The dark side of professional credentialing
April 18, 2010 7:04 AM   Subscribe

The dark side of professional credentialing. Are there critical histories or theories of professional credentials? Perhaps history that criticizes the importance of law school, teaching certificates, library MLS degrees, or other certifications?

I have heard over the years that things like teachers' licenses and passing the legal bar exam were established not for socially important reasons like ensuring high quality or safety, but rather to serve the interests of those professionals already working in the fields.

For example, requiring a lawyer to (1) attend a law school after the BA, (2) be certified by the diploma + passing the bar exam radically limits the number of lawyers. 100 years ago, in contrast, you could practice law with a BA. I have heard that the requirement to attend law school, post-BA, was established to serve the self-interest of practicing lawyers, by limiting the people who could call themselves lawyers and by forbidding lots of people from practicing law. Why? With fewer lawyers, legal services become more scarce and lawyers can charge higher prices and become richer.

Another example is requiring a teacher's certificate to teach in a public high school. This limits the applicant pool to only those people with a credential, and it helps to ensure jobs for people already in the profession. It also excludes many highly qualified people from being hired. It is often noted that most great college professors would not be qualified, because of credentialing, to teach in a high school.

I would love to see blog posts, books, essays, articles, websites, or anything else on this topic. Basically anything that takes the position that credentials are not always meant to protect the public as a good thing, but rather have a darker side.
posted by mortaddams to Education (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
There's lots of writing on this, especially from economists of a libertarian or free-market bent.

I can't recall any specific titles now, but I would look into the writings of Milton Friedman (no relation to me), Richard Posner, and others of the so-called "Chicago school" of law and economics.

Hopefully others can come up with specific titles or references. But this is the general intellectual model you're looking for.
posted by dfriedman at 7:07 AM on April 18, 2010

It's also a common criticism among radicals--I feel like there's a bit of this in the work of John Taylor Gatto and the Revolting Librarians books.
posted by box at 7:18 AM on April 18, 2010

Here's a paper which appears to be a joint American Enterprise Instittue/Brookings Institution report on this question. Lots of names of economists and other academic types which you can further research.
posted by dfriedman at 7:27 AM on April 18, 2010

A religious scholar named Hugh Nibley gave a controversial University commencement address wherein he lambasted the university system and touted the "day of the amateur." Here is the portion that seems to apply to your question (the rest has some religion-related talk that is tangential)
Professionalism is the child of the universities. Its modern rule began with the Sophists of old. Preceding the Sophists were those wise men called Sophoi, ancient traveling teachers who gave the modern world its moral and intellectual foundations. They were, to a man, amateurs.

They had to be amateurs, for the same reason that the greatest athletes in the world, the Olympic victors, ancienetes in the world, the Olympic victors, ancient and modern, were required to be amateurs; and for the same reason that the people who wrote and directed and acted and danced in the greatest dramas the world has ever seen were required by law to be amateurs: because what they were doing was holy business and not to be contaminated by ulterior motives and ambitions.

Then the Sophists, imitation Sophoi, took over and professionalized everything to the highest degree. They were the great professors, and since they professed publicly and for a fee, Socrates, the champion of the independent mind and not one of the Sophists, advised students to examine every prospective teacher's credentials very carefully and critically before enrolling with him. That indiscretion cost Socrates his life, for the whole point of professionalism is that one's credentials should never be challenged.

Rashdall has shown how the medieval universities, beginning with wild elan and spontaneity in the days when anyone could get into the act, "quickly hardened into the mold of the university system" as administration took over.

Official credentials, a foolproof shield against criticism and scrutiny, were naturally coveted most by those who needed them most: it was the poorly qualified who clamored for the status symbol of the degree. As in the days of the Sophist schools, the great demand for this valuable commodity caused factories or this valuable commodity caused factories to spring up everywhere, competing for degree-seeking customers by making their product ever easier and cheaper to get. At the same time the degree became the object -- the sole object -- of "education." And when it reached that point, it was, of course, worth nothing.

Learning, forgotten in the universities, was revived in academies, salons, societies, courts and coffee houses where amateurs came together to revel in things of the spirit and make the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the high point of western civilization. It was the Age of the Amateur.

