Who Should Certify Competence?

Back in 1971, I was interviewed for a teaching position at an obscure Michigan college, one which was officially Christian but which survived only because of the state scholarship program that funneled several hundred nonsectarian, often secular students onto the campus. I had sent the dean my vita, and he hastened to tell me that he was not quite sure my academic training was adequate for his college’s high standards. “Well, I’ll tell you,” I replied, “I’ve just had an offer from Michigan State, so I’m not sure I am even in the market right now.” “Oh, that’s different,” was his response. “We’d be happy to have you teach here.”

As it turned out, I wound up on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education, so I never had the opportunity to find out if my academic training was up to his school’s standards. But the following year l happened to visit the school, and l dropped in to see one of the administrators. I am not sure whether he had been the same one I had spoken with the year before, although I think he was. He went on at some length describing the “upgrading” of the school’s faculty. There was one professor of mathematics, he assured me, who was about to be fired because he had not earned his doctorate. He was a fine teacher, of course, but there were standards to be met. In short, he was competent, but he was not certified. (This administrator went on to a bigger and better obscure college, having done his work in wiping out careers in Michigan.)

Certification vs. competence: Which is it to be? Of course, it would be nice to have both, but Christian colleges are strapped financially, and they cannot afford both. In fact, given the nature of bureaucracies, especially academic bureaucracies, they cannot be sure of anything except certification. There are no measurements of academic competence that are easily examined, since each field is so specialized that aging faculty members are hardly able to judge the competence of their younger, more energetic colleagues. If anything, competence in the classroom is a threat to the self-esteem of those who are tenured, and who also make the decisions. But certification upgrades their departments, and therefore lends prestige to them. What those doing the hiring really want is to hire new men with superb credentials and only mediocre performance subsequent to the earning of those credentials.

Even the credentials are taken on faith. I know of at least three people who faked their credentials in the conservative-libertarian movement. Forged academic credentials are among the easiest in the world to produce, and once a man has his position, he is probably safe. I know of one man–intellectually first rate, as a matter of fact–who had forged his academic credentials, and he remained on the faculty of a state university in the southwest for over 20 years before anyone found out. He published excellent articles throughout his career, too–a man of true competence. Naturally, he was fired.

Monopoly Returns

Max Weber, the Great social scientist who died in 1920, perceptively analyzed the modern university in his posthumously published essay on “Bureaucracy.”

The development of the diploma from universities, and business and engineering colleges, and the universal clamor for the creation of educational certificates in all fields make for the formation of a privileged stratum in bureaus and in offices. Such certificates support their holders’ claims for intermarriages with notable families (in business offices people naturally hope for preferment with regard to the chief’s daughter), claims to be admitted into the circles that adhere to ‘codes of honor,’ claims for a ‘respectable’ remuneration rather than remuneration for work done, claims for assured advancement and old-age insurance, and, above all, claims to monopolize socially and economically advantageous positions. When we hear from all sides the demand for an introduction of regular curricula and special examinations, the reason behind it is, of course, not a suddenly awakened ‘thirst for education’ but the desire for restricting the supply for those positions and their monopolization by the owners of educational certificates. Today, the ‘examination’ is the universal means of this monopolization, and therefore examinations irresistibly advance. (From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills [New York: Oxford University Press, 1946] pp. 241-42.)

The Christian world has fallen into this race for academic certification. In fact, the intellectual inferiority complex of modern evangelicalism has, in anything, accentuated the frantic quest for certification. That dean of the faculty back in 1971 was almost pathetically deferential to me, once he learned that Michigan State had offered me a full-time position. (What if I had been lying? Would he have had the gumption to ask me for a photocopy of my letter from Michigan State confirming the offer? I doubt it.) My credentials were supposedly not that impressive, until he found out that Michigan State thought I was acceptable. Then, lo and behold, this agent of the world of higher Christian scholarship knew that I was first rate. The atheists had baptized me, and Michigan secularists had offered me a position in the priesthood. I was obviously a hot prospect. Had it not been for Michigan State, he never would have been sure.

