Saying No to Certificates and Degrees

01 January 2006
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Walk Out web siteShikshantar is 'The People's Institute for Rethinking Education and Development'. Its purpose is the promotion of swaraj, a concept formulated by Gandhi in his book Hind Swaraj, published in 1909.

Gandhi's argument centred on the belief that British (and by implication all Western) political, economic, bureaucratic, legal, military and educational institutions were inherently unjust, exploitative and alienating. In his eyes the real goal of the Indian struggle for freedom was not only to secure political independence from Britain, but also, and more importantly, to gain true liberation for the individual.

The Shikshantar website is full of interesting information. Here we are publishing only a few extracts on the subject of academic qualifications, collected in response to a letter inviting people to say NO! to certification and degrees, and to share personal experiences illustrating their inadequacies.

Extracts from the response from Ram Subramaniam, Samanvaya, Chennai, India

I started my career as a software professional back in 1990-91 without being asked for a certificate. As a student I was invited to become part of a software company that was managed by those who taught me. I initially prided myself of being exceptional soon to realise that certificates really never matter in the competitive world! This may sound contradictory, but, between 1991 to 1998, I must have worked with about 8 organisations, most of them on a project consulting basis and others as a retainer consultant, the longest being for a period of 2 years between 1995 to 1998. I have never been asked for a certificate to seek any of these jobs. These include software companies that were/are top ranking in the industry and projects with multi-nationals.

Within the first few years I realised that most people like to know your confidence level and what you have produced through the technical skills you possess. I made and retained friends with most if not all companies and clients and never had to seriously hunt for an assignment.

When my wife Rama and myself started to work in the social sector through Samanvaya in 1998, of course, certificates didn't matter and whomsoever we worked with was based on mutual understanding. We were never asked for the same by anyone nor do we even know the educational background of all the people we work with. We meet and interact with many new friends in the course of our work. Through these interactions our work and association evolves. Throughout this process, there has never been a question of qualifications, certificates, degrees or diplomas.

Today, we can say with pride that we know more about the family backgrounds, native place, native culture and interests of the individuals with whom we are associated than about which college they went to or what degree they possess. At times knowing about these degrees provide for good laugh. Among the people with whom we work in the social sector too, I find that certificates of degrees and diplomas hardly matter as most people realise that these cannot ensure a person's work capability. When we organise programmes too, we prefer giving participants gifts of books or saplings rather than useless certificates.

The only certificates that I possess are from the Boy Scout days that certify me to be good in book binding, carpentry,cooking, gardening and first-aid.

Extracts from the response from Munir Fasheh, Arab Education Forum, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine

How can we justify not allowing storytellers to work with children just because they don't have certificates? How can we justify not allowing artists (or persons who embody cultural expressions/skills in their daily living or wise old people) just because they don't have degrees? (The only time I see sense and need to have some kind of certificate is in some very specific technical matters.)

The most dehumanising act that I realised in my 20 years of 'studying' in educational institutions and 40 years of work with education, communities, and young people, is evaluation/measuring people: comparing people along measures that claim to be objective, neutral and universal. Reducing the worth of a person to a number, letter, adjective, certificate or degree, embodies several simultaneous destructive things: (1) it kills the richness in dealing with life, by seeing the world through narrow one-dimensional perspective, (2) it kills diversity in people and living, (3) it blinds us to the relationship between the person and her/his surroundings, (4) it robs people and communities of a fundamental responsibility, valuing relationships and how people treat one another, (5) it shatters the inner world of the person by making one's reference outside rather than inside the person (one's conscience), (6) it tears the social spiritual fabric in communities.

I am talking about a basic conviction, namely that people cannot be compared along a measure that claims to be neutral, objective and universal. The 'sin' is in the act of measurement itself, regardless of whether we are measuring the value of a person or of knowledge, intelligence, diversity, commitment or passion. An old Palestinian peasant once said, 'Anything you can buy is cheap'! How perceptive and insightful! Similarly, anything you can measure is insignificant. For example, we can measure a person's ability in solving problems in math but not his/her ability to see patterns, relationships, order, and logic in life.

The British conquered the Palestinians (as well as others) from within, by shifting the locus of the worth of a person from the person and the community to abstract symbols such as grades, degrees, and prizes that claim to be objective and universal, and that came from outside the person and the community, and by putting it in the hands of licensed professionals supported by licensed institutions. London matriculation became the main measure of the worth of a Palestinian child. Youth and parents fell for that and today the virus has gone very deep.

What is needed is shifting the locus of the worth of a person from institutions and symbols back to the person and the community.

Extracts from the response from Ocean Robbins, YES!, California, USA

Already settled in our new community, but not caring for the other school options, my parents proposed the radical option of learning without formal education, or 'home-schooling', as it was called in the U.S. They would support me, and I would be the driving force behind my learning journey. I would be free of the rules and confines of a school system – free to live my life and supported to follow my passions. I loved the idea, and was soon frequently quoting Mark Twain, 'You can't let school interfere with your education.'

