Educational Inflation

Posted Oct 19, 2002
Last Updated Oct 26, 2011

In 1903 William James, a renowned psychologist from Harvard, wrote a small essay called "The Ph.D. Octopus”. James began by telling the story of a Harvard graduate who was appointed to teach English at another school. The graduate, who had studied Philosophy at Harvard, was devoid of a Ph.D., which was unknown to the school that appointed him. The school must have been mortified, and the president of the school notified him that his appointment would either be revoked or he would need to procure a doctor’s degree from Harvard.

So the man made his doctoral thesis and presented it to the Harvard committee. It failed. But the Harvard faculty knew that the graduate was brilliant and original, and his thesis lacked only technical grounding; the committee told him to return the next year with his beefed-up thesis.

James wrote, "To our surprise we were given to understand in reply that the quality per se of the man signified nothing in this connection, and that three magical letters were the thing seriously required.” The institution where the graduate was appointed prided itself in admitting only doctorates. Provisionally, since Harvard asserted that the man would likely get has doctorate, the institution allowed the graduate to teach for one year—so long as he obtained his doctorate. (One must note, as did James, that the candidate’s thesis and subsequent Ph.D. would be in philosophy, and not his subject of teaching.) James said, "Whether his teaching, during that first year, of English Literature was made any the better by the impending examination in a different subject, is a question which I will not try to resolve.”

The point that James was making was that the system of idolizing degrees and diplomas could easily become restrictive and paralyzing. Above all, the habit would greatly cripple the worth of individuality and originality. "America,” wrote James, "is thus as a nation rapidly drifting towards a state of things in which no man of science or letters will be accounted respectable unless some kind of badge or diploma is stamped upon him, and in which bare personality will be a mark of outcast estate. It seems to me high time to rouse ourselves to consciousness, and to cast a critical eye upon this decidedly grotesque tendency.”

For most of us, the thought of 1903 seems like a remote past, a nostalgic time when a man could go out and still do almost anything had he the mind and drive. Whatever James was saying about the crippling effect of diplomas probably had little response from the general public—most people could start a business or get any kind of job regardless of their formal and higher education. Only those people who already had doctorates, and who probably prided themselves in their titles probably heard James’ words. To any common man who may have heard these words, they probably seemed like pedantic wind, useless concerns.

But now it’s 1999. Now the common man has to give a little thought to what James said because the malady he diagnosed has spread beyond the walls of institutions of higher learning. While educated men were becoming subordinated to titles in James’ day, now everyone is. Today, there is very little hope of success for people who lack degrees in higher education, even when higher education is widely criticized as degraded and devalued. Perhaps you could call it educational inflation, since the cost of education goes up while the quality goes down.

Even so, the fact that higher education is well marketed is not the fear that we should have. Colleges serve many students well; the failure of colleges is less a result of their current practices than the general beliefs of the public that so highly idolizes the titles given by colleges. What we should fear is that the marketplace has succumbed to the systemically aristocratic approach that James warned against in universities. While it is still possible for a few lucky souls to successfully break into their target markets without degrees, it is almost unheard of. This is true in spite of the fact that many talented individuals throughout the ages have excelled at their callings without higher education in the formal sense. Now we obviously wouldn’t want an unschooled doctor performing surgery on anyone, but the pervasiveness of the disease is well beyond that. Something is definitely wrong when menial, simple and mind-dulling jobs require certification that results from years of schooling.

It seems that this issue is far from remedy. In our schools we hear constantly worried cries about proficiency scores. In the news we hear frantic reports about the level of academic scarcity in the population. Well, the problem with our population is not that it is stupid—our nation is smarter and more capable than any of the past. Our problem is that we have forgotten that there are many characteristics to a human’s stature and value, not just degrees, scores and diplomas. We must see that an official stamp is just that: a stamp. The content underneath is pure or degraded despite any title. Unfortunately, the idolization is now saturated in our culture. Reflection and open debate will bring the issue to light. Perhaps ours is an age when people are ready to listen to words similar to James’ on this issue. James said, "We ought to look to the future carefully, for it takes generations for a national custom, once rooted, to be grown away from.”


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