The reflections in this article are a result of my explorations with rethinking education and development over the past 20 years. They were part of a talk delivered in Lisbon, Portugal.
Healing Ourselves from the Diploma Disease
We both believe that another world(s) is possible and that each of us has the responsibility and the ability to help co-create it. We appreciate your strong commitment to social justice, freedom and human dignity. We write today to invite you to take yet another step on the journey towards a more honest and sane world by saying “NO!” to certification and degrees in your organizations.
Saying NO! to certification and degrees means saying no to superficial ways of evaluating a person’s worth and to an unjust and inherently discriminatory system. Saying NO! to certificates and degrees means saying YES!!! to promoting more dedicated and passionate people and to valuing and respecting peoples’ diverse skills, choices and life journeys. It also represents a direct step towards reducing the power of institutions over our lives. We believe that social sector groups must take the lead in this initiative. Following corporate or bureaucratic management models and criteria can not and will not lead to real social change. We hope you will join us in saying NO! to certificates and degrees and saying YES!!! to diverse possibilities for creating healthy and more vibrant learning societies.
At Shikshantar, for over seventeen years, we have worked with numerous volunteers and team members. At no point in the process have we ever asked anyone for their degree or formal qualifications. In fact, through our own experiences, we have learned that a degree never tells us anything about the wisdom a person possesses, the knowledge they have of local languages, the creativity they utilize when recycling waste materials, the love they have for children, the commitment they have to their own community, their interest in listening to and learning from new perspectives — in short, it does not tell us about any of the things that truly matter to us in our work. We ask volunteers to write or talk in detail about their areas of interest and burning questions, as well as to offer portfolios of their practical experiences. Our experiences, both at Shikshantar and elsewhere, have also shown us that most of what we need to know we learn on the job, while responding to the ever-changing contexts of our work.
We invite you to:
1. Say “No!” to certificates and degrees! Refuse to consider them as a requirement in your hiring or promotion processes and instead value a wider range of criteria that identifies people with multiple talents and high levels of personal commitment and self-initiative.
2. In your hiring process, encourage applicants to submit portfolios which highlight their diverse skills and experiences as well as indicate their own future personal learning plans.
3. Share with us your own thoughts about the limitations of certificates and the alternatives you are creating in your own group or organization.
Why say NO to diplomas and certificates as the basis for hiring and promotion in civil society organizations?
What matters to you when thinking about who to work with? What qualities, skills, and strengths do you value?
Certificates and degrees fail to reveal any information about a person’s passions, commitment, and values. They even fail to demonstrate what creative expressions, practical skills and deep learnings people possess. By opening up our hiring processes to focus on the breadth and depth of peoples’ real experiences, we gain new ideas about the wide range of contributions that individuals can make to our organizations and to the communities we work with. For our work, we need to look both at what people have done, as well as who they are. Therefore, saying no to certificates and degrees is not a charity or a form of reservation; it is our way of ensuring that we find the right fit on all levels. For example, many of us have been burned by elite institution graduates who just want to use our organizations as a stepping stone, in order to add a ‘grassroots experience’ to their resumes. When we are free from qualifications, we can connect with local people who not only have significant skills and talents, but who also care for the well-being of our local communities for the long-term.
What real learning do ‘qualifications’ actually measure?
Degrees only privilege learning that takes place in a classroom. Yet, most learning — and all application — takes place beyond a classroom setting. Work, volunteering, travel, and self-directed projects are all part of each person’s larger web of learning. These hands-on experiences contribute immeasurably to what skills and abilities we have, but are rarely identified or valued. Degrees and diplomas are in many ways discriminatory as they tend to bias a narrow range of human intelligences, capacities and cultures. They only reflect how well one is able to memorize de-contextualized facts or perform well on tests, criteria that really mean nothing when working with communities. As Ronald Dore warns in The Diploma Disease (1976), “More qualification- earning is mere qualification-earning – ritualistic, tedious, suffused with anxiety and boredom, destructive of curiosity and imagination – in short, anti-educational.”
What kind of world are we trying to nurture?
By continuing to place value on degrees, we are, in short, reinforcing the violent global political economy. We are validating the monoculture of the dominant system of education and the monopoly of institutionalized experts and professionals. We all know that the vast majority of people who gain access to these institutions are also those who tend to come from segments of society which already possess cultural and economic capital. They are already very privileged by mainstream standards, and hide behind the myth of meritocracy (that they ‘deserve’ what they have because they worked harder than others). Affirmative action programs and reservations have in reality done very little to change this situation. When they have given opportunities to marginalized communities, this has come at the cost of stripping them of their identities, local relationships and knowledge systems. Demanding certificates and degrees only serves to validate and expand the reach of this systemic injustice.
If one of our shared objectives is to bring greater equality and justice to our world, then we have to start by questioning and challenging mainstream educational institutions which act as one of the strongest pillars upholding elitism, social hierarchy, control and exploitation. This will only happen when we question the legitimacy of the degrees they issue.
The time has come to seriously face the question: Whose agenda do certificates and diplomas really serve?
- Shreya Janssens-Sannon, Shilpa Jain, Manish Jain Shikshantar Andolan
To read the full booklet, click Healing Ourselves from the Diploma Disease