Tag: credentials

Gatekeepers of opportunity and the lottery of privilege

Despite starting out as a pejorative term, ‘meritocracy’ is something that, until recently, few people seem to have had a problem with. One of the best explanations of why meritocracy is a problematic idea is in this Mozilla article from a couple of years ago. Basically, it ascribes agency to those who were given opportunities due to pre-existing privilege.

In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Sandel makes some very good points about the American university system, which can be more broadly applied to other western nations, such as the UK, which have elite universities.

The meritocratic hubris of elites is the conviction by those who land on top that their success is their own doing, that they have risen through a fair competition, that they therefore deserve the material benefits that the market showers upon their talents. Meritocratic hubris is the tendency of the successful to inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way. It goes along with the tendency to look down on those less fortunate, and less credentialed, than themselves. That gives rise to the sense of humiliation and resentment of those who are left out.

Michael Sandel, quoted in ‘The Insufferable Hubris of the Well-Credentialed

As someone who is reasonably well-credentialed, I nevertheless see a fundamental problem with requiring a degree as an ‘entry-level’ qualification. That’s why I first got interested in Open Badges nearly a decade ago.

Despite the best efforts of the community, elite universities have a vested in maintaining the status quo. Eventually, the whole edifice will come crashing down, but right now, those universities are the gatekeepers to opportunity.

Society as a whole has made a four-year university degree a necessary condition for dignified work and a decent life. This is a mistake. Those of us in higher education can easily forget that most Americans do not have a four-year college degree. Nearly two-thirds do not.


We also need to reconsider the steep hierarchy of prestige that we have created between four-year colleges and universities, especially brand-name ones, and other institutions of learning. This hierarchy of prestige both reflects and exacerbates the tendency at the top to denigrate or depreciate the contributions to the economy made by people whose work does not depend on having a university diploma.

So the role that universities have been assigned, sitting astride the gateway of opportunity and success, is not good for those who have been left behind. But I’m not sure it’s good for elite universities themselves, either.


Thankfully, Sandel, has a rather delicious solution to decouple privilege from admission to elite universities. It’s not a panacea, but I like it a first step.

What might we do about it? I make a proposal in the book that may get me in a lot of trouble in my neighborhood. Part of the problem is that having survived this high-pressured meritocratic gauntlet, it’s almost impossible for the students who win admission not to believe that they achieved their admission as a result of their own strenuous efforts. One can hardly blame them. So I think we should gently invite students to challenge this idea. I propose that colleges and universities that have far more applicants than they have places should consider what I call a “lottery of the qualified.” Over 40,000 students apply to Stanford and to Harvard for about 2,000 places. The admissions officers tell us that the majority are well-qualified. Among those, fill the first-year class through a lottery. My hunch is that the quality of discussion in our classes would in no way be impaired.

The main reason for doing this is to emphasize to students and their parents the role of luck in admission, and more broadly in success. It’s not introducing luck where it doesn’t already exist. To the contrary, there’s an enormous amount of luck in the present system. The lottery would highlight what is already the case.


Would people like me be worse off in a more egalitarian system? Probably. But that’s kind of the point.

Higher Education and blockchain

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the most useful applications of blockchain technologies are incredibly boring. That goes in education, too.

This post by Chris Fellingham considers blockchain in the context of Higher Education, and in particular credentialing:

The short pitch is that as jobs and education go digital, we need digital credentials for our education and those need to be trustworthy and automisable. Decentralised trust systems may well be the future but I don’t see that it solves a core problem. Namely that the main premium market for Higher Education Edtech is geared twards graduates in developed countries and that market — does not have a problem of trust in its credentials — it has a problem of credibility in its courses. People don’t know what it means to have done a MOOC/Specialization/MicroMasters in X which undermines the market system for it. Shoring up the credential is a second order problem to proving the intrinsic value of the course itself.

“Decentralised trust systems” is what blockchain aficionados refer to, but what they actually mean is removing trust from the equation. So, in hiring decisions, for example, trust is removed from the equation in favour of cryptographic proof.

Fellingham mentions someone called ‘Smolenski’ who, after a little bit of digging, must be Natalie Smolenski, who works for Learning Machine. That organisation is a driving force, with MIT, behind the Blockcerts standard for blockchain-based digital credentialing.

Smolenski however, is a believer, and in numerous elegant essays has argued blockchain is the latest paradigm shift in trust-based technologies. The thesis puts trust based technologies as a central driver of human development. Kinship was the first ‘trust technology’, followed by language and cultural development. Things really got going with organised religion which was the early modern driver — enabling proto-legal systems and financial systems to emerge. Total strangers could now conduct economic transactions by putting their trust in local laws (a mutually understand system for transactions) in the knowledge that it would be enforced by a trusted third party — the state. Out of this emerged market economies and currencies.

Like Fellingham, I’m not particularly enamoured with this teleological ‘grand narrative’ approach to history, of which blockchain believers do tend to be overly-fond. I’m pretty sure that human history hasn’t been ‘building’ in any way towards anything, particularly something that involves less trust between human beings.

Blockchain at this moment is a kind of religion. It’s based on a hope of things to come:

Blockchain — be it in credential or currency form …could well be a major — if not paradigmatic technology — but it has its own logic and fundamentally suits those who use it best — much as social networks turned out to be fertile grounds for fake news. For that reason alone, we should be far more cautious about a shift to blockchain in Higher Education — lest like fake news — it takes an imperfect system and makes it worse.

Indeed. Who on earth would want wants to hard code the way things are right now in Higher Education? If your answer is ‘blockchain-based credentials’, then I’m not sure you really understand what the question is.

Source: Chris Fellingham (via Stephen Downes)