The 'Case Against Credentialism,' Then and Now

One axiom about journalism is that it should try to "see life steady and see it whole." A look at one of The Atlantic's steady themes over the years

Japanese students praying for good fortune in their national university-entrance exams. Exam-centrism is something we don't want to learn from the world (Reuters)

As Captain David Ryan remarked in a Tweet just now, "So much for the Right to be Forgotten." Thirty years ago, when Ronald Reagan was in his second term, I did a cover story for this magazine called "The Case Against Credentialism." Now, as Barack Obama is in his second term, I am surprised (to put it mildly) but also gratified to see the same article turning up today as a trafficked item on our home page.

At right you see how an Atlantic cover looked in those days. I could feel either depressed or encouraged that so many of the themes that I was writing about, and the magazine was covering, under our editor Bill Whitworth in the 1980s are the same ones we're concentrating on under Scott Stossel and James Bennet now. So I'll choose to be encouraged!

We wrote a lot then about the role of the military, its relationship with civil society, its proper role around the world. We wrote about the strengths and vulnerabilities of the U.S. economy and important American businesses, and how they matched those of other economies around the world, plus the dawning of the digital tech age. We wrote about the functions and dysfunctions of families and schools. And we wrote about the openness, fairness, and opportunity of American society, on axes of race and gender and class.

Those are more or less our main subjects now too. This "Credentialism" piece is obviously from a different era, and a few fugitive online typos reflect the fact that it was scanned in from our bound-copy archives.

But the matters it deals with are, I think, related to those of racial justice that Ta-Nehisi Coates has so memorably been developing; and those of economic mobility and justice that Don Peck and others have dealt with; and to the ongoing questions of class, opportunity, resilience, and identity that Deb Fallows, John Tierney, and I have been approaching with American Futures; and even to the nature of the military that I've approached in our current issue. (For the record, later in the 1980s I wrote a book on these questions of class, mobility, and opportunity in America, especially in comparison with then-rising Japan. It was called More Like Us, and it came out in 1989.)

I'm grateful too that the magazine has resurrected this part of our journalistic past, for the relevance it may have to today's debates and what it shows about our magazine's long view.