credential for employment, people planning on going into business for themselves would get a headstart by skipping it. There are lots of other bits of evidence pointing in the same direction. For example, wage premiums for education tend to be rise with years of experience, when, on the credentialist view, they ought to decay.

I’ve been careful throughout the above to refer to post-secondary education rather than university education. There’s a pretty good case to be made that technical areas of education are in more need of expansion than traditionally ‘academic’ areas, at least in the English-speaking countries. But the idea that expansion of post-secondary education as a whole can or should be reversed is, in my view, mistaken.

fn1. There are some examples I won’t defend, such as most of the journalism/communications courses I’ve seen, but I think these are ‘exceptions that prove the rule’, marketing themselves on the basis of the success of professional qualifications in other fields.

45 thoughts on “Education: more, please

  1. you’re forgetting the Public Service, no entry exams no more, some uni degree is the minimum, so that now you can be a clerk with a HECS debt, whereas twenty years ago you could just be a clerk



    recent near to graduating students I have met talk about ”well, i guess, there is always centrelink.”

    and they do mean behind the counter

  2. Look I went and read the extract
    excerpt from From Randall Collins, The Credential Society. New York: Academic Press, 1979, pp. 191-204.

    (after reading the crooked timber comments) and I have to agree with it almost completely,

    the sinecure analogies are compelling, collapsing doctor/nurse professions intrqiguing, restoring the secretary as apprentice i sabsolutely necessary

    my twenty years on the dole watching people work are even more compelling,

    I tried reading
    my question is is there any study (any possible study) on credentialled workers versus non-credentialled works in the same field with regard to productivity, innovation etc

    sure education does smore than screen, you can muck around with the PM’s children, which can be very useful, even if you learn nothing, you might drown a city when appointed to a emergency services position, but where is the comparison between the two schools (on the job versus the institute)

    surely the education level is just a goodly index to ‘education’ ‘knowledge’ ‘skill’

  3. I guess that, at least in Australia for mathematics and science, another reason is that the standard of high school education went down over the years (just check out what level of mathematics a final year high school student in the early80s was expected to know). Thus people need to go to university just to get to the same level.

  4. I beliave that there’s a moral and social as well as an economic cost to credentialism.

    If we are brought up to believe that it is essential to have a University degree to get a decent job then we are going to tend to think that jobs which don’t require degrees are pretty mindless and to have a correspondingly low opinion of the mental abilities of the people who fulfill those jobs. That’s the moral aspect.

    The social cost is all the kids I saw in the public service who had been pushed ferociously by their parents to get a degree despite lack of any great academic abiltiy and who were miserable and struggling trying to do work they were unsuited for – many of those kids would probably have made perfectly competent (and much happier) tradespeople.

    I don’t necessarily think the level of tertiary education is too high, I do think though that we need to revive an old, nearly forgotten idea – the dignity of labour.

  5. except soon there will be no labour, we will be here only to aid consumption, as wetware Bayseian agents giving bias to an otherwise completely mechanical economy in which efficiency and productivity are unequalled

    these days even handicraft is just an expensive consuming hobby, trades _will_ go this way too.

    they will, they will, the labour theory of value will have been eradicated by the marketplace completely, we will fall into a society of pure display, hotrods, mod pods, diplomas on the wall

  6. I’m surprised by my own reaction to Chris’s comments: literally shaking with anger. Not all jobs that don’t require degrees are mindless, Ian. But relatively few are stimulating. Intellectual activity (along with artisitic and artisanal activity) are one of the few intrinisically satisfying activities available to human beings. The reason why post-secondary education – indeed, university education – should be available to all and promoted for all capable of undertaking it, is because a life in which the mind is not developed is a life entirely wasted. People, like our dear PM, who think that other people’s children should do apprenticeships really mean that since they’re going to have shitty lives anyway, they might as well be treated like shit.