Self-directed learning enabled me to start a natural foods bakery called 'Ocean's Bakery.' With door-to-door delivery throughout our neighbourhood, at age 11 my entrepreneurial efforts landed my picture on the front page of the Santa Cruz Sentinel under the headline: 'Boy Isn't Very Rich, But He's Got Dough.' Free from school, I was also able to perform in numerous musical and theatrical productions, to become deeply involved in the citizen diplomacy movement as a children's peace ambassador to Russia, and to begin to find my calling as a social change leader.

In 1989, when I was 15, I joined with a friend to start a national speaking tour, traveling the United States inspiring high school students to make a difference with their lives. That led to our 1990 founding of YES!, a non-profit organisation I have directed ever since.

YES! has hired more than 100 staff over the last 16 years, and when we've hired people, we've always looked at someone's character, passion, and commitment to the cause our organisation stands for. As time has gone on, we've also learned to look at their skills, wisdom, functionality, references, ability to add to organisational diversity, and relevant life experience. Degrees don't really enter into the picture as far as I'm concerned – except insofar as some folks have onerous students loans to pay off and need more money than we might be offering.

Coming back to my story, I never went to college. I never got a law degree, or a medical degree, an MA or even a BA. I technically dropped out of 5th grade. But I direct an organisation with a half-million dollar budget, and we have spoken in person to more than 625,000 high school students, organised 90+ week-long gatherings for young leaders from more than 60 countries, and made a difference in some people's lives.

I still feel like I'm on my learning journey. It's a journey that's taken me all over the world, and taught me about the pain of racism, classism and war, about the deep illness that is gripping our world, and about love, courage, and the beauty of the human spirit. It's taught me about fundraising, organisational management, non-profit law, social change movement building, cross-cultural alliance-building, and the art and science of facilitation and leadership. In short, it's taught me about what matters to me.

Of course, now at age 31, I could have just finished with a prodigious education. Armed with a bunch of degrees, maybe I'd do something radical and entrepreneurial, like starting a bakery. If I was lucky, maybe it would land me on the front page of the local newspaper.

An extract from the response from Sharon Caldwell, Montessori Society, Johannesburg, South Africa

There is no logic in the assumption that a university degree will make someone a better teacher than someone who does not have such a degree.All the degree tells us is that someone is able to obtain a degree. You don't need to love working with children to get a degree in teaching. You don't need empathy for those who are battling to learn a skill to become certified in that skill. You don't need faith in human nature to get a teaching diploma. And yet love, empathy and faith are three things which are vital if someone is going to support another person's learning endeavors.

Response from Naseem A. Panezai, Institute for Development Studies and Practices, Quetta, Pakistan

I remember once in a local community where we were discussing 'Cultural and Traditional Values VS. Modern Values.' During the discussion, one old man took his Identity Card from his pocket and said with anger and complaint, 'The modern life has reduced me into this small tiny piece of hard paper. This small piece of paper is considered more valuable than me. If I do not have this ID card, Government and other institutions are not ready to acknowledge me as a resident of this land in which my forefathers are living from centuries. I may face a lot of financial problems and they may put me in jail.'

In the same way, people are weighted against their degrees while hiring them for some jobs, disregarding of their experiences, past contributions and commitment for bringing a change. The irony is that the degrees have left no room for most of the skilful people. But IDSP seriously considers those individuals who are really interested in contributing in development. There are more than 700 people whom we have successfully engaged, without considering their degrees or any kind of qualification, but instead looking at their interests, skills, strengths and commitment for a better change.

IDSP knows and believes the logic that a person's experiences are more valuable than degrees. We think that a piece of paper is not enough to tell us about a person and declare his/her identity. And one who does not have a degree, is not necessarily blank or knowledge-less. We have experienced this first-hand.

Since its inception, IDSP has intimately worked with more than 500 learners in the country. In one course, there was a diversity of backgrounds of learners. One had completed and qualified his M. Phil and master from a renowned university of Pakistan, while the other learner was unschooled. The one who was unschooled came up with such innovative ideas that the panel had to qualify his ideas for the research. But the learner who had done his M. Phil could not qualify, for his ideas were basically not grounded and did not have logical basis for practical realities. More than that he was trying to work on ideas only to help him to add to his M. Phil. Interestingly, the panel who was listening were all professors and teachers in institutions in Pakistan. But they could not ignore the fact that the ideas of the unschooled learner were very innovative, inspiring and dynamic.

This experience, as well as many others, have given us an opportunity to rethink our own beliefs about existing institutional control and sustaining control through degrees and diplomas, on the one side, and marginalising locally wise people with real strength, on the other side. That is why IDSP believes that a person cannot be weighed against his/her degree.

Extracts from the response from Zaid Hassan, Pioneers of Change, London, UK

Personally speaking, I went to university and learnt a lot. I should point out that not much of what I learnt was in the lecture halls. Instead, I spent most of my time in the computer lab learning about the then embryonic internet and in the library reading about the history and philosophy of science.

