Thursday, July 26, 2007

Licensing Folly

I recently saw an advertisement in my local daily newspaper in which the person providing the service described herself as a ‘licensed aesthetician.’ This is the pinnacle, no, the ultimate sinkhole, of American commercial nonsense. That such a phrase would be used in advertising on purpose suggests several things, all of which are bad. First, the advertiser thinks or pretends that the phrase has meaning. Second, the potential customer may be hornswoggled into thinking that it means something. Finally, the casual reader may believe that the philosophical concept of esthetic judgment is subject not only to objective evaluation, but to control by either a guild or the government.

In this case the term “aesthetician” refers to an exalted subspecies of the beauticians who paint women for a living, but consider even the generic term. What is a “beautician,” anyway? As far as I can tell, it is someone who paints women in order that the women will differ from each other visually within a socially acceptable range of colors and patterns. In our society, women are still differentiated by their appearance, men by their money. Therefore every community has shops where women are painted to differ from each other and men are trimmed to resemble each other, so that we can evaluate each other properly.

One cannot blame the newspaper that carries the ad: the fact that such an ad appeared at all suggests that perhaps the newspaper is in fact attuned to its community, saying more about the nature of the community than of the media. Finally, as a libertarian I must allow fools their choices. I am tempted to run such an ad myself (having first issued myself a license) and see which licensing agency emerges to send me a cease-and-desist letter. My attorney has a feral grin at the prospect, and the entertainment value alone …but I will resist.

What will we see next, licensure for poets (“Mr. Whitman, may we see your license please? We’ve heard some queer things about your work”) or certificates to practice art (“Ms. O’Keeffe, the Committee on Artistic Standards finds your work to be, well, too negative. The beef industry has some concerns about all these skulls….”) ? With luck, the Committee might lumber in its ponderous propriety too close to Justice at the Supreme Court building and be found mysteriously headless on the sidewalk the next morning, but we should not rely on divine intervention when bad ideas seep into public policy and societal norms.

The idea that esthetics can be subject to oversight and professional judgment is a subdisease embedded in our society’s extraordinary overreliance on paper credentials instead of people’s actual skills and abilities. John Keats's 1965 book, The Sheepskin Psychosis, was one of the first to point out the phenomenon. A more recent treatment of the issue, Alison Wolf’s Does Education Matter (2002), makes quite clear that many assumptions about the value of education as such in order to ensure higher earnings are simply false. Ronald Dore’s The Diploma Disease (1976, revised 1997) discusses this issue by comparing the British education and economy to that in several other nations.

The bottom line is that educational credentials, be they silly certificates or non-research doctorates, are largely a proxy for intelligence, upbringing, perseverance and attitudes, not in most cases a skill base, and because of this, employers use education as a legally acceptable screening device. Schools and colleges in many cases simply add a gilt stamp to what amounts to a pre-selected set of people.

As W. H. Auden put it, “A teacher soon discovers that there are only a few pupils whom he can help, many for whom he can do nothing except teach a few examination tricks, and a few to whom he can do nothing but harm.”

Artificial reliance on paper credentials (a license to commit esthetic judgment is simply the most absurd current example) does not serve a public interest, and society should stop supporting it except in rare instances. There is a difference between a degree and a skill set, a diploma and experience, a paper credential and good judgment, a certificate and a knowledge base. A degree can serve as a proxy for some portion of those desirable characteristics, but it remains no more than a proxy. Let our society stop asking for paper credentials and start looking at what people can do. And let us drop down the nearest oubliette the idea that there can be such a thing as a licensed aesthetician.


Anonymous said...

I largely agree, but.... The licensure for "aestheticians" is designed not to say that they posess superior aesthetic judgment, but that they are not charletans in the the technical aspects of their work (Personally, I cannot call it an art). Basically, once an individual has decided to get tricked out in some manner, there is some merit in making sure the person they go to does not, say, decide to remove an unwanted unibrow through the liberal application of strong acid. Given the number of flim flam artists (and here the term "artist" can seem appropriate) more than willing to come up with an angle so as to part unhappy people from their money, it does seem to me to make sense that there be some control. The standards are set so that the customer may lose money, but will not suffer permanent bodily impairment.

Presumably, a poet's license would certify not that the holder can be relied upon to churn out "correct" sonnets, but that deviations from the usual templates are deliberate. No "satisfaction guaranteed" sort of thing- just some assurance that the potential customer a) is not risking life and limb through employing the poet, and b) that whatever the poet produces, there will be a reason behind it.
Having said all that, yes, the licensure and credentialling of things is rapidly becoming insane. I recommend an obscure documentary entitled "Gates of Heaven," in which one man opines on the difficulty of his work while sitting behind a polished desk, with huge maps behind him. Turns out, he drives a van to pick dead dogs up from various animal clinics and delivers them to the family's pet cemetery. Eventually, the camera pulls back, and you see a brass plate on the desk, labeling him as a "transportation engineer." 'Nuff said.

Anonymous said...

While I generally agree with your sentiment, I felt compelled to defend aestheticians. While too many careers do require seemingly meaningless licenses, aesthetician is one career that does not. In Michigan, aestheticians are licensed by the state, and I would never go to an unlicensed "aesthetician." Aestheticians perform chemical peels, laser hair removal, wax hair removal, and laser skin resurfacing, and you had better hope that they went to school to learn the science behind it all. They learn much more than your average makeup artist, with whom I believe you have them confused.

Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt said...

I've been giving this licensure thing lots of thought because in general, it's important to me that any business be licensed. Many aestheticians are paid as contractors, and hence, are self employed. Their private licensure becomes their business license, ensuring clients they provide a quality service, and ensuring the customer consumer rights. Without licensure, a dissatisfied consumer has no recourse if something goes wrong, as I well know. See for more of my complaining in this area.