    Look back at the history of working men (as it was). There was a great thirst for education in the 19th and early 20th C. Dignity of labor? The men who founded labor parties and working men’s institutes knew that development of the mind was what counted. This isn’t an economic issue;or at least we miss what matters most if we focus on the economic side alone. If we can’t afford to educate most people, then so be it, but we must be aware that the cost is wasted lives for most who miss out.

  7. Neil,

    My father was, at various times, a welder; a farm-hand and a cook.

    My oldest brother is plumber and my second-oldest brother is a bricklayer.

    I’ll be sure and tell them their lives have been wasted.

  8. Ian,

    I did say *most*. I did say that there were development of the mind was one of the *few* activities available to human beings – others being political activity, artistic and artisanal activity, and community including family. Moreover, I thought I made it clear that development of the mind can take place outside formal education.

    Having made all those concessions, I want to bite the bullet: to the extent that your father and brothers have failed to develop their mind, they have not lived a fully human life.

    I should add another concession: not only is development of the mind not limited to formal education, it doesn’t always take place there either. A degree in tourism or accountacy (and here I can cite friends who have done these) followed by the jobs they prepare one for does not develop the mind, in the relevant sense, any more than bricklaying.

    Is this condescending? I think not. I am of the left not because I want to celebrate the dignity of labor (or the intrinsic meaningfulness of living in poverty in Brazil) but because I want everyone to have the opportunity to live fully human lives.

  9. …to the extent that your father and brothers have failed to develop their mind, they have not lived a fully human life.

    Umm. let’s see (and bearing in mind you’re concessions) my father was a prodigious reader; very active politically and had a wide circle of friends including several academics; my oldest brother is a Tibetan Buddhist; heavily involved with various Free Tibet and Buddhist organisations and runs a Buddhist website.

    The other brother I mention reads a lot and is a talented musician, he seems to enjoy fishing and sport more though…

  10. As a further note, I worked my way through University by sorting mail at the Roma Street mail exchange for several years.

    The people I worked with there would also doubtless be surprised to find that msot of them were wastign their lives.

  11. Ian,

    Don’t you understand the phrase “to the extent that”? It is a conditional claim. Here’s an example to help you:

    To the extent that the moon is made of cheese, it is edible.

    Now it is no objection to the truth of the claim that the moon is not in fact made of green cheese. If the antecendent is false, then the consequent fails to follow, but the conditional remains true

    Cf. My claim: To the exent that members of the Gould clan failed to develop their minds…

    You (apparently) assert that the antecedent is false. Fine. Recall I left room for that when I said that development of the mind can occur outside formal education (eg, in working men’s institutes). Doesn’t alter the fact that most of the jobs which do not require development of the mind are stultifying,

    It does not surprise me in the least to find that most of the people sorting mail would not think they were wasting their lives. Development of the mind allows you to find out things you wouldn’t know without it.

  12. Well Neil, let’s see if you can comprehend this: you’re a patronising jack-ass who has probably never performed a day’s physical labour in your life.

    If you had you’d realise that many of those jobs you so disdain require every bit as much intelligence and creactivity as the academically-qalified jobs you think are so so wonderful.

    I should have expanded on my point regarding the Mail Exchange; the guy who was the Queensland Contract Bridge champion could probably teach you a thing or two about the life of the mind; ditto for the classical violinist; and the former SAS trooper who had written a quite remarkable memoir about his life in the service.

    19th Century class-based ideas of a division between those who work with their hands and those who work with their heads are dead and buried except in the minds of twits such as yourself.

  13. If anyone is interested, as I wrote that last message, John Goodman in Barton Fink screaming “I’ll show you the life of the mind” was running thorugh my head.

  14. Ian,

    Obviously I wasn’t able to communicate to you the meaning of the term “conditional”. You continue to insist that I’m wrong in holding that a life without development of the mind is wasted by telling me about people who *have* developed their minds- writers, violinists, etc. – who you think clearly have not wasted their lives. Here’s the argument, schematically:

    Neil: if anyone lacks property P, they also lack property Q.

    Ian: False, because I know someone with property P who has property Q.

    That’s what is known technically as a bad argument.

