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History / Sociology

Credentials

One of the purposes of the modern university is credentialing. Like any purpose, we need to understand whether or not the university is best suited for this kind of job. First, we need to determine what credentialing is, so we know what it requires. Once we know what it requires, we will be able to determine whether or not the university meets those requirements.

Credentials can be understood in a few different ways. The first way is that of authorization. A doctor’s credentials give him permission to practice medicine. Without the proper credentials, it may not be permitted for someone to actually do a particular kind of activity. Permission of this kind is legal permission. Practicing medicine without a license means that we cannot have confidence that you can practice medicine well. Therefore, permission is required in order to safeguard others.

Credentials may also be understood as a form of social recognition. This is what is misused when a person with a PhD in biology (Dawkins) speaks on matters of philosophy. We assume that someone with the credential has had a good education. We also assume that they have had to work hard for their credential. This is especially true with a PhD. So we are more willing to believe what they say when they speak. We also treat such people better than those without such credentials.

Finally, credentials may be seen as marking a kind of knowledge. Those who possess them have the kind of knowledge that the credentials say that they do. Because they have this kind of knowledge we can trust them to do things that require that knowledge. Therefore, the credential also gives them permission to do what might be hard to do. There is no connection between knowledge and social recognition. But giving recognition to those who have worked hard to gain their knowledge is only right. So this understanding of credentials can be understood as the base for the other understandings.

This understanding of credentials has two aspects. The first aspect is that of education. It is necessary to teach what is required for the credential. Without teaching the student will not know what he needs to know to be certified. The second aspect is that of measurement. No one can issue the credential without knowing that the student has learned the material. The traditional way of teaching has involved teachers and books, while the traditional way of measuring has used tests and essays. In any case, credentialing requires both teaching and measuring.

Even though credentialing requires both teaching and measuring, no credential claims to teach everything. As such, a credential for doctoring only needs to teach what doctors need to learn. Since knowledge of history, literature, philosophy and psychology are not necessary for doctoring, a credentialing process does not need to teach them. Furthermore, students who wish to be doctors may not need the knowledge that other doctors need. Their purpose is getting their credential is to gain permission rather than knowledge.

Next, I will discuss how credentials would structure universities if given as a primary purpose of them.

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