“The credentials race undermines learning,” he says. “Students are being taught basically that ‘What I’m after here in school is to pick up grades, credits, and degrees. My job is to get the most of all of those things as I can for the least investment.’ That’s just being a smart consumer. No one wants to pay the sticker price for a car if they can get it at a discount. So why not get the degree with less effort, less investment? The system is teaching those kinds of student skills, rather than the idea that, geez, you really ought to be doing this the hard way because that way you learn more. That’s a hard sell.”

While they may not share Collins’ and Berg’s glum outlook, other education professors have come to terms in recent years with the way universities have become publicly subsidized vehicles for private advancement. Penn education professor Robert Zemsky, in his recent book Remaking the American University, notes that state governments have responded by cutting back their subsidies, which only makes universities all the more hungry for students who will pay their full tuitions. The result, Zemsky worries, is a drift toward increasing elitism in the 250 most selective colleges and universities. He points out that in the year 2000, 55 percent of entering freshmen at these schools came from families in the top quartile of income, up from 46 percent just 15 years earlier.

Marvin Lazerson, Howard P. and Judith R. Berkowitz Professor of Education, co-authored a book last year with W. Norton Grubb entitled The Education Gospel, which cites both Collins and Berg in explaining why higher education is unable to function credibly as the gatekeeper to prosperity. Lazerson notes that even the credentials produced by professional graduate schools of medicine, law, business, and engineering are under fire by employers and professional associations for the poor job they do in preparing students for real-world work. “The critics of medical education have cited a bloated curriculum, emphasis on rote memory, and inattention to patients as people,” Lazerson writes, while a report from the American Bar Association “found new lawyers unable to draft contracts or complete forms routinely required by courts.”

Zemsky, for his part, sees hope for universities to regain their public role by consciously using their power in the marketplace in a politically savvy way to help achieve public goals, such as improving troubled inner-city school systems. Lazerson and Grubb conclude their book by expressing a desire that government look to other methods of providing social equity beside education, “and correct the social and economic conditions that make it impossible for some students to benefit from educational opportunities.”

To Berg and Collins, both solutions would demand that powerful institutions renounce some of their power and prestige for the general good, which they deem unlikely given the competitive status-seeking nature of American institutions. Collins had closed The Credential Society with a chapter prescribing an abolitionist movement to de-credentialize the workplace. He theorized that once it was illegal to require formal credentials for employment, employers would need to consider recruiting clerical workers for apprenticeship-style entry-level white-collar jobs. But he held out little hope de-credentialing would occur. “In effect, we are very much more like a tribal society than we like to admit,” he wrote. “Despite our self-image of rational control, our institutions are no more reflectively chosen than the tribal-initiation rites, secret societies, and implacable gods that our educational and occupational procedures resemble so much.”

It is perhaps the task of the sociologist to live in society with a certain degree of absurd detachment. Working within a university while doubting the rational legitimacy of its stated mission is, for Berg and Collins, part of the terrain. All of their offspring have gone on to college. Berg’s son holds an M.B.A. and is a vice-dean at Columbia’s nursing school. Collins’ three grown children have pursued respective careers in music, the dot.com industry and in a religious youth organization. “I’m not unhappy they went to college,” he says, “but it was more a luxury than a necessity.”

Both Berg and Collins remember getting some resistance from their colleagues when they turned their sociology training back on the educational enterprise that had nurtured them. “I was teaching at a business school when [Education and Jobs] was written,” Berg remembers. “Most of my colleagues warned me, ‘You can’t get away with this.’” As irreverent as the subtitle of the book was, he and his research assistant came up with a working title that was even more provocative: “I Upped My Education. Up Yours!” He struck a more somber note with the book’s first line: “It gives an educator no pleasure to present the materials in this volume.”

What Berg most remembers about the response to the book was a letter in The New York Times from a college professor in St. Louis who complained that Berg was casting doubt on the social value of education just as educators’ incomes were finally climbing. “He said about me, ‘Why is he going public with this?’” Berg laughs. “With a perfectly straight face, he was not denying anything in the book. He just had the attitude of, ‘We’re being found out!’”

Collins says that when he first published The Credential Society, colleagues objected most strongly to his prescription for credential abolitionism. “People would say, ‘Surely you must be joking. You don’t mean to say abolish this thing.’ Others said, ‘Well, my parents never would have made it without access to education.’”

Collins himself had a more personal reaction to his own work. “It was a crisis of conscience,” he remembers. “I’d taken a kind of radical position, and I was asking myself, ‘Should I be working in this institution if it really is the way I say it is? So I quit.’” For a time, he worked as a writer and an independent scholar, but, he says, the pull of university life was too great.

In the course of their teaching duties at Penn, Berg and Collins part company in one important way that reflects their contrasting personalities. The somewhat formal and mannerly Collins says he generally avoids discussing issues related to credentialism with his students. “I haven’t brought it up in classes in recent years,” he concedes. “It makes the students depressed, actually.”

Berg, on the other hand, is more intellectually pugnacious and can’t resist the irony of the situation. “I don’t pull punches with them. It’s not fair,” he says. “Colleges are aging vats. It’s the one segment of the unemployed we don’t count. So I joke with my students here: ‘You think you’re students and I’m the professor. You’ve got it all wrong! You’re the unemployed and I’m the social worker.’ I’ve been telling them that for years.”

Noel Weyrich is a writer-at-large for Philadelphia magazine.

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FEATURE: Failing Grades
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