Are micro-credentials the mortal enemy of culture?

The title of this post is inspired by a text written in 1935 by the French poet Paul Valéry which I received from my friend and colleague Philippe Petiqueux (@misterppqx).

The opening words of Paul Valéry’s text are:

“I never hesitate to declare that the diploma is the mortal enemy of culture. The more important diplomas have become in life (and this importance has only increased because of economic circumstances), the lower the performance of education has been. The more control was exercised and extended, the worse the results became.”

What could that signify in the realm of Open Badges, in particular when they are used as a means to deliver micro- or nano- diplomas and micro-credentials? Does the size of the credential matter in its deleterious effects on culture? Are micro-credentials less harmful than macro-credentials? Or more?

Problems start to arise when the means take precedence over the ends, the digital token (the badge) over the human process (the recognition), the institutional recognition (the test, the examination leading to the diploma) over the human process (the learning of individuals and communities), what Paul Valéry identifies as the prevalence of control over action:

“I find that control, in all matters, results in vitiating the action, in perverting it… I have already told you: as soon as an action is subjected to control, the deep purpose of the one who acts is no longer the action itself, but designing the forecast of the control, the defeat of the means of control. The control of studies is just a special instance and a striking demonstration of this very general observation.”

Alfie Kohn develops a similar view: “Heidegger said that life is lived toward—informed by and in anticipation of—death (Sein zum Tode). By analogy, a classroom where learning is always pointed to a test (Lernen zum Examen?) is one where ideas, and the act of reading, are experienced as just so many means to an end.” (Alfie Kohn. Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling (p. 90). Beacon Press).

Are micro-credentials less harmful than macro-credentials?

There is no reason to believe that micro-credentials could be any less harmful than macro-credentials. I would even contend that they are potentially more lethal as they are more pervasive and easier to implement. Any person with a bit of authority within the formal education system could create their own micro-credentials supported by their own paraphernalia of micro-assessments, micro-tests or micro-exams, paving the path to the next step: creating macro-credentials out of the compilation of micro-credentials.

It does not mean that all micro-credentials are harmful. Micro-things can be useful and even indispensable, like the non-human micro-organisms living in our body (they are estimated to represent ¾ of all our body’s cells). That does not mean that a human body can be described as the result of the aggregation of micro-organisms! Nor does it mean that a well formed human mind can be described as the result of the aggregation of micro-credentials.

Of course, if we need to hire a plumber or put our brain into the hands of a brain surgeon, we would like to know what their credentials are, an information that goes beyond certificates and diplomas delivered at the end of their study and includes professional development, how they are recognised by their peers, clients/patients, colleagues, how they engage with the world, etc.

If a well formed human mind, whether that of a plumber of a brain surgeon, could probably get many micro-credentials, the aggregation of micro-credentials, on the other hand, will unlikely lead to the creation of a well-formed mind. Probably as likely as the work of Shakespeare could be produced by the combination of a monkey and a typewriter. One does not become a plumber, a brain surgeon or an Elizabethan play author through the mere accumulation of discrete skills or micro-credentials. It is about how they engage with the world.

As Paul Valéry writes about the French Baccalaureate:

“The fundamental diploma in our country is the baccalaureate. It has led to the orientation of studies towards a strictly defined programme and in consideration of tests which, above all, represent, for examiners, professors and patients, a total, radical and uncompensated loss of time and work. […]
“The purpose of teaching is no longer to train the mind, but to acquire the diploma, it is the minimum required that becomes the subject of the studies. It is no longer a question of learning Latin, or Greek, or geometry. It is about borrowing, not acquiring, borrowing what it takes to complete the baccalaureate.”

Beyond micro-credentials (and credentials!)

If Open Badges do not have to be micro-credentials, what could they be? I like to define them as a means to capture recognition; they are snapshots of recognition. The recognition can be formal (in the name of an institution) or informal (in the name of an individual or a community). While micro-credentials provide a fragmented representation of the world and individuals, recognition could provide a continuous and holistic view of the past, present and future of one’s life path and engagement with the world.

Open Badges could pave the way to empower communities as loci of recognition. Institutions might be delegated the power to deliver credentials, but it is the community which is the actual environment where recognition takes place.

Thomas Quasthoff, is testimony to that. Denied admission to the music conservatory in Hanover, Germany, owing to his physical inability to play the piano (his mother’s exposure used thalidomide during her pregnancy) Thomas Quasthoff was later recognised as one of the great baritones of the 20th century.

There are legions of school leavers, whether truants, dropouts (or rather pushedouts!) like  Jean-Paul Gaultier, who became successful in life. The real world offered them opportunities that the micro-world of schooling denied them.

Reference:

Paul Valéry, Le bilan de l’intelligence (1935), in Variété, Œuvres, t. 1, Gallimard, Pléiade, p. 1076. French and English translation.

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