Legend has it that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg Castle on October 31 1517, sparking the Protestant Reformation. Regardless of whether the event itself actually happened, the target was clear: the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. As we commemorate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s protest, there is a comparable institution whose practices might be targeted by a latter-day Luther: the university. But first we need to examine what bothered Luther and his followers back then – and then ask what might cause a similar bother today.
At the outset, it is worth recalling that Luther was committed to the religion against which he protested. He was Professor of Moral Theology at a university under Roman Catholic authority when he came to the conclusion that the Church’s own institutions had abandoned the spirit that had led him to join it in the first place.
Luther’s protest focused on the practice of indulgences, which provided a means by which Christians could increase their chances of salvation by confessing their sins and paying some money to a priest. It would be tantamount to cancelling a debt, which was often how sin was portrayed to believers at the time. But Luther believed that this practice corrupted not only the Church to which he had dedicated his life – but also people’s relationship to God.
The Church was obviously corrupted by indulgences because the money usually did not go to relieve the material conditions of the believers but to improve those of the Church officials. The believers themselves were perhaps more insidiously corrupted because they were left with the impression that they could simply buy their way to Heaven.
I would like to suggest that the dispensation of academic credentials performs the same function in 2017 as the dispensation of indulgences did in 1517.
Credentials as corruption
Credentials are a form of payment and ritual that students are told they must undergo at university in order to be absolved of their ignorance and be permitted to enter a world of lifetime employment – the proverbial “Heaven on Earth”. I use the word “proverbial” deliberately: it is by no means clear that universities can, or should, promise any such thing.
Credentials come in the form of degree certifications, which students receive once they have paid tuition fees and have submitted themselves to a set of examinations. Traditionally students have also had to attend lectures and seminars, though these have been increasingly made optional thanks to reliance on information technology. Just as attendance in church came to be seen as optional once believers acquired access to the Bible in their native languages, the same applies to students nowadays who turn to online sources to replicate what might otherwise be of value in live performances.
Here’s a way to assess the value of credentials. Suppose you hire someone with a good degree in physics. Are they capable of constructively contributing to an engineering project, let alone to the solution of a longstanding problem within physics itself? The answer is bound to be mixed because physics degrees are in the first instance what economists call “virtue signalling” devices. The employer is invited to trust a candidate’s competence because they have somehow managed to pay enough money (perhaps with the help of sponsors) and passed enough tests (presumably by their own efforts) to be in a position where a potential employer can take them seriously.
What is missing from this blaze of credentials – aside from the potential mismatch to the job at hand – is any sense that the candidate understands either the limits of the applicability of her field’s knowledge or how the very basis of her field’s knowledge might be constructively extended. After all, students are not formally examined on either. Rather, they are tested on “state of the art”, of the moment knowledge, which, inevitably, changes over time as the field and its examiners change.
Nevertheless, both students and their potential employers are led to believe that academic credentials confer on students that what they have learned at university constitutes knowledge that is more durable than it really is. And all of this is made possible simply because self-certifying “knowledgeable” people – in other words, academics – have said so.
Hints of a second Reformation?
The financial interest of academics in continuing to promote this idea – from the beleaguered lecturer to the over-remunerated vice chancellor – should be obvious. Perhaps only slightly less obvious is why students continue to believe it. After all, no sound theory of knowledge, or epistemology, backs this modus operandi, which reeks of a mindless deference to authority. This is especially apparent in societies where people are presumed to be literate, have been given the right to vote for generations and for the past generation have been given free access to the internet.
To be sure, the tide has begun to turn. One of the world’s leading accountancy firms, Ernst & Young, and the UK’s leading right-leaning intellectual magazine, the Spectator, have begun to administer their own in-house examinations, which are open to anyone who wishes to apply. More aggressively, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel launched his “Thiel Fellowship” in 2011, whereby top-flight high school graduates are lured from elite universities to spend time developing innovations to bring to market. In all these cases, the employer or funder takes full responsibility for certifying candidates, without any formal academic mediation.
So: a new Reformation is slowly happening. But how should universities respond? Luther’s anniversary should remind us that we are living in an increasingly competitive environment for the providers and consumers of knowledge. Universities cannot presume to hold an institutional monopoly over it. This may require academics to engage in a more direct appeal – both in terms of curricular offerings being justified more explicitly and academics presenting themselves in person and print less formally – to demonstrate that a university-based education can provide some added value that cannot be provided elsewhere.
In Luther’s day, this was called “evangelism”.