Marvin Hewitt suffered from impostor syndrome. Like many other high-functioning academics and successful people, he was plagued by a constant dread at being found out. For years he fretted that someone, or something, would reveal that he was not what he purported to be in the hierarchy of the top universities in which he taught.
It wasn’t that Hewitt was worried about the quality of his work. He was acknowledged as an “undoubtedly brilliant physicist” by his superiors and his peers, and every bit of his work in physics and engineering was genuine—and published in well-regarded journals. He had good reason to believe that his work spoke for itself.
But like the chorus of the Avett Brothers song, Marvin Hewitt was plagued by the weight of lies that seemed to “bring him down, and follow him to every town.” His work and genius were real, but he was an impostor. The name on his research papers, and the syllabi he gave to students in his physics classes at the University of New Hampshire, the University of Arkansas, and the schools in Utah and Minnesota, where he taught, was not Marvin Hewitt.
It was Dr. Kenneth Yates, or Dr. George Hewitt, or Dr. Clifford Berry, or the deliciously devious sounding Dr. Julius Ashkin. He adopted a fake identity because did not have a PhD from Ohio State University or even, for that matter, a diploma. Marvin Hewitt was a high school dropout from Philly who was also, as the New England Historical Society describes him, “an undiscovered, self‐taught child prodigy.” And try as he might to move to places where knowledge about his true self was absent, “lies don’t need an aeroplane to chase you anywhere.” He was eventually uncovered, and never taught in a university again. He ended his career designing satellites and published papers out of a corporate setting.
The story is a fascinating example not just of human ingenuity, but as a case study of the power of credentials in the modern university. Marvin Hewitt was a smart man. He didn’t assume the title of “PhD” out of self-deception or for the honour of being called “doctor” (though, as we’ll see later, some are prone so to do). He lied about his doctorate because he knew with as much certainty as he knew that E = mc2 that even if you’re smarter, better equipped, more knowledgeable, capable, and accomplished than other members of a faculty, you can’t pursue the vocation of teaching advanced physics without proper credentials. His lie puts the lie to the pretense that modern society has dispensed with aristocratic things like titles (if you doubt that academics have an order of precedence, go to an academic conference some time, or sit on a hiring committee for a university) in favour of pure merit. And it illustrates the ability of social customs, hierarchies, and institutionally embedded structures to influence, hamper, limit, and even warp the furthering of knowledge, the job market, and indeed, one’s personal identity.
But he did lie, and even if we sympathize with him, we still believe he deserved to be sacked. The case gets to the heart of why, for all of the ways that credentials and the drive to get them warp our institutions and our behaviour, every society needs some way to decide who is qualified to do what. Credentials are both important and unavoidable.
The most important question, then, is not whether the university will be involved in both giving credentials and using them not only to maintain its own institutional identify but also to shape our perspectives on who we think is authorized to work and speak within a wide variety of social sectors. The important question is how, and on what basis it will do so. This is ultimately a question of whether this use furthers the purposes of the university or hinders it; and whether it contributes to social trust or erodes it.
In one sense a bachelor’s or master’s degree or PhD is nothing more than a piece of paper and a few letters. But socially, like the paiza that Mongolian emperors would give to high officials as a “safe conduct pass,” the credentials given by institutions of higher education have weight. This weight comes from the fact that the student has to work within a given community to achieve a status that is awarded by a jury of people who are explicitly not your peers. Earning a degree, like that ancient passport, authorizes you to enter certain spaces and do certain things, and that authorization comes from those who have gone before you and can lay claim to a status—of knowledge, or expertise— that is scarce and often difficult to achieve. And as Marvin Hewitt’s story shows, the absence of a credential will keep you out and prevent you from doing those things.
Institutions of higher education (including colleges) know the value of this and market themselves accordingly. “A Degree from [insert name of university here] is your passport to success/to the world/to . . .” is so common among university recruiters as to be unnoticeable.
But this is where the passport metaphor is swapped for something else. There is nothing inherently wrong with the authorization that comes with degrees; indeed in mass, diverse, specialized societies, it’s necessary. But insofar as we understand credentials as the pathway to earnings, fulfillment, or prestige, the emphasis becomes less on arriving at a destination—say, from ignorance to enlightenment—to a capability, the ability to move itself. So the degree thus begins to be understood by students, faculty, institutions of higher education, and the public at large, not as a passport that will take you places but as currency that carries power.
The word “currency” usually evokes dollars and cents. And, given the extent to which, in public debates, universities justify their presence heavily in these terms, including regularly publishing data on the financial value of a university degree, currency is a fair state of how many, including universities, see their degrees. But etymologically the word has more to do with running, hurrying, or moving with haste. The picture is that of a current in a fast-moving stream. We can catch glimpses of how deep this runs in our system by noting that, already in K–12, we speak of “streaming” students toward university or other places. I was struck by this recently in Ottawa when, while waiting at the airport, I noticed an advertisement from a local “elite” prep school claiming that its students were “taking flight.” To where? Well, to the next stop: Harvard, Cornell, McGill, UBC (note who’s not on the list). The terminal degree offered by today’s universities is not one of mastery, but one aimed to launch you in the air. As George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air says: “moving is living.”
