Monday, December 3, 2012

Where is the Honor is Fake Degrees and Honorifics?

In life, it is necessary to have tough, yet realistic goals.  It is necessary to have winners and losers, and to reward and honor those who achieve greatness.  It is just as necessary to shun those who lie, cheat, and steal to pretend that they have achieved greatness, and pretend to deserve honor.

The dishonorable attempt to buy or lie about honor is of course an old game, but that doesn't make it any more appetizing.  Even more troubling is the attempt by policy makers to water down and cheapen degrees, using the wrong-headed logic that "If a degree helps people earn more money, then we should make it very easy for everyone to have a degree, so everyone will earn more money!"

But, of course this will not work.  A degree is valued and respected BECAUSE it is hard.  And, where degrees are easy to get, they are not valued at all.  There is a movement in the US to open “early college programs”.  From one of the proponent's websites:

Since 2002, the partner organizations of the Early College High School Initiative have started or redesigned 240+ schools serving more than 75,000 students in 28 states and the District of Columbia. The schools are designed so that low-income youth, first-generation college goers, English language learners, students of color, and other young people underrepresented in higher education can simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an Associate’s degree or up to two years of credit toward a Bachelor’s degree—tuition free.

In short, the program is taking students from groups that often struggle to obtain a high school diploma by age 18, and are often underprepared for a college curriculum, and are awarding them both a high school diploma AND a two year college degree by age 18. 

While it is clear that there is an unacceptable education gap, and that preparing everyone in the world with more rigorous, thoughtful, and demanding education should perhaps be our highest priority… these programs appear to do the opposite. Attempting to “cram” two years of college into the existing high school curriculum of even the brightest students seems to be a destructive exercise.  These students would benefit from MORE years of serious study, not two fewer years and a piece of paper asserting a falsehood.  To attempt to do such “cramming” to the least prepared high school students is  misguided. Because a two year degree by definition is supposed to demonstrate two years of additional preparation after high school, these programs are likely to make two year degrees worthless for all, and put these at-risk students in jeopardy of being unable to complete a 4-year degree at a University. The well-meaning government officials might then decide that these students should be awarded a Masters Degree at age 18.  Instead, I would rather we pay these underprivileged kids to actually spend the extra two years studying to improve their skills-- but more importantly, to teach them to VALUE hard work in education, rather than fakery and credentialization.

Signaling and screening can work to communicate information, but only if one is careful to make sure that the signals and choices represent REAL information. In the end, the reward for a degree is proportionate to either how much valuable learning took place, or how difficult it was to obtain. So, if an online university tells you that they will award you a degree in only a year, or that you can get a Ph.D. by working only a few hours per week for a year or two… you should not expect people to place a large value on something that takes a small effort.  Let me say it clearly: A Ph.D. is the highest degree, designating you as an expert capable of doing cutting-edge research in a field.  This is NOT something that can or should be done on-line, even if the online college charges you a lot of money.  In fact, it sends the opposite signal to savvy employers.  I feel similarly about master's degrees.  I know that this is the 21st century, but Universities are collections of learned people and resources-- much of the learning happens outside the classroom, but within the "learning environment"-- especially at a high level-- you need to have daily face to face interactions with extremely smart people in order to learn complicated information.

In the US, Russia[1], and elsewhere, fake degrees have been around for a long time… so long that it is fairly easy to figure out if a degree is fake (or semi-fake), if an employer wants to.  Now China is having a problem with fake universities—both the American ones and over 100 Chinese ones.  As reported in The Economist, some people have the attitude that “A diploma is worth actual money, whereas an education is not.”[2] Smart businessmen should have the opposite opinion: Reward your employees for skills and productivity, not for pieces of paper.

The Honor of Fake Honorifics?

Recently the Supreme Court of the US ruled that lying about having won a military medal is "Free Speech" .  OK, granted.  People are free to say anything they want-- but they should be shunned for doing so-- treated like garbage.

There are many other, milder forms of self-aggrandizement.  For example...  If you become a lawyer, PLEASE don't put "Esquire" after your name.  It doesn't mean anything.  OK, so it actually does mean something, but it means that you are the servant of a Knight.  Why it is that lawyers in the US think this is cool is beyond me.  If you think it is cool, then please call yourself Esquire BEFORE you get your law degree, too, since having a law degree and being an "Esquire" are totally unrelated!

You might as well call yourself a Colonel as well, just like "Colonel Sanders".  He wasn't a Colonel, but it is a fake honorific used by some old, self-appointed southern gentlemen, just like the fake Esquire honorific. If you want to be really fake, then you can also form a sole proprietorship ( I have, all it takes is to say "I am a sole proprietor!"), then call yourself the Chairman and CEO. And, while you are at it, start calling yourself Reverend!  Yep, there is no requirement except to start using it.  Now, you , John Smith, can introduce yourself as:

     Reverend Colonel John Smith, Esquire, Chairman and CEO of Smith Enterprises, Ltd.  
If you are desperate to impress people, then please... GO AND DO SOMETHING HONORABLE!!!  The world needs you to achieve greatness. Words are cheap. When you lie, cheat and steal to fake honor, you cost yourself more than you know.

[1]Economics of corruption in doctoral education: The dissertations market,
[2] July 7th, 2012 Fake Degrees: A Quick Study, The Economist.

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