    Your second point is more relevant: “many of the jobs” I disdain “require every bit as much intelligence and creativity” as those I praise.

    Now, I admit I know very little about a great deal of manular labor (I’ve done very little, not zero, but close). And I admit that I could be wrong about very many of these jobs. Let me be clear: I don’t think that bricklaying requires less creativity than, say, working on the shopfloor at Myer, or as an insurance clerk. In fact it might require more. But it seems to me likely that it doesn’t require enough to be genuinely intellectually stimulating. Your examples seem to me to prove the point, at least with regard to mail sorting: your colleagues all found other outlets, and you left.

    Once I again, I admit I could be wrong about particular jobs. Tell me about the creativity and intelligence involved in mail sorting.

  15. Neil and Ian appear to be shouting past each other. I have performed work over my life in a number of industries, and in jobs requiring varying levels of skill, and where boredom was in direct proportion to the level of skill required to perform the jobs I did.

    It is absolutley the case that peole who work in jobs that don’t require a formal qualification, are not thereby,wasting thier lives. To the contrary. To do something well and derive satisfaction from your applied skills seems to me to be a recipe for healthy and sane development. But not to have the opportunity to extend your mental faculties as far as you might want to, and to be required to labour in work from which you derive no satisfaction, and which requires little of the skills, talents and capacities a person has, is a dreadful waste, of both the person’s potential, and of the contribution that person migh have been able to make to the wider community.

    Note I am not saying that not engaging in higher education is a waste. I am saying that not being able to extend yourself and develop your interests and capacities as much as you are able is a waste. And in a society as rich as this one, it is criminal that the opportunities to do so are decreasing. There is a fair amount of evidence that simply increasing the amount and quality of formal education available to people, also increases economic growth and development. The Irish Republic is a good example of that strategy, where the sole ‘asset’ possesed by that place, was an educated population. The contrast between its development and the development of places where they are rich in fossil fuels, minerals and not much else could not be starker.

  16. Neil. I comprehended your argument, I simply found it patronising and foolish.

    If I had written “to the extent that the majority of those with a University degree are drug-addicted child molesters…” I think you would have found it equally patronising and foolish.

  17. Thanks, Stoptherubbish. You make the point I was trying to make without unnecessarily inflaming tempers. Ian, I apologise if my tone was patronising. It wasn’t intended to be. I think it’s a tragedy that many people are condemned to mindless jobs, manual and non-manual. But there may be fewer mindless jobs than I think.

  18. Ian, I wrote that appology before your last was posted. I don’t find your example patronising. I do find it foolish. Now we’re back on the empirical ground: I’m claiming that most manual labor in our economy (as well as very large proportion of non-manual jobs) don’t in fact require creativity and intelligence, and that therefore people who engage in them are wasting their lives unless they are able to find other ways of developing their mind. So I was making the empirical claim that the antecedent is in fact satisfied. You seem to deny it. So tell me about the creativity and intelligence in mail-sorting.

  19. You’re an idiot Neil. Where’s the “creativity and intelligence” in being a Financial analyst or a Doctor? You just apply the formula and get the result.

    Your problem is you’ve obviously led too sheltered a life to realise that there is more to any job than simply performing the primary task at hand.

    Every job requires the exercision of social, political, management and creative abilities, even sorting mail in the mail room.

    And there are a lot of people who’d argue that those who spend their time arguing with people on the internet are the ones who are wasting their lives.

  20. Yobbo,

    You’re making the same mistake as Ian – except worse. First you say that being a doctor or financial analyst does not require intelligence or creativity. Fine: if that’s right then my claim requires with regard to them too. I left room for that. The you go on to contradict yourself, saying that all jobs *do* require creativity and intelligence. As I said to Ian, we’re on empirical ground here.

    As for the ad homimem. You contradict yourself. You say (on the internet) that arguing on the internet is a waste of time. And *I’m* the idiot?