This is as true for the humanities faculties as it is for “practical” faculties. While the practical faculties boast of “job placement rates” and the earnings of their graduates right from the get-go, the humanities faculties are caught in the same fast-moving current. The wave of deconstruction that continues to be embodied in many humanities faculties has left students in fast-moving water—and make no mistake, there never was a time when humanities were totally stable (contingency is real)—but without a paddle to steer. The result is that, despite all of the talk of humanities offering a life defined by something other than their money-grubbing counterparts doing MBAs, their programs are particularly well suited to shape students who do well in the hurried, harried, world of labour and identity in twenty-first-century North America. A recent New York Times headline shows that there the gap between computer science and the “impractical” arts is just a facade: “Don’t Panic, Liberal Arts Majors. The Tech World Wants You.” When the inherently scarce nature of credentials is used to commodify them, they are also cut off from that which constrains credentials from becoming an exercise in pure self-interest. Those constraints are internal (that is, the commitment of a given community to their unique task; say, a commitment of chemists to their field) and external (all disciplines should contribute to the common good). Credentials as currency ignores that their power comes from initiation into a community with its own ethical constraints and goals. And in promoting this vision, universities end up undermining themselves.
The temptation here is to place the blame on university administrators. While some of this blame might be justified, administrators are simply responding to demand from students who, in turn, are responding to employers.
In a paper written in 1973, the economist Michael Spence wrote that the credentials one receives from education serve more as “job market signals” than anything else. Employers, unwilling to personally vet candidates, seek an easier way to assess the abilities of potential workers and likelihood of contributing to the firm, and take the credentials as a proxy for the things the firm wants. And students, in turn, “will invest in education if there is a sufficient return as defined by the offered wage schedule.” The signals (“BA” or “PhD”) “functionally replace the less direct costs and benefits associated with a reputation for signalling reliability.” The emphasis is on knowledge, yes, but they are as interested in hiring a person who is socialized in a particular way, and who possesses certain types of knowledge.
And, as with many things, the costlier or more exclusive one’s education is, the more likely firms are to view you as someone who is valuable. This is one reason why Malcolm Gladwell, when asked by economist Tyler Cowen why elite schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale don’t increase their admissions, responded this way:
Well, why doesn’t Louis Vuitton sell a $59 bag? Because Louis Vuitton doesn’t want to be in the commodity bag business. . . . These guys are in the luxury handbag business. They’re not in the education business. They are interested in sustaining a certain brand equity. And they see expanding the size of their schools as diluting their brand equity in exactly the same manner as Louis Vuitton does. . . . They’re very conscious of maintaining that aura of exclusivity.
And lest we start picking up our pitchforks and torches to roast the elites, it’s not just the Ivies who play on this desire for value. While the Ivies maintain the aura of exclusivity by constraining the number of applicants, other colleges and universities in the United States, with few exceptions, given the illusion of value by misrepresenting the cost of tuition. Administrators know that few students pay the actual “sticker price,” but they continue the facade because they know that student and parents view the cost of education as the proxy for quality, that they view quality as at least partially linked to the job market, and act accordingly. It’s bogus, and everyone knows it, but it persists.
This parental driver has also had effects beyond higher education. Credentialing, says Jane Jacobs, is one reason why we speak of our childhood experience of education as movement through a system:
The more successful credentialing became as a growth industry, the more it dominated education, from the viewpoints of both teachers and students. Teachers could not help despairing of classes whose members seemed less interested in learning than in doing the minimum work required to get by and get out. Enthusiastic students could not help despairing of institutions that seemed to think of them as raw material to process as efficiently as possible rather than as human beings with burning questions and confusions about the world and doubts about why they were sinking time and money into this prelude to their working lives.
While Jacobs’s argument is limited by its unwillingness to see the underlying necessity of credentials, she is keenly aware that credentials can warp our desires and shape institutions that fulfill those warped desires in powerful ways. It affects people even when they should be old enough to have built the type of reputation that allows you to no longer care. The lure of the credential as a signal of some valuable status goes some way to explain why otherwise accomplished people—like the former head of the Toronto District School Board who was deposed for faking his PhD, or even the evangelist Ravi Zacharias, who occasionally allowed himself to be addressed as “doctor” even though he never did the work to attain the degree—are tempted to claim the status. University presidents are partially to blame, yes, but you might want to add journalists (nothing is better than a degree from a major university if you want to be quoted in the news), your boss, your kindergarten teacher, and your mom and dad to the list of guilty parties. You might even go full Calvinist and ask your depraved self: How much would you love the honorific “Dr.” or being able to call yourself a Cantabrigian? How much of that desire is based on what you’d learn? More holy than me is the woman or man who can answer that question with pedagogical purity.