Beginning around the mid-nineteenth century, the university staged a comeback, culminating in elephantine growth as twentieth century technology sends everyone to school. During the first half of the present century, college teaching offered a safe birth for mild and mediocre souls who in time, by the sacred rule of seniority, ended up ruling their institutions.

Here they jealously perpetuated their own kind in office and shut out those talented students who might threaten their own supremacy in any way. The more intelligent students had always seen through professorial sham, but as the university population soared into the millions, the tension between the two mounted dangerously. It is no paradox that some of the most intelligent students at the best schools have been causing the most trouble. In fact, most students have been galled by the artificial restraint of professional status.

If the only way to get a professional certificate was to deserve one, there would be little trouble. But there have always been many ways of winning a prize for which the incompetent are willing to pay almost any price. The time-honored devices for beating the game are legion, but the most reliable one, since the days of the emperors, has always been appointment.

Someone (this writer, in fact) has said that anyone can become a dean, a professor, a department head, a chancellor, or a custodian by appointment -- it has happened thousands of times; but since the world began, no one has ever become an artist, a scientist, or a scholar by appointment. The professional may be a dud, but to get any recognition, the amateur has to be good. To maintain his amateur status, moreover, he has to be dedicated, honest, and incorruptible -- from which irksome necessity the professional, unless he cares otherwise, is freed by an official certificate.

Do Americans have to apologize for generations of ingenious amateurs from Franklin to Ford who fathered their modern technology? Or for Ives and Carpenter, their best composers? Or for Parkman, Motley, Prescott, H.C. Lea, and the rest of their excellent historians? Is science ashamed of Descartes or Priestley, or Sir William Hershel or Father Mende Is science ashamed of Descartes or Priestley, or Sir William Hershel or Father Mendel? Arts, science, and scholarship would be in a sorry way today were it not for patrons who were also first-class practitioners in their own right, e.g., von Bissing, H. Carter, and A. Gardiner in Egyptology.

Of course there has always been protest from the professional side: the greatest discoveries in classical scholarship were made by a German merchant and a young English architect, each of whom in his time was ridiculed by the professors. Emerson, "the wisest American," was banned from the campus of Harvard for his famous "American Scholar" address, which proclaimed that one did not have to be a professional to be a true thinker and scholar.
posted by circular at 7:29 AM on April 18, 2010 [9 favorites]

Here's a blog post that isn't exactly about that "dark side" but does criticize the fact that it's rarely debated whether licensure requirements are actually necessary. (Some of the comments on the post disagree with this assertion.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:54 AM on April 18, 2010

There is a lot of criticism of credentialing requirements among the sort of public interest community lawyering world. Each screen (LSAT, law school, bar) screens out people generally, screens out people on the basis of race & disability, screens out people on the basis of money, and has an uncertain or little relationship to lawyering/the quality of lawyering. The criticism is often specifically written, though, so to find the material you'd need to research the LSAT specifically (see, e.g. the research of Marjorie Shultz at UC Berkeley), the bar specifically, etc.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:41 AM on April 18, 2010

One of the traditional purposes of licensing (now largely lost) was for members of the profession to police their own, particularly when they had a public trust or when their work was so technical that it might be difficult for a jury of laymen to identify the wrongdoing. (Not as an alternative to the court system but ideally as a prior step, for the "experts" to identify one among their number who was not up to snuff, and chuck him out proactively, or at least faster than the courts.) When licensing actually regulates the members of the profession (as well as serving as a protectionist bar to entry), I think you can make a stronger argument for it. But so much licensing today is just about paying for the proper credential, and there is no particular follow-up regarding professionalism or proper practice. (I read Jaltcoh's blog post, and I'm amused by the idea of an board of interior decorators pulling licensure from someone for, what, mismatching pillows?)

Two of the most restrictive/elitist credentialing groups in the US -- doctors and lawyers -- do still do a fair amount of self-regulation and self-policing, and you'll notice that the worst scandals in the professions typically arise when they fail at this self-policing task. (Lawyers admitting or failing to chuck out charlatans; doctors letting a malpracticing physician just transfer elsewhere ....) I think I'd look at where credentialing is married to self-policing; where there is no goal of self-policing, or no real purpose served by self-policing (interior decorators), what is the purpose of the credential?

