10 May 2012
In a recent article in New Criterion , Charles Murray, whose book, Coming Apart, I have been considering here, offers another scholar’s view that expertise in a field requires 50,000 chunks of information:
Fame can come easily and overnight, but excellence is almost always accompanied by a crushing workload. Psychologists have put specific dimensions to this aspect of accomplishment. One thread of this literature, inaugurated in the early 1970s by Herbert Simon, argues that expertise in a subject requires a person to assimilate about 50,000 “chunks” of information about the subject over about ten years of experience—simple expertise, not the mastery that is associated with great accomplishment. Once expertise is achieved, it is followed by thousands of hours of practice, study, and labor.
But surely this calculation does not apply across the board.
In many fields, information and interaction are not easily divided into 50,000 chunks in the same way that $50,000 can be divided into 50,000 chunks of one dollar each. That fact bears on the problem of credentialism as a barrier to getting a job.
Credentialism? It means an emphasis on acquiring academic credentials in a field before one can be hired.
Before I go any further, let me make clear what it does not mean: Obviously, we want our nurse practitioner to have credentials—that is, to have learned human anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and medical procedure and ethics to the satisfaction of her instructors—before she treats us.
But so many courses today offer a different, cloudier picture. Consider business courses, for example.
In “The Case Against Credentialism” in the Atlantic in 1985, James Fallows observes,
The rise of the M.B.A. has occurred during precisely the era in which, as anyone who follows business magazines is aware, the content of graduate business training has come under increasing attack. “We have created a monster,” H. Edward Wrapp, of the University of Chicago’s business school, wrote in 1980, in Dun’s Review. “The business schools have done more to insure the success of the Japanese and West German invasion of America than any one thing I can think of.” I’d close every one of the graduate schools of business,” Michael Thomas, an investment banker and author, wrote in The New York Times.
The specific case against business schools is that they have neglected certain skills and outlooks that are essential to America’s commercial renaissance while inculcating values that can do harm. The traditional strength of business education has been to provide students with a broad view of many varied business functions—marketing, finance, production, and so forth. But like sociology and political science, business training has gotten all wrapped up in mathematical models and such ideas as can be boiled down to numbers. This shift has led schools to downplay two fundamental but hard-to-quantify business imperatives: creating the conditions that will permit the design and production of high-quality goods, and waging the constant struggle to inspire, cajole, discipline, lead, and in general persuade employees to work in common cause.
Here’s what got lost in the shuffle: There are some skills you can learn but can’t teach. Leadership is one, but more on that later.
Credentialism evades this fact by padding and lengthening courses, raising fees, and marketing prestige or exclusivity. If all that added up to productivity in running a business, U.S. firms would not need government help.
The problem came home to me when I was doing some editorial work years ago on a textbook for sales personnel, as part of a business course. The book featured some useful information. But by then I had enough life experience to know that the successful salespeople I had worked with would not need the text, and the people who would need the text were not learning how to sell thereby.
Selling is mainly relational, not informational. In that respect, it is like leadership. It amounts to: Do you trust this person enough to buy what they are selling (or, in the case of leadership, to get drafted into their cause or army, or give them your vote)?
In many fields, credentialism is also driven by several less well-advertised factors.
Next: Part II: Those less well-advertised reasons why credentialism is so popular today