One of the years I was at university I saw an advert on the internet for someone with simple web programming skills to do freelance work. I emailed the company and they asked me to come down to their offices. A few days later I took the train down and walked into the plush offices of an advertising firm. We met in the boardroom. They showed me some printouts of what looked like a website and asked me if I could build it. I looked at them, somewhat puzzled, and said yes. They asked me how long it would take. I said a couple of days. They looked at each other and were silent. I was really puzzled. I asked them why they needed me since it looked like they had already built the site. They explained to me that they didn't know how to build it and the print-outs were just mock-ups done by a designer. They told me they'd pay me a few hundred pounds a day to build the site. I accepted, mostly amazed that someone would pay me to do this work. Of course they didn't ask for my qualifications, they simply wanted me to do the work, which I did. A year or so later I dropped out of university, with plenty of work to do.

Over the years I made a radical shift of focus, moving from the technology sector to doing more direct social work. I gained the skills to do this through working for a non-profit, community-based organisation called Pioneers of Change ( Pioneers of Change is a global learning network supporting practitioners in their mid-20s to mid-30s. Pioneers are people who question underlying assumptions and move into new territory in order to create the changes we want to see in the world. Pioneers include social entrepreneurs, members of the business, government and non-profit communities, as well as artists, teachers, and free agents from a variety of cultural and social backgrounds. Joining Pioneers of Change means that you explicitly commit to yourself to embodying the following principles: Be yourself, Do what Matters, Start now, Engage with others, Never stop asking questions. This commitment, to oneself (and not to the organisation) is the essence of being a Pioneer; it is what binds us as a community. Pioneers of Change operates on the principles of self-organisation and self-selection – principles that are quite contrary to those that drive the degree system and the dominant educational paradigm.

The advantages of working with Pioneers of Change were that we worked for ourselves, made our own mistakes and had to take responsibility to learn from them. Making our own mistakes meant that my time at Pioneers was complex and difficult and fun. I look back at those two intense years and I can clearly see that I learnt a staggering amount. I learnt things that I could not have possibly learnt at any school or in any university. This is partly because when you make your own mistakes you really learn. I also learnt so much because the things we did were, in their own right, ground-breaking. We were trying to do things that were not taught in the universities.

Somehow, I have discovered the fierce joy and satisfaction of being able to draw my own paths of learning. Last year, while working with Generon Consulting (, I learnt a tremendous amount about the global food system and issues of malnutrition. This year I am continuing to learn about public healthcare, as well as learning about the challenges facing aboriginal communities. I'm also on a constant learning curve around systemic change and how best to build group capacities for creating change. I honestly believe that the work around systemic change that my peers and I are involved in unfolding leaves much university learning (and research) spluttering in the dirt when it comes to practical applications in the world. I am having so much fun learning and practising outside of the constraints of formal learning that I cannot ever imagine going back to it ... unless, that is, it were to slow down my current pace of learning.

Extracts from the response from Margaret Wheatley, Berkana Institute, Utah, USA

Let me begin by saying that I do have an advanced degree, a doctorate in education. There is no doubt in my mind that having this degree has helped me gain access to places and people that I wanted to have access to – corporations, organisations, powerful people. And because I have been in so many of the halls of power over the years, I have seen clearly, I hope, how inhibiting and destructive is the pursuit of credentials.

Starting in 1975, I worked for years with many activists trying to pierce the glass ceiling for women in American workplaces. One of the familiar refrains was: 'We'll hire women as soon as they have their MBAs. They just need the right degrees.' Thirty years later, women are more than half the students in MBA programs, they have flooded the corporate job market, and still they have not achieved positions of power and influence in proportion to their numbers or to their male counterparts.

I think these thirty years of minimal progress for women clearly indicate that degrees are often used as a ruse or decoy to take attention away from the real problems of inclusion and difference. If we don't want to open the doors of privilege and access, we keep them shut by just putting up the sign 'Qualified applicants welcome.' People see the sign, think that everything is fine (it appears to be a meritocracy after all!) and never peer behind the door to notice that nothing has changed, that no new people are being admitted to the old boy's club. This illusion of meritocracy and fairness is easily discerned in most hiring practices in large organisations. They may 'post' the job announcement and solicit all applicants, but most times the boss already has someone in mind and hires that person. These practices are well-known to workers. Few people expect to enter a level playing field, even when a job is posted. Similarly, some of the students who get into elite universities are there because of who they know – either their parents or influential friends went to that school, or have donated considerable money to the institution.

At the deepest level, we need to ask ourselves is this current system working? Does it work to elicit our creativity? Do we feel inspired in our studies and our work? Do we feel curious and engaged? For me, these are the key questions to ask ourselves, the factors that keep us growing and learning as we mature. The current system of specialties and degrees does not result in people feeling curious, vital or creative. It deadens us and therefore works well in only one regard – it makes it easier to control us. Those in power are well-served by this current system of degrees, but people are not. We forfeit our lifelong ability to grow and create in exchange for some letters at the end of our name.

The full versions of all these comments, and many others, can be found at

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