Legion. An amalgamated journal.

The death of credentials

Paul Graham has an eloquent post on the upcoming death of credentialing as a way of assessing quality. Anybody currently pursuing an Ivy League degree ought to read it, so I am loathe to make excerpts; but here are some teasers to lure you in:

History suggests that, all other things being equal, a society prospers in proportion to its ability to prevent parents from influencing their children’s success directly.


By gradually chipping away at the abuse of credentials, you could probably make them more airtight. But what a long fight it would be. Especially when the institutions administering the tests don’t really want them to be airtight.

Fortunately there’s a better way to prevent the direct transmission of power between generations. Instead of trying to make credentials harder to hack, we can also make them matter less.

Let’s think about what credentials are for. What they are, functionally, is a way of predicting performance. If you could measure actual performance, you wouldn’t need them.


Credentials are a step beyond bribery and influence. But they’re not the final step. There’s an even better way to block the transmission of power between generations: to encourage the trend toward an economy made of more, smaller units. Then you can measure what credentials merely predict.

Or, to put it another way, ultimately you succeed or fail in life not based on whether you graduate from Harvard summa or not, but based on whether or not you are actually able to succeed or fail in life. The guideposts along the way—Harvard degrees, extracurricular clubs founded, merit badges awarded—may correlate with general historical success. But they don’t predict it perfectly, and they certainly don’t generate it.

Which is why it’s so troubling when you see us here at the upper echelons of the academic credentialing world acting as if guideposts really mattered. To many of our contemporaries, the guideposts have become the item themselves; the correlates to success have become success itself. What was once a signifier is now a metonym.

And that’s, I think, one reason why so many of the ideas which are driving innovation forward aren’t coming from places like Harvard, or, when they are, they are coming from its dropouts. Graham correctly points out that smaller corporate units are better at plucking out successes from failures independent of credentials than are larger corporate units. There is, however, a better arbiter still: history. In the long term, the world doesn’t pivot on Harvard degrees. It may pivot on a few people who happen to hold Harvard degrees. Unfortunately, we seem to operate under a confused etiology wherein credentials take on much more personal significance than they are worth.

Garrett Dash Nelson

December 19th, 2008 at 3:03 pm

But perhaps you disagree

2 responses so far

  • [ # ] SpringDec 29, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    Have you seen this? Paul Graham apparently isn’t the only one making this argument:
    (Though worth noting that both Graham and Murray enjoy their fair share of credentials from elite institutions – you have to wonder how those degrees have helped enabled each to make his arguments heard…)

  • [ # ] JoeJan 8, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    You might enjoy, if you haven’t already read it, David Labaree’s 1999 book: How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education.