  21. There’s a certain arrogance in thinking that ‘the life of the mind’ can be pursued only in the university. Even a good university education is only the beginning of someone’s intellectual odyssey, if they are inclined that way. And besides, we have to remember too that the real task of the universtiy is to turn out professionals in various fields – engineering, dentistry, medicine, computer science, etc. – who need a formal qualification to practice in their chosen field. Of course, this kind of argument often does not appeal to graduates in the liberal arts (I am one myself), who sometimes prefer to think that the university still equates to what it was in the Middle Ages – a place where the flame or learning and reason is kept alight in a sea of ignorance and superstition. Tony Coady’s book ‘Why Universities Matter’ is particularly guilty of that intellectual shibboleth, IMHO.

    As for ‘wasted lives’, you waste your life if you do not follow a trajectory that is consonant with your own instincts and aspirations. Someone whose instinct is to tinker with engines would waste his or her life if compelled to do an Arts degree and follow a career as a clerk in the public service.

  22. A part of me has always regretted not doing an apprenticeship. I find that the work done by people like electricians and mechanics, to be extremely interesting, both intellectually and physically.

    I think that it is often a case of ‘the grass is always greener’ syndrome. Recently I was talking with my diesel mechanic about some work he was doing on my car. I told him that I always wanted to be a mechanic, and was envious of him. He scratched his chin and told me that he always wanted to do what I do (support people with disabilities).

  23. The value of apprenticeship-type learning is underestimated in my view. One of the silliest things governments did in the 80s was to take nursing education out of the hospitals – where it followed the apprenticeship model – and put it in the universities. Now kids do a four year course during which they see almost no patients, and when they do it’s in a totally artificial one-on-one situation. When they qualify, many of them are completely unable to deal with the realities of a hospital environment. The result? Recently qualified nurses leaving the profession in droves to undertake less demanding and stressful careers, a chronic shortage of nurses and over-reliance on the old school of hospital-trained nurses who are now at or approaching retirement age.

    A classic case of credentialism destroying a profession it was implemented to boost – and of government social engineering generating the opposite result of what was intended.

  24. I agree with part of Neil’s point, that developing the mind is an fundamental part of being human. But I think that where the conversation goes off the rails is on the question of whether certain jobs are intellectually stimulating or not.

    Surely this is quite subjective. One person may find bricklaying deeply tedious, while another finds considerable creative outlet in the way they build a wall – even if to a casual or untrained observer the two walls look identical.

    Overall I am fairly confident that a larger proportion of the people doing jobs that require a university qualification would find their work stimulating than those doing manual labour, but there are certainly people who are doing highly qualified jobs who quickly find them not stimulating at all (I know a few doctors in particular) and I have no reason to doubt Ian’s claims that some people get a lot from mail sorting. (Other things besides the individual matter as well of course – if the person sorting next to you is interesting and personable that will be very different from if you can’t stand them and could affect the whole job).

    The real question then is how do we match people to the jobs that suit them? A few things are obvious:
    * less parental and peer pressure to do jobs that are either high status or run in the family and more looking at what suits an individual
    * More opportunities to change career paths without too much cost if it becomes obvious something is no longer for someone, or indeed never was.

    But the other side is – if, as I suspect, more people find jobs that require university education stimulating then we need to expand the opportunites to get into such jobs.

    As one of those who does still see universities as places that keep the flame of learning and reason alive I would see this as good, because even in their current degraded state universities tend to broaden the mind of most students who attend, even if they don’t use the skills they learn their in their jobs, and I’d prefer to see more people going to university on that basis alone.

  25. A related question which no one seems to have mentioned yet is the following:

    Given that a knowledge economy needs a certain number of people with higher education (HE) but could not employ everyone if all teenagers went into HE, then what is the economically-optimal proportion of the population which should attend HE?

    My own students (in Computer Science at a leading UK University) mostly find it very difficult to get jobs which use their newly-acquired knowledge and skills. The largest employer of our graduates seems to be call centres (usually call centres offering some technical advice, such as those for broadband services). I have concluded therefore that the UK is currently producing graduates at a level above the economically-optimal level, at least in CS, and we haven’t yet reached the Government’s target of 50% of all teenagers in HE.

