The importance of college degrees has risen, resulting in a depreciation of the importance of experience. To many people, unless you have a degree in something, you cannot possibly be very knowledgeable on the subject no matter how much experience you have in it.
One of the inventors of public key encryption, Whitfield Diffie, testified in the Newegg trial. Diffie is a legend in technology circles. Without his work on the Diffie-Hellman algorithm, it would not be possible to securely do anything on the Internet. That lock you see in your web browser is only there because of Diffie’s work.The opposing counsel in the Newegg trial, Marc Fenster, did not accept Diffie’s expert testimony, but instead went on the attack- interrogating Diffie about his level of education. Fenster asked if Diffie had a master’s degree. He then pointed out Diffie did not have a doctorate. He then asked if he was a professor, which he was not. These attacks led the jury to find Diffie as not credible and awarded significant money to Marc Fenster’s side.
It should not have been possible to attack Diffie’s credentials. A long line of well known technology experts could have been called to vouch for his importance. The idea that it would be possible to dismiss Diffie’s achievements, because of his lack of an advanced degree, would never have crossed the minds of people who understand what he developed. If a great contributor of our time can be discredited because he does not have an advanced degree, it points to an over reliance on degrees.
Another example of this was in 2011 when MSNBC Host Contessa Brewer decided to challenge US Representative Mo Brooks during a discussion of the consequences of raising the debt limit by asking him if he had a degree in economics. Mr. Brooks responded to the query, “Yes ma’am, I do. Highest honors.”
Although Mr. Brooks had the perfect answer to the question, there was an assumption in the question that was ignored by almost everyone. That assumption was that in order to understand economics you had to have a degree in economics. At that point Mr. Brooks had served in Congress for 29 years, he was elected in 1982. He had been involved in developing trillion dollar budgets for many years. He had seen the results of debt limit fights of the past. Yet somehow a couple of years of general economic theory was considered more important for understanding the implications of failing to raise the debt ceiling to years of making those actual decisions.
Everyone seemed to accept that Mrs. Brewer had asked a valid question although an uninformed one, since Mr. Brooks did have an economics degree. If Mr. Brooks did not have a degree many listening would have discounted what he had to say not because of an issue with his argument, but his lack of credentials.
Often something learned by doing is better understood than something that was taught to us. When you are being taught, the teachers and curriculum developers allow you to avoid the pitfalls and deadends, but those painful experiences make for a deeper understanding. In computer programming, experience can often be substituted for education. Many job descriptions will allow applicants for a position with a lesser degree, but more experience.
A college education is important, but we must also recognize experience.