Credit, Credibility, and Sausage

Katy BurkeUncategorized

PLC teens building a robot with FIRST Robotics team Prototype G

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If a person doesn’t go to school, how will future employers know that he or she is capable of the work at hand? I was asked this question at a recent screening of the documentary Self-Taught, which Princeton Learning Cooperative co-hosted with other local organizations. It’s a great question. In fact, I think it’s THE question for the future of education. And I am going to attempt to answer it—gulp.

The current modus operandi for establishing the credibility of young job applicants is to review their schooling. It is taken for granted that there are certain jobs that are “closed” without the proper degree. Therefore, the goal that gets top billing for most students is the credit they will receive for the work they put in. Even if a student is genuinely interested to learn something, the pressure to get the grade is often overwhelming. Everyone, it seems, is concerned about credit. Online schools charge exponentially more for “credit courses,” private academies ensure to meet all the standards necessary for proper accreditation, and school children make sure to ask their teachers, “Will we get credit for this?” before investing in the day’s assignment. Credit is everything in our culture, from class credit to credit scores. It feels almost schematic, like it’s just the name of the game, and we all have to play along because there is no alternative. But maybe there is.

Consider credit scoring. Having a great FICO score is recognized with high regard in the same way we value a good GPA. People even flash it as a badge of honor on their online dating profiles. However, if you think about it, a credit score is actually a debt score. You have to borrow (and return) a small fortune for an extended period of time in order to rack up a high score, so it is not necessarily a reflection of a smart saver. Rather it is a demonstration that one knows the debt game and plays accordingly. This common practice strikes me as rather odd, especially since just one hundred years ago, taking on a lot of debt was something people generally avoided and considered embarrassing, even sinful. In fact, home mortgages were not the norm and usually required a 50% downpayment with only a 5-year term. Today, it’s not unusual to finance a washer and dryer. Building and buying on credit is just the way of the modern world. Most of us go along, knowing no other way. 

However, it is possible to live differently, to have credibility without credit. People who go off credit can expect their FICO scores to eventually drop to zero. After a friend of mine canceled all her cards, her score lowered continually for a little more than a year before hitting rock bottom. She established an emergency fund, and saves for big items like travel and cars—purchasing only within budget. Considering housing costs today, it’s probably unreasonable for the average consumer to purchase their home outright, but they can save a decent down payment, and get a mortgage without a credit score using manual underwriting, the process, essentially, of demonstrating that they pay their bills. It’s a lengthier process than just calling in a FICO score, but it does allow freedom to live off the credit grid. It is also not offered by every mortgage company. Perhaps, though, if more people went credit-free, it would be more widely available.

Grades, test scores, and class credits are similar to FICO scores. Though they may hold weight with many, they do not necessarily represent the breadth or depth of an educated mind. Just as we consumers play the debt game, there is a bit of a game to be played in achieving high grades. When I taught in a public high school, I was all too familiar with the high-achieving student who gave technically correct answers that lacked any critical or original thought, or the student who participated just enough to have it count and no more, even when the discussion and their peers would have benefited from it. I was also most familiar with the low-achieving students who were busy chasing their intellectual curiosity, devouring fresh material of their own finding, and therefore failed to keep up with scheduled assignments…students who carried entire class discussions on their own shoulders and stayed after class to continue it with me, but did poorly on standardized tests for failure to turn off their minds long enough to find the prefixed answers. 

In the film Self-Taught, Ty, a passionate college chemistry student, remarks, “If you go to any class and ask who is the smartest, most knowledgeable person, it’s never the person with the 4.0…It’s always the person who just focuses on what they’re interested in and learns about it. That’s really difficult to measure. You can’t really measure that with an exam.” He’s right. In fact, high grades best predict just one thing—that the student will get good grades in the future. This perpetuates more schooling, which, to come full circle, usually means more debt. What a wacky world it is when the measurement of young people’s success delays their entrance into the workforce and simultaneously saddles them with debt.

At this point, I think we are all thinking, “There must be a better way.” Is there a manual underwriting equivalent for entering the workforce? I think there is.

The answer can be found in sausage. Stay with me….  There’s an old familiar saying, “The proof is in the pudding.”  It was originally, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and the pudding, wasn’t pudding; it was sausage. “Pudding” was a term for the mashed up mystery meat in a sausage casing. I can almost hear the chorus of heaving and retching. I’m sorry if I just ruined your favorite dessert forever. In any case(-ing), the “pudding” was not only questionable in taste but also in safety until it was tested by consumption. It wouldn’t be graded by color or credited by the better butcher. You had to eat it. Simple as that. If you took a small, less risky, test bite, and all was well, you’d know almost definitely that the rest would be too. Coincidently, I just cooked some sausage this morning, which “felt done” but upon inspection appeared slightly raw in the middle. Still, I went for it; it tasted heavenly, and many hours later, I feel just fine.

The taste test is a simple idea and an old idea, but it’s still a very good one, better, I think, than what we’ve got now. In terms of education and workforce placement, I can see this happening a few different ways. It may be similar to the manual underwriting process, in which potential employees document, in detail, the actual work and studies that they have done that is transferable to the job. It’s the difference between telling and showing. They could, in fact, literally show employers a history of their work on video and social media. This would be especially applicable with trades. In the Self-Taught film, an auto-mechanic and a dog trainer built their own businesses with videos of their work on YouTube despite having no formal schooling or credentials. Lastly, without grades or class credits, young people can apprentice, perhaps for a trial period. This would be the most direct equivalent of “taking a test bite” for employers. These methods involve some investment for both parties, and they’re not completely full-proof, but they’re much more revelatory than measuring capability by letter or number. Sincere credibility is found in a person’s sincere work. Why not let the work speak for itself?!