    The long-run social consequences of this public policy may be very nasty. Forget hippy nonsense about self-fulfilment. Lots of graduates, who had been promised high-paying and intellectually-stimulating employment, find themselves either unemployed or under-employed for most of their careers. Apart from the immorality of broken political promises, we could well see social disorder and disaffection (or worse) from this silly policy in time. And, once again, Generation Z pays for the Baby Boomers’ mistakes.

  26. The work I enjoyed the most was when I was in a situation having to make a living by delivering pizza mostly to various university campuses in Boston for about half a year or so. I was 30 years old at the time. That was one helluva job, more like an adventure. It didn’t pay anywhere near the IT crap I’m doing now: $4/hour+tips, no tax. Free sandwiches and “coffee”, though.

  27. The Economist has a report on the crisis in European education. It looks like the US is all over the EU when it comes to churning out the knowledge economy graduates.

    America boasts 17 of the world’s top 20 universities, according to a widely used global ranking by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. American universities currently employ 70% of the world’s Nobel prize-winners, 30% of the world’s output of articles on science and engineering, and 44% of the most frequently cited articles.

    Why have European universities declined so precipitously in recent decades? And what can be done to restore them to their former glory? The answer to the first question lies in the role of the state. American universities get their funding from a variety of different sources, not just government but also philanthropists, businesses and, of course, the students themselves. European ones are largely state-funded.

    It seems that socialisation works better in the health than the education sector.

  28. I’ve done plenty of paid and unpaid manual work in my time, and it bored me to utter tears nearly all of the time. But I did read more books (in my own time) than I do now, in a sedentary job that genuinely (not just credentially) requires tertiary qualifications, or at least someone who’s had some training and discipline in the develoment of a line of thought.

    Of course, I did the undergrad degree to get this job. But that didn’t seem to be enough, so I had to do a masters! Now that was simply credentialism. And I’m about to embark on a second Masters, because it looks like my peers are all doing it and I’ve got to compete!

    There is definitely something out of whack with upper middle class demands for a degree. In year 12 at the expensive private school I attended, 99% expected to go on to University, and 98% did. That was mummy and daddy talking, not a sensible use of their lives.

  29. Peter,
    I am sure you are right about the numbers of people who can’t obtain jobs that meet their views as to their proper entitlement and status . However the issue is not ‘hippy nonesense about self fulfillment’ (whatever that may mean), nor is this an argument about (sigh) ‘baby boomers’. It is a discussion which is very useful about the meaning and place of education in societies like Australia and the UK.

    For your information, the business lobby in this country were screaming 15 years ago that the higher education sector was not meeting business needs and that what was needed was more attention to the needs of business when designing, funding and developing courses, at post school levels. So lo and behold, IT was the new ‘practical and useful, not hippy nonesense’ type of copurse that every one wanted to do and which every-one thought should be funded.

    Well, as we have seen, and as you have usefully pointed out, what seems to be ‘practical and no nonesense’ today, can seem like a waste of time tomorrow, when the economy changes, or the skills can be sourced elsewhere. That is the point , if I may say so, about not allowing narrow and often self serving interest groups determine the nature and direction of post school education, and it is a cautionary lesson it seems to me, in the enduring value of teaching people how to think, rather than in teaching them to do things that seems useful now, but which may not be so useful in a few years time.

  30. No Neil, I didn’t contradict myself. You are the one making judgements about what occupations and activities are a “waste of your life”, not me. I was simply pointing out that your opinion is not the only one out there. If *I* thought arguing on the internet was a waste of time, I wouldn’t do it, would I?

    Nevertheless, I understand you are convinced that there is only one correct opinion (yours), so I can see why you think that me putting forward several competing opinions is “contradicting myself”.

  31. I am convinced that some form of credentialism is at play in at least parts of the labour market.

    There are two things that John Q’s doesnt discuss in his post that I would like to see discussed.

