Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

July 27, 2009

Extreme Credentialism

Paul Graham’s essay on credentialism, which I linked to and wrote about last week, points to imperialist China as the birthplace of testing. He argues that testing/earning credentials displaced nepotism and bribery as a method of selecting government officials. While that was a beneficial change, the tests were indicators of wealth as much as of knowledge and skill–only the privileged would have the opportunity to study classical literature. In time, such tests gave rise to ‘cram schools,’ where those who could afford it were able to learn how to get a good score on the test, rather than taking the time to build the skills that were supposed to be measured by the test. (SAT prep, anyone?)

Modern-day Chinese students have recently stumbled upon a new permutation of ‘test hacking’: identity theft. According to an article that appeared in the New York Times yesterday, all Chinese students have a personal file that contains their grades, test results, peer and teacher evaluations, diplomas, etc. These files are physical and supposedly kept under lock and key by government agencies. Lately, however, the files of students from poor families have been ‘vanishing.’ These students suspect corrupt government agents of selling the records of their achievements to young people from wealthy families. The victims of this scam are sentenced to low-paying jobs, as they are virtually ineligible for government or private-sector employment without their files. All the time and money they invested in their education has been completely and utterly lost, for while they still have all the knowledge and skill they worked so hard to develop, potential employers only care about credentials. I especially appreciated Tony Z.’s comment (it’s #6) on the ramifications of this crime for Chinese society. He writes, “[Don’t] ask why these corrupt officials weren’t caught. Ask why on earth is a man’s life predicated on one file? Ask what happens to a society when it prizes the Gold medal over the discipline to achieve it legitimately?”

On the other hand, the Chinese economy seems to be thriving. Perhaps it’s an indication that all the specialized knowledge that universities claim only they can bestow, is not really necessary. Only time will tell.

It is only more evidence that the system of credentialism can be, and often is, skewed to favor the wealthy. This means that wherever an individual’s ability to earn income depends on the pieces of paper they possess (and whether those papers are name-brand), there exists a society where the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. It is a shame that the bright future these students traded their youth for has been denied to them, due to the greed of others. I am encouraged by Paul Graham’s assertion that the American marketplace is moving towards rewarding performance rather than credentials. I hope that these young students will live to benefit from a similar trend in China, although, as Tony Z. suggests, credentialism seems to be an ingrained part of Chinese culture. As he says, “If you’re Chinese, ask why you care more about a number on a piece of paper than the man in front of you.”



  1. In a country where criminals and lord knows who else, are murdered and their organs harvested and sold, should this surprise us? Actually, that happens in many countries. It hasn’t been around yet for the corporations to actually be affected by hiring the imposters. Those hiring firms are going to have to develop their own means of verifying a candidate’s training and “credentials.”

    Comment by Rebecca G — July 29, 2009 @ 7:41 pm | Reply

  2. Also,

    I went to a presentation at Claremont College in California yesterday for my 16 year old. They have a needs blind admission process. So, like, most schools, they don’t look at your financial aid need. I suppose they could look to see if you went to private high schools, but they want people to be successful so that they can go out and get rich and donate money back to the school. They want to choose those with the most potential for leadership and they do that not so much by what your scores and grades are, but by the progression of coursework during high school, leadership in extracurricular activities and teacher recommendations as well as a personal interview. They can afford this more rigorous screening approach.
    The University of California system, like most public institutions, however, just view their applicants as a number, a score. They cannot afford even one hour to review the individual files and read essays. The interesting thing is that you kind of have two mutually exclusive strategies for optimizing your odds of getting into both. Do you take the safe coursework and get the highest grades or do you push your limits? AP classes with their additional grade point encourage the more challenging curriculum, but even within AP’s, there are safe bets and reaches for individual students. All Claremont graduates, after factoring in parental contribution, graduate debt free.
    Incidentally, Claremont is the alma mater of my late husband, a poor, but brilliant farm boy, who chose Claremont in order to improve his odds of acceptance at Harvard Business School. He made it into Harvard and was the founder of a fairly successful corporation. Money in his name funds a scholarship today.
    My late husband was a natural leader and had served as an enlisted man in the army for 6 years. He always told me that Harvard didn’t really teach him anything new, but it had to do with the people you met and the talent you could put together and the resources you could tap to make deals happens. Credentials can give you credibility at certain levels. The end users have to determine the validity of those credentials in achieving their goals. (i.e. goals being increasing shareholder wealth..the purpose of the for profit corporation in this instance)

    Comment by Rebecca G — July 29, 2009 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

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