Schools Should Do More Than Credential Students

  • 2023
  • Leadership
Dan Blurton, Managing Director


In the olden days, and I mean the really olden days, like, the tribes of 500 people olden days, there was education. It looked something like what we’d think an apprenticeship* is or maybe a modern internship. Students would start young and work alongside a practitioner and, compared to today, the average education would have been a lot more experiential. And this would have provided early students a means to be productive and hopefully support themselves enough to survive, if only that much. So when you see a school today boasting about experiential learning, don’t forget that this is not a cutting edge phenomenon.

Schools would have been smaller back then, maybe even a single student working alongside their family. And, of course, the education would have been less general. Students had less options on what to do after “graduating” and schools would also have far fewer students to choose from. And as a result, the essence of a school was a lot simpler: we will teach you useful things and you will provide back to us in some way (labor or barter or resources). The tribe also benefited from this simple exchange by keeping all of society’s valuable skills handy (a “positive externality,” as my econ students now know to say).

Recent controversies in higher education have forced many to question the essential functions of a school. What were once institutions to develop humans, their usefulness, and their benefit to society have ballooned to many more functions: comparison platforms, social networks, and sports leagues to name a few.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these things but it helps to understand them, if only to see which functions will combine into mutually supportive capabilities and which will detract from each other. Sports, for example, has good synergies with developing people. But there is one (relatively) new and highly prevalent function of a school that, in my view, is the most damaging to school-as-human-developer: the function of schools as a credentialing agency.

Let’s deal with a simple example: one school takes 100 A+ students and three years later graduates 100 A+ students**; in comparison, a second school takes 100 C students and graduates 100 A students. Or finally, let’s deal with a harder example: a third school which expels all the students who get less than an A+, so that they graduate 50 A+ students.***

If measured by grades at graduation, schools 1 and 3 are the most highly credentialed. But have they built the capability to develop humans? Clearly school 2 is the leader in this domain. School two, more than school three, and to a lesser degree more than school one, has invested into the capability of teaching and learning. School 2’s people will be the most experienced and most interested in developing people. It can be presumed that even an A student would develop more in this regime. However, it can also be recognized that schools 1 and 3 would face a trade off if they wanted to be better institutions of learning, instead of credentialing.

Do we need credentials? Well, they do help people get by in the world. Credentials are a proxy for usefulness. And especially when schools were the gatekeepers to the halls of knowledge, credentials could mean a lot. Association with the Per-Anhk school in 2000BC meant a person was literate. A physics degree from Caltech in the 1960s would mean a person was from the great Richard Feynman school of thought. There was a period when students could mostly be useful only after attending school.

This, like so many things, transformed with the advent of the internet. Society is reckoning with this overtly on some levels and subconsciously on many more. Feynman is online, now. As a result, a degree's ability to indicate usefulness is changing. And students have several more opportunities, besides a degree, to demonstrate usefulness.

A brilliant young THS alum (who, after graduation, went on to teach at Stanford and established himself as an expert in his field) recently explained to us that, despite a strong profile that would get him into most any college, he only wants to go if it will mean real development for him. I immediately understood his hesitance. And I was glad to see he had the awareness to distinguish the difference.

*Apprenticeship would continue as the dominant mode of education through to the 19th century.
**We’ll need to set aside, for the sake of this thought experiment, all the problems inherent to grades.
*** These examples are real, or real enough, to schools I’ve encountered who have lost their core interest in developing people.

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