Iconoclasm: A simple piece of paper

Filed in Gather News Channel by on May 1, 2007 0 Comments

fileId:3096224744104737;size:inter; My friend Ron sent me email to an article in Livejournal discussing the dismissal of a manager at MIT for lying about having a degree.

My response was too long for Livejournal’s comment limit, so I’m publishing it here for Gather, and linking it from there.

I respond:

So, I am Ron’s friend who was hired to a very demanding technical position at MIT in 1985 with no degree.  But what I did have was an extensive publication and professional list.  I had been on the DECUS (DEC User Society) Languages and Tools SIG committee and on DECUS Unisig (Unix SIG) for years, had been publishing papers since I was 22 in 1981 (including at least one paper considered “important,” with Mark Chilenskas who was degree-less at the time but got his ‘tute degree later, and was built on work by Richard Stallman from his graduate dissertation).

When I interviewed at MIT, my to-be-boss looked at my two page resume (if you don’t have a degree you have to document more) and said, “Wow.  No degree and you’ve done all this?  You must be an incredible self-starter!”

I welcomed hearing that, because most places didn’t want to hire me regardless of my history as Chief Software Engineer/Consultant at DEC in my early 20’s, on what was later to be called the first commercial multimedia authoring system (IVIS, for fans of the hacker dictionary…:).

But my entire life has been paying dues over and over and freakin’ over again, finding the flexibly minded people (and rationalizing to myself that those are the ones I’d rather work for).

In ancient China, the bureaucracy instituted an exam system.  The idea was to establish a confucian meritocracy, where even the child of a poor farmer (admittedly, the *male* child) could rise to high office in the government.  The exams were often idiotic memorization; tutoring often bankrupted a poor family.  And although the Chinese “meritocracy” produced no greater transparency, I think, and no great lack of corruption, but it was a social mobility that didn’t exist in other cultures at the time.

The university system was created for the rich, but a social conscience, particularly in the 1800’s, caused philanthropic structures for scholarships to be a firm institution in universities great and small.

When my father went to school in the 40’s and 50’s, a degree was something that not everyone needed.  By the 60’s, partly due to the youth culture (and something to do with the draft, I suspect), college became something “to do,” not to learn a vocation, not to improve oneself, but to be a symbol to one’s parents and the establishment that one had bought into the system.

And now, that’s all it is.  A piece of paper that says, “I can hold a job for 4 years, under duress.”  The sheepskin from MIT means something.  But for example, W’s diploma from Yale as a “legacy” probably means less than, say, some kid from the slums getting an engineering degree from a community college.  W went to Yale because it was expected — he slid through, from peer accounts, with the least energy expendable, and with favors.  The kid going to the community college learned discipline, engineering, and professional culture that perhaps s/he’d never found at home growing up, and that system has very few favors to give.

Yet, most folks will see the Yale degree and the CC degree and automatically value the Yale degree higher.

The problem is, the degree is not a certification of intelligence or merit — it’s a certification of trust.  And people tend to think they can trust people who come from “good backgrounds.”  Insiders.  People invested in “the system.”

Admittedly, when I reflect on some of my friends working as consultants, I understand that they could not work in a “straight” job — some are oppositional, flaky, irregular in their grooming, discretion, or chemical habits.

And those people are often flagged as examples of why you can’t trust someone without a degree.

However, the institutionalized business culture is such that risk taking is not rewarded.  So long as some HR drone filters the resumes before the decision makers see them, the lack of a degree will lead to the round file.  Because those folks whose work doesn’t give them latitude to take risks — the gatekeepers of HR, often enough aren’t — won’t take risks on a non-degreed candidate.

At the same time, these guardians of trust aren’t given time to research the bona fides of every candidate — so it behooves someone to lie about their degree; likely they will *NEVER* get caught.

And so a cycle of corruption eats at the culture.  No wonder we get crap like Enron, when “everyone knows” that the cheaters don’t get caught, and the honest are punished.

Me, I have never lied about getting a degree.  But my father died still sad that I’d never “finished school” regardless of the published papers, press, or peer recognition I laid at his feet.

I can’t help that.  I don’t know how to change any of it.  But it’s undermining the integrity of so many things in our worklife, and it needs reform. 



Shava Nerad, News and Opinion Correspondent:

Shava’s column, Iconoclasm, published several times a week to Gather Essentials: Newsis an examination of the provocative ideas emerging in media and world culture behind the news.


Shava Nerad has been working on the Internet for twenty-five years, at the boundaries of Internet and social issues.  She is executive director of The Tor Project as her day job.  She lives in Somerville, MA with her teenage son, her fiance (a professional magician and fundraising coach), and a corgi/dachshund mutt named George.


Opinions here have nothing to do with Tor. 


You can find all of Shava’s Iconoclasm columns at http://Iconoclasm.gather.com

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A young 50ish, intense honey-brown eyes, greying curly brown hair that used to be red and skin to go with the red hair. Built like a steppes pony -- compact and powerful and chunky. A formerly single mom of a wonderful teenage nerdy son, engaged to a pro

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