Why was I caught up in the race? Because I was responding to the market. You have to get the certification in order to have the academic right to criticize the whole system of certification. Otherwise, the criticism can be dismissed as being “sour grapes,” a complaint by someone who could not compete intellectually. (Notice the assumption: certification is equated with intellect.)

With today’s glut of Ph.D.’s, not to mention M.A.’s, the game has been exposed for the sham it always was. The monopoly returns have fallen to zero for most new holders of the Ph.D. It is not even a good hunting license anymore. With 50 or more applicants for every job available, there are few economic returns on the investment in a Ph.D. I have used mine as an advertising device in the newsletter business, since it is not much good for anything else, but there are highly successful newsletter writers who saved time and trouble by inventing their Ph.D.’s, or spending $25 from a diploma mill to receive one. It really makes little difference. A bad newsletter is not improved much by an earned Ph.D., and a good one barely suffers if the writer never earned one.

Market Certification

If the Ph.D. is worth so little in the first place, then why bother to earn one? In the 1980’s, it makes very little sense. The nonprofit world of academics is filled up, and the profit-seeking world does not care one way or the other. The market certifies performance. A man offers buyers and potential buyers something that he says can aid them in better achieving their goals in life, and they either respond or they don’t. The profit-and-loss column tells him how successful he has been.

It is when men attempt to substitute non-market criteria for the profit-and-loss statement that the quest for certification becomes so important. Your banker is not much interested in your formal academic achievements when you come to him for a business loan. He wants to see your credit references, your past record in the business world, your personal financial statement, and your willingness to put your money on the line to match his. If anything, these prized economic attributes will ruin your chances of getting a job teaching in a college. Your independent financial status might lead you to go your own way on campus, rocking the bureaucratic boat with abandon, since you are not totally dependent on the continuing favor of the department chairman and the administration for your bread and butter. For example, in 1976, three private, ostensibly Christian colleges were offered this deal: take Gary North onto your faculty for two years, and his salary will be taken care of by a multimillion dollar foundation (in two cases) or a private donor (the third). All three colleges turned the deal down. I was too controversial, and I had obvious outside support. It was not worth the trouble to them, yet all three had high student-to-faculty ratios, and all three bewailed the high price of Ph.D.-holding instructors.

I was fortunate. I had marketable skills outside the underpaid world of university teaching. I also had some important opportunities that opened up to me that helped me market those skills. I have accomplished vastly more, both financially and in terms of my influence, in the last three years than I could have accomplished in a normal academic career of 30 years. But what if I had been living in a society that did not offer profit-seeking opportunities? What if I had been living in a totally bureaucratized socialist society? What if I had been dependent on formal certification for advancement in any available field? I would have been a lot poorer, and my subscribers would have been a lot poorer.

I learned my lesson. When I go looking for someone to run some aspect of one of my businesses, I never ask him about his academic attainments. I want to know his performance on the job. When I find a writer who can produce a book or other work that is lively and relevant, I am not about to play the game that dean of the faculty played with the untenured assistant professor of mathematics. I am not going to required him to sign up for a Ph.D. program in order for me to consider publishing his material. I pay him for the project, and he can sign up or not sign up for his Ph.D. program, as he sees fit. All I care about is his finished manuscript, submitted on time. And, just to make certain everyone understands the relationship, I pay my writers by the finished page. No manuscript, no money. You would be amazed how much copy I can get out of people on that basis. (To prevent enormous manuscripts, I put a dollar limit on the total payment.)

This is market certification. I open up the arena of competition. I am sure that my Ph.D.-holding writers would much prefer the ivy-covered halls and some ivy-covered colleagues. They would rather have a fat salary, few students, and no deadlines. But, thank God, that world is now closed to young men today. It will not be opened again in this generation. So they get down to business. They write. And in doing so, they start having influence outside the halls of ivy.

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