(And Socrates was probably put to death over political infighting in the wake of the Peloponnesian war, and while Socrates himself claimed he didn't like Sophists, neither did Athenians (as per "The Clouds") and they weren't powerful enough in Athens to have Socrates put on trial. One supposes if one is going to engage in amateur history to extol the virtues of amateurism, one should avoid major errors.)

Incidentally, I am a licensed attorney. I also teach college part-time and I am NOT qualified to teach high school, which I seriously considered, because I could not get the teaching certificate without doing essentially ANOTHER B.A. I already have 3 degrees, I'm good. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:52 AM on April 18, 2010

Jeff Schmidt's Disciplined Minds looks at professionalism generally, arguing that the most defining characteristic of credentialed professionals is obedience. The credentialing process, he argues, isn't training so much as a series of screening events to select the most pliant candidates, and load them up with opportunity costs to the point where they can't easily leave their professions and therefore won't rock the boat.
posted by Sonny Jim at 9:03 AM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Duncan Kennedy's Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy is a classic text in the Critical Legal Studies movement.
posted by jayder at 9:19 AM on April 18, 2010

For what it's worth, there are still some jurisdictions in the US where you can take the bar exam, and be admitted to the bar, without attending law school by instead completing an extended apprenticeship under a lawyer or judge. See the Wiki articles on reading law and country lawyers for details - Robert Jackson never even completed a bachelor's degree and was appointed to the Supreme Court as recently as 1941.

Anecdotally, I hear that the process is quite rare now, though, even in jurisdictions that allow it. Here in Virginia it's still possible to take the bar after reading law, but I remember a lawyer I know telling me that only a couple of people a year actually attempt this.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 10:56 AM on April 18, 2010

For what it's worth, there are still some jurisdictions in the US where you can take the bar exam, and be admitted to the bar, without attending law school by instead completing an extended apprenticeship under a lawyer or judge.

There are 29 states (plus DC) that do not require prelegal education to take the bar. There are seven states where one can take the bar after an apprenticeship (California, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming). There are three states that do not require higher education of any kind: Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. NB: Once admitted to one of those three states, one could be admitted to certain other states depending on reciprocity, number of years in practice, etc.

The ABA provides the definitive guide to Bar Admission Requirements [pdf], which is updated annually.
posted by jedicus at 12:00 PM on April 18, 2010

The Institute for Justice is a public interest law firm that takes cases of people who have been precluded by licensing requirements from practicing the profession of their choice. Their cases and publications are chock-full of useful information and stories about the vast expansion of credentialing and state licensing.
posted by decathecting at 2:41 PM on April 18, 2010

Not to split hairs, but in the US and Canada there is no professional credentialing for librarians. There ALA accredited (60+) library schools and many jobs will require that you have a degree from one of these programs.
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 3:29 PM on April 18, 2010

While there's no federal credentialing for librarians, don't some states have certification programs?
posted by box at 3:33 PM on April 18, 2010

(I might be wrong about this.)
posted by box at 3:34 PM on April 18, 2010

No Box you are right. I misinterpreted the question I think. I took it to mean professional organizations directly controlling the certification process.
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 3:42 PM on April 18, 2010

There was an interesting book I read about 8 years ago talking about the dark side of the AMA's rise to prominicence.

I can't find it right now.

However this book and articles seem similar, though overly concerned about homeopathic medicine:

How Healing Illness Became Managing Illness

The American Medical Association
A Sordid History

The Serpent on the Staff: The Unhealthy Politics of the American Medical Association
posted by GregorWill at 5:05 PM on April 18, 2010

How about this Wikipedia item?
posted by feelinggood at 6:34 AM on April 19, 2010

I would look into the writings of Milton Friedman (no relation to me), Richard Posner, and others of the so-called "Chicago school" of law and economics.

Yep. Two classics are Friedman's 1964 book Capitalism and Freedom (particularly Chapter IX, "Occupational Licensure"—excerpt here) and George Stigler's 1971 article "The Theory of Economic Regulation." The econ-for-the-layperson Naked Economics has a good, accessible summary of the economic arguments against regulation in general and professional licensure specifically, which basically boil down to the idea that firms seek government regulation, such as licensure, to limit competition, not to protect consumers or the public.
posted by bokinney at 12:20 PM on April 19, 2010

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