    Firstly, the increased numbers of people entering education have decreased the quality of that education. This is true from the undergraduate level, where I have taught, to the post-graduate level (I currently work in a research department). PhD’s, for example, are much more prevalent, and typically less substantial than they used to be.

    Secondly, even if you buy John Q’s argument about workers requiring more skills than they did before, you still need to establish that the appropriate skills are better obtained in post-secondary education rather than on the job…..

  32. Of course, this whole discussion arises because the taxpayer funds the universities (in the main). If we stop rationing by quota and start rationing by price the whole question becomes meaningless. The universities that want academic excellence will establish bursaries and scholarships (or loans systems) to ensure the brightest get in and the universities that are after a profit will just charge full fees.
    The final result is that the bright kids will get in regardless of income, those who want a university education regardless of their ability will get one of the quality their money can pay for and those without the ability or the money will not get in.
    Isn’t that the ideal?

  33. “The requirement for a PhD is now almost universal, which was not the case thirty years ago in Australia or the UK. In my judgement that’s because the knowledge and skills required have increased, and not because of credentialism.”

    But the standard of the PhD itself may br dropping. Here’s a second hand account of what a Professor of Economics at a G8 university said of his PhD students.

    “If they can master the material, we gibe them a PhD”.

    “Aren’t they supposed to contribute something original for a PhD? Isn’t mastering the material only sufficient for a masters degree?”

    “That’s the old way of thinking”.

    I suppose the saving grace is that Australian universities are now mainly hiring PhDs from overseas universities where the standard hasn’t dropped.

  34. Uncle Milton:
    “I suppose the saving grace is that Australian universities are now mainly hiring PhDs from overseas universities where the standard hasn’t dropped.”

    I wouldnt be quite so quick to assume that the standard hasnt dropped elsewhere. Even places like Stanford are churning out many more PhD’s than they used to. The only Stanford graduate I know believes that the standard is lower there, but I guess that’s a pretty small sample size to base any real argument on 🙂

    I still think there is a lot we could do to improve the quality of PhD’s in this country…. but the (decreasing) quality of undergraduate education concerns me more, because many more people go through this system.

  35. The universities that want academic excellence will establish bursaries and scholarships (or loans systems) to ensure the brightest get in and the universities that are after a profit will just charge full fees.
    The final result is that the bright kids will get in regardless of income, those who want a university education regardless of their ability will get one of the quality their money can pay for and those without the ability or the money will not get in.
    Isn’t that the ideal?

    No I don’t think it is the ideal. I think the benefits of a free education based on academic merit above all else, while it carries costs, has had far more succeess than the old model where a very lucky few poor kids struggle up while daddys offspring inherit the law/stockbroking/banking firm.

  36. Well, the standard of PhDs may have fallen at most Universities in recent years. Who’s to know? There is no objective way to judge the quality of PhDs, either at the time or even years after they are completed. This is something I have long argued:

    However, the standard may well have risen over the last century, if you consider Ludwig Wittgenstein’s PhD from Cambridge University. He submitted his previously-published book, the Tractatus, as his PhD. His examiners were Bertrand Russell and GE Moore, both friends of long-standing. Wittgenstein had not seen Moore in some years, so they began by catching up. Eventually, Moore said “Well, we’d better get to the thesis,” to which Wittgenstein replied, “But you don’t understand it!” Moore responded, “You’re correct.” The viva then ended, with Wittgenstein being awarded a PhD.

  37. wilful,
    First point – no education is free. It is mostly taxpayer funded with some being paid back later as an additional tax.
    Second point – it is highly sexist these days to say that the firm is Daddy’s – it could well be Mummy’s (or is that Mater’s).
    Seriously, though. That argument is a good one – but it is founded on the premise that the demographic profile of those attending universities improves (i.e. a higher proportion of people from a disadvantaged socio-economic background attend university) as a result. The last set of figures I looked at, admittedly from a few years ago, showed that the profile had not improved since the introduction of full taxpayer funding under Whitlam – indeed it had regressed.
    Can anyone post the results of some recent peer-reviewed research on the topic or are we discussing in a vacuum?