An Education You Can Believe In
The abuse/mutation of credentials into currency in the context of the modern university cannot do away with the fact that all of us need some way to measure whether someone is worthy of our trust. Beneath our warped understanding and use of credentials lies the heart of the word itself. A credential is something that lends you credence. It shows that you are believable. This is why we are so incensed when credentials turn out to be fake.
Credentials, like money, are valuable. They are a shorthand signal of trust, a symbol of believability, which are valued and needed in the market and complex spaces of work and collaboration. But this valuable believability emerges out of distinct communities with distinct practices and, as much as it jars our modern ears, distinct authorities. Just as a currency’s value is closely tied to the trustworthiness of the government that backs it (compare and contrast the Venezuelan bolivar with the greenback), so too is the value of a credential given by a university. As Spence’s article shows, degrees are proxies for reputations, which is nothing more (or less) than the approval and acceptance of a certain person or community who, in turn, is understood to be someone whose opinion is worth paying attention to.
But just like currencies, credentials can be debased by inflation or by short-shrifting of the raw material that goes into the university degree. Both of these present real challenges, but also real opportunities for those in higher education.
When one hears the word “inflation” in the world of higher education, it usually has to do with grades. Universities, it is said, are too quick to give students high grades, and in doing so have undermined the relationship between merit and the awarding of the degree, thus devaluing the degree. Some have pointed to this as evidence of how the drive for attainment warps even the grades on a paper.
But a plausible argument can be made that there has been an inflation of the university’s role in society at large, and that this inflation is not primarily the fault of universities, but the fault of other social institutions. These institutions—and here I’m thinking of families, churches, and, especially business corporations—have shifted responsibilities that rightly fall within their institutional ambit onto the university. They do this either as a way of socializing costs associated with training, a shrunken moral sense of their own institutions and associations, an inability to organize to meet their own needs, or, most likely, a combination of the three. Universities have a variety of tasks. They further knowledge by original research, pass on that knowledge to the next generation through a type of intellectual apprenticeship, equip their students with the philosophical and moral frameworks of the discipline, help them understand how their discipline fits within society, and can serve society. Do they also need to serve as talentsieves for business?
As Spence’s article shows, businesses look to higher education credentials to “functionally replace the less direct costs and benefits associated with a reputation for signalling reliability.” Universities do have a role in this regard, in the forming of people who can learn and work. But firms often want more, and look to universities to supply particular skills. The reality is that finding talent is one of the most important aspects to the success of any business. As such, you would expect firms to invest heavily in methods and means of finding the most reliable and specialized talent that can provide them with the best returns for the wages they pay. But they often don’t, choosing instead to rely on educational credentials as the first (and often primary) means of training and human-resource development even if job preparation isn’t what most professors have in mind as they teach. In doing so, firms socialize a task that they cannot do, or find too expensive to do on their own. For the vast majority of universities in Canada and the United States, getting other communities, especially the state, to organize and subsidize the training of workers is a good deal and efficient to boot. But the grating on our ears when we hear employers complaining of graduates who “aren’t job ready” reveals not just a lack of moral and institutional imagination within the business community, but also an insight into the limits of what a university can, and should, do. There is evidence that this is changing, however. Some firms are turning away from their reliance on university degrees and are setting up their own schools. Examples range from Apple University to Hamburger U (a McDonald’s joint). They’re also looking to other institutions such as unions, trade associations, private credentialing bodies that function in ways similar to guilds. And they’re even returning to old fashioned entrance exams to provide a basis for credibility. It might be that, much to the chagrin of any Marvin Hewitt’s of the world, the university is the last place to adopt a new and pluralist conception of credentials.
Perhaps the debasing of the university credential by inflation, and the move by companies to find other means of evaluating future workers, will provide universities space to prevent another type of debasing: that which occurs when moral reflection within the various disciplines is jettisoned.
Duff McDonald’s book about the Harvard MBA, The Golden Passport, shows that, despite the power and influence this degree gave its recipient over global markets, the crash of 2008 revealed a complete lack of moral understanding about the relation of markets and finance to broader society. While the degree enabled graduates to take top positions at major financial firms, their inability to discern the moral implication of the products they created and sold revealed that the “golden passport” was made of fool’s gold.
You could ask similar questions about other disciplines: Is a chemist who can convert nitrogen into ammonia, but has no opinion on the use of Zyklon B, trustworthy?
Is a philosopher who takes a pass on answering the question, What is the good life? the same? Is a student of literature who has never read the Bible trustworthy? Is the institution that gave degrees without requiring students to struggle with these questions worthy of our trust?
These are fundamental questions. But they are not questions the university can answer on its own. They are ultimately questions we, as a society, need to ask and answer if we want to get clear on what we expect from the university. The question of what is believable or trustworthy cannot be answered by the university alone, and thus the university’s role in distributing credentials relies, in large part, on what the culture as a whole wants and values. If we’re looking for a renewed and reformed place of credentials in the life of a university, perhaps what’s needed is a reformed society. That begins by asking ourselves: What do we want?