Why must you go to school to be a barber — or a nurse?

On the insanity of American credentialism

A barber shop.
(Image credit: Library of Congress)

One of my favorite oldster groans is the one directed at college students who have fallen for Hegel or Japanese art history or, heaven help us, philology: Why don't you do something practical instead, like learn to cut hair?

The answer is that, of course, some people do. This doesn't save them from the educational-industrial complex. The New York Times reported recently on the plight of a young woman in Iowa who went $21,000 into debt in order to obtain a "license" for cutting hair and filing and shaping fingernails.

Tracy Lozano is an eminently practical young woman who if interested in Sanskirt verbs or Dogu statues of the late Jomon period has wisely decided to save these things for the weekend and earn a living instead. After investing roughly the price of a down payment on a reasonably nice home in rural Iowa on this piece of paper, she found herself eligible for a position at a Great Clips chain that paid her $9 an hour. Even after supplementing her guild-sponsored employment with another job — at Pizza Hut: apparently dough-folding and cheese-scattering have so far managed to remain outside the purview of Hawkeye state licensing authorities — she was able to earn about $25,000 a year. After 13 years of work she still owes the Iowa School of Beauty by way of her creditors more than $8,000.

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This is insane. I won't go as far as some of the old farmers I know who insist that anybody with two hands and half a brain can drive an 18-wheeler, but I do think it's hard not to argue that American credentialism is out of hand and getting worse. (As recently as 2015, the state of Tennessee decided that barbers had to have high-school diplomas, no doubt because the otherwise lively discussions of To Kill a Mockingbird and quadratic equations that take place in such establishments were being drowned out by the raving of these unlicensed maniacs.)

I for one believe that commercial drivers licenses are a necessary thing. Ditto the restrictions that we rightly impose upon the ability of any lunatic to declare himself a dentist and start drilling away with the Crafstman in his garage. But hair? Come on. This isn't exactly life or death. Besides, expensive credentialing requirements have failed to rid the world of bad haircuts. If the guildmasters at the various state licensing boards really believed their own drivel, they would take one look at what happened to Shia LeBeouf here and start demanding that cosmetologists devote six or more years to writing dissertations on "The history of bangs in France: 1960-1963" before they so much as touch a pair of clippers.

When I was a writing tutor at one of our directional state universities years ago, I often assisted nursing students. These were invariably among the cleverest and most conscientious undergraduates I ever worked with. They were also the nicest. Most of them were if not happy at least willing to spend four years of their lives memorizing the types of plankton in biology courses. They were less enthusiastic about the cost. But they put up with it for the very simple reason that they all wanted one thing: to help people.

We should not put a financial barrier between would-be nurses and their worthy ambition. This is true, among other reasons, because it is not at all clear that the ability to earn high grades in what is essentially a pre-medical school curriculum is the most important quality in a prospective nurse. But the answer to the student debt crisis here is not to throw trillions of dollars of free tuition money at the pizza dispensers and bureaucrats and dorm-upgrading contractors in the universities but to make it possible for people to work as nurses without earning four-year degrees. In the 1940s the United States and Britain managed to train hundreds of thousands of nurses virtually overnight with nothing but practical, on-the-job training. Already there is a widespread consensus among practicing nurses in the United Kingdom that degree programs are unnecessary. We should follow their lead. A two-year training course at a community college, combined with practical experience in hospitals, should be enough.

The same is true of my own profession. In happier times, journalism was a blue-collar job for drunks in hats who banged out nonsense with typewriters they positioned in corners of their favorite saloons. Nowadays we have undergraduate and graduate degrees in writing the news. A lot of good it's done the industry. You could draw an amusing graph plotting the decline of newspapers across the country against the rise of journalism as a pseudo-academic discipline. The prospect of having to sit through hundreds of hours of yawn-inducing pseudoscience about pedagogy has prevented more than one person — the author of this column included — from becoming a teacher. Anyone with a degree in a relevant area — English, history, foreign languages — should be able to teach it at the secondary level.

Don't get me wrong. As someone with a penchant for guild socialism, I like to dream of a neo-medievalist future where the Barbers Society and the Sovereign Nurses Guild and the Fraternity of Mostly Sober Hacks require their would-be initiates to undergo years of elaborate and highly ritualized training — and even organize singing contests among members. In the real world, though, someone who wants to give me a buzz cut or help me lose weight or advise me on my choice of houseplants needs a special piece of paper about as much he or she does a sentence to involuntary debt servitude.

Too bad those are the same thing.

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