About credentialism and the Marilee Jones / MIT case

We can make it three for three — sort of — among Atlantic “voices” on the folly of being obsessed with whether someone has an academic credential, versus whether that person can actually do the job. I dealt with and respected Marilee Jones, the now-cashiered admissions director at MIT, during my various stints of writing about the (folly of the) college admissions process. Her message boiled down to: Oh, calm down, which is exactly the message students applying to college should hear.

Like Matthew Yglesias and Ross Douthat, I agree that the scandalized reaction to news that Jones faked a college degree is way, way out of proportion. Clearly she could do her job; no one has ever suggested that she was anything but inspiring in it. Back in 1985, I even wrote a cover story in the Atlantic about exactly this sort of nuttiness. It was called “The Case Against Credentialism,” and it argued that whenever performance really mattered — when you were fighting a war you really had to win, when you were running a business struggling to survive, when you were coaching a team for the big game — people quickly learned to ignore pedigree and degrees and concentrate on what someone could actually do. (Think: Ulysses S. Grant.) It’s only when you have the luxury of a genteel, not-really-measurable- or-crucial level of performance (Think: foundations, many parts of academia or civil service) that you could afford to be picky about whether someone had “prepared” in the proper way.

Here’s the “sort of.” I wouldn’t care if a star professor turned out never to have finished an undergraduate (or graduate) degree. If he or she can motivate the students, that is what counts. But a university admissions director is in a particularly awkward situation. All that applicants for admission can be judged on, really, is their previous performance and preparation. Those are important mainly as proxies for potential achievement, but since they’re the only things colleges can judge, the person in charge of assessing them can’t afford to have been dishonest about her own background. Marilee Jones’s sin was trivial in the big view; unfortunately she held the one job where it was more like a grave offense. Too bad for her, and for future MIT applicants.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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