  38. The most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had were as a bartender and as a longshoreman. But the enjoyment was not the work; it was the socialization. I think different jobs do different things to different people, and it makes little or no sense to imagine that one or the other is less valuable. To the degree that they create things that people want, they’re fundamentally the same. (Note, “to the degree that…” is the same structure as “to the extent that…” 🙂

    However, I think that one of the differences of the current world is that the costs of semi-urban (at least) professional life are so severe that working class positions simply are no longer tenable for today’s middling working class. My father, who was a lower to middle level manager at Boeing, would have been OK on the shop floor anywhere in the ’50s and ’60s — but in today’s world, he’d have instantly understood that it wouldn’t support his middle class lifestyle.

    I think one of the things about “credentialism” is that it is related to the polarization of the “educated” working world and the “non-educated” working world. If I could be a bartender where I live (near San Francisco, California) and continue to live close to my current standard, I’d consider it. Much less stress, and more time for surfing.


  39. Peter, I hardly think that Wittgenstein’s PhD proves that the standard may have risen over the last century. You left out two important points about the thesis: first, it is regarded as a masterwork of philosophy, second, you didn’t mention Moore’s examiner’s report on thesis: “This is a work of genius. Nevertheless, it is worthy of a Cambridge PhD”.

    Plus ca change.

  40. I bet I’m one of the few people here to have read Rudolf Steiner’s 1891 Ph.D thesis on ‘Truth and Science’. I thought it was pretty woeful, actually. Not an argument for the decline of doctoral theses over the past century. Just sayin’….

  41. I can see credentialism is a problem if people have to spend years studying in order to get a job that really doesn’t use the skills the have gained. However, is there really that much of a problem if it gets easier to gain certain qualifications.

    For example, if work that would once have earned a Masters is now awarded a PhD instead does that really matter? This is a genuine, not a rhetorical question. I can see it could matter to people who were awarded a Masters 20 years ago, and now have to compete with someone who did something of the same standard but got a higher qualification for it, but most of those would also have 20 years experience in the job market.

    Perhaps we just need to introduce a new top qualification every generation or so – the very best now do a PhD+plus, those who would have done a Masters do a PhD, and so on down.

    A waste of time of course, but is it necessarily a problem on the scale of people either being forced to do training they will never use, or a shortage of skills in the community in essential areas? Again, genuine question.

  42. Look, what did I say that people actually disagree with? Tell me which of these statements you disagree with:

    1. Education typically makes one’s life go better.

    2.Intellectual activity is intrinisically valuable

    3. Few (not zero) other kinds of activities are intrinsically valuable.

    4. Because intellectual activity is intrinsically valuable, because education typically makes one’s life go better, and because education is instrumentally valuable to most other kinds of intrinsically valuable activities, we have a duty to promote it as widely as possible. We ought not to encourage people to leave education for other ends, though we should not forcibly prevent them once they are adults.

    How it is patronising to point out these things? Of course, many people are not educated and they may feel bad when they are told that they have missed out. But their understandable response doesn’t invalidate (1-4).

  43. I’m going to make a fuller comment when I get a round tuit. For now, people might like a look at this example of hands on learning.

    Peter of the computer science students, many years ago, when I was providing input to these things, we preferred to get numerate graduates as computer trainees – but actual CS degrees counted against them.

    This was because of the amount of practical road sense, as it were, they all needed to acquire. While the merely numerate ones had shown generic competence, they were aware of how much more they needed and didn’t need any unlearning. The CS graduates, on the other hand, included many like that but also many smart-arses who just wouldn’t be told, who thought their more recent and/or more formal training counted for more.

    So we simply prioritised the CS graduates lower than the merely numerate, rather than making the effort of sorting out the good and bad CS graduates the hard way, on the job. We generally confirmed the numeracy with aptitude tests too, rather than merely relying on notional degree content.

    I am leaving out any specific people, places, dates, etc. for reasons of confidentiality. But we did learn to deprioritise the CS graduates the hard way.

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