Volume VII, #18
Last week I took my three boys on an end-of-summer trip to Yosemite and rediscovered that when you’re together non-stop, you really get to know what fun and quirky people your kids are becoming. For instance, my youngest, six-year-old Zev, often seems lost in the world. He’s easily confused about days of the week and the time of day. He vociferously maintains the last Emperor of the Aztecs was not Montezuma, but rather someone named “Slappy.” He also seems to think that gravity is responsible not only for keeping our feet on the ground, but for pretty much everything that occurs. “Is that because of gravity, dad?” was a common question throughout the week. But just as the rest of us are expecting another baffling Zev-ism, he comes out with a gem. On a hike back from a waterfall, eight-year-old Hal began fretting that we were heading in the wrong direction. I assured him we were heading back to our campsite.
Hal: “Dad, are you sure?”
Me: “Absolutely. 100% certain.”
Zev: “But you can never be 100% certain.”
Zev’s point was reinforced the next day as we took a guided tour of Yosemite Valley and learned about the 19th century geologic fracas around the formation of this American treasure. Josiah Whitney was California’s state geologist and the prime mover behind its first geologic survey. Whitney was certain that Yosemite Valley could only be the product of gravity via a cataclysmic sinking of the valley floor. In opposition to Whitney was explorer John Muir who found evidence that Yosemite Valley was carved by glaciers. The battle between Whitney and Muir grew heated and Whitney, flaunting his degree from Yale, dismissed Muir as a “mere sheepherder,” “uneducated,” and an “ignoramus.”
Like most higher education wonks, I was more interested in the ad hominem attacks than rival geologic theories. But Whitney went even further, suppressing evidence of living glaciers from his geologic survey. He was subsequently rewarded with an appointment to the Harvard faculty.
Of course, we now know that Whitney was 100% wrong and Muir 100% correct. But it took longer than it should have to figure this out because by emphasizing his pedigree and degree, Whitney took an elitist (and ultimately dishonest) approach to claiming authority and expertise.
We are living in a world where expertise is being challenged as never before. Climate change, immigration, and trade policy are but a few areas where expertise seems to have been supplanted by instinct expressed varyingly in bursts of aggression and/or meandering thoughts posing as rational argument.
At the same time, we’ve recently seen several surveys indicating that the white working class and Republicans have lost their love for higher education. This remarkable change has two sources: (1) negative media coverage of campus protests; and (2) the crisis of college affordability. What do these stories have to do with each other? The common thread is a creeping sense that college degrees demarcate the line between the “Elite” and “Real America,” and that American higher education has become synonymous with elitism (and vice versa).
While it is undoubtedly disturbing that those most in need of social mobility seem to have declared war on what once was America’s engine of social mobility, what’s much more disturbing is the prospect that the War on College may be fueling the War on Expertise.
Colleges and universities have been America’s primary source of expertise since well before Josiah Whitney. One reason the Whitney-Muir story continues to be retold is that it’s the exception; most of the time the Whitneys of the world are right. But as higher education has become identified with elitism for a significant percentage of the population, the expertise resident in university faculty and researchers has been undermined in the minds of far too many.
And so higher education finds itself in a Game of Thrones-like situation. Just as the Lannisters, Targaryens and Starks are consumed with an intramural fight while an existential threat approaches from beyond The Wall, colleges and universities are consumed with this War on College over campus protests and affordability while the War on Expertise threatens to undo much more than college as an institution. For when half of Republicans say they’d support postponing the next Presidential election until the country has rid itself of the rampant voter fraud that no college or university expert believes exists, the White Walkers are not only approaching, they’ve broken through The Wall.
Like the Starks and Targaryens, colleges and universities have a responsibility to the living to do everything they can to fight the war that matters most. I can’t think of a better way to do this than by addressing critics’ concerns around affordability and elitism. While the flip side of record student debt is the producer surplus from bundled degrees that has funded myriad departments and “deanlets,” colleges and universities need to embrace faster + cheaper alternatives. Yet another reason I can’t wait for a world of unbundled degrees and faster + cheaper pathways to good jobs: people like John Muir – a college dropout – will be less likely to be dismissed out of hand.
Equally important, colleges and universities must dissociate formal higher education from expertise by recognizing that expertise can come from anywhere, including from other colleges (I’m talking to you, colleges and universities that summarily restrict or deny transfer credits), as well as from many other sources, some unorthodox as in the case of Muir. Doing so will require an unprecedented embrace of assessments and micro-credentials for the expertise and skills demonstrated by those assessments. Combatting the existential War on Expertise will require America’s higher education institutions to assess and certify any and all expertise.
But while colleges and universities have begun adopting micro-credentials, they are often rolled out as part of newer programs with limited enrollment, like competency-based initiatives or for select co- and extra-curricular activities, rather than to all students. Contrast this with the approach of employers and industry associations that are rapidly embracing micro-credentials across their entire organizations. According to Jonathan Finkelstein, CEO of leading digital credential service provider Credly, “many employers and associations now view micro-credentials as more precise indicators of knowledge and skills than traditional degrees and companies are already seeing them drive better hiring and promotion decisions as well as improved employee retention. They are looking to educational institutions to scale up their use of micro-credentials so that individuals can navigate the labor market with a common currency and a more transparent signal of what they know and can do.”
But like the Lannisters, their eyes on the Iron Bank, colleges and universities remain focused on the education bundles on which they’re fiscally dependent when they could be offering new assessments and micro-credentials or complementing existing degrees with micro-credentials to make skills more visible, portable and useful, all of which would go a long way to breaking the link between higher education and elitism.
While it’s hard to imagine Cersei Lannister suspending her War for Westeros, it’s even harder to imagine a world where colleges and universities accord as much prestige to auto-didacts and working adults who demonstrate expertise via assessments as they do to graduates of their own degree programs. But this may be the most important step higher education can take to help win the War on Expertise: defend expertise and skills in the most non-elitist, non-exclusionary manner possible. We may end up with fewer universities, but the march of civilization will be much more likely to continue.
Colleges and universities must recognize that, in stark contrast to the Lannisters, too many former students aren’t repaying their debts. This, combined with the sense that multi-year degree programs aren’t realistic for “Real Americans,” is fueling a War on Expertise that has become existential. And that’s a matter of the utmost gravity.