Show us your papers

By Oli Pritchard April 25, 2019
Do you trust a politician with a PhD more than one without? Photo: Caleb Woods, Unsplash

An obsession over qualifications often misses the point that they’re rarely worth the paper they’re written on.

There are many reasons why people criticise our Mayor, Enrique Peñalosa. There are, for example, accusations of serious offences, such as flogging off tracts of a nature reserve; blunders like getting lost in the hills; and even sartorial crimes, like having the unmitigated gall to go cycling wearing long socks.

But there’s an oft-repeated criticism that I take exception to. His qualifications, specifically the furore around his doctorate or not-orate from France. Now, the point that he’s lied or not told the whole truth about his qualifications, that’s a serious problem in an elected official. Not surprising, really, but worrying all the same.

However, that’s not the focus of many people’s ire. Instead, the issue is over whether he is qualified to hold office as ‘only an ordinary person.’ This smacks of a kind of sneering strictly reserved for privileged Ivory Tower dwellers. It’s similar to the criticism of Maduro for having been a bus driver. Criticise him for repression, for his bizarre bird-dream eulogising of Chavez and for corruption running through the roof, but not for driving a bus.

Generally speaking, I’d rather trust a bus driver to understand what people want in life than some technocrat who’s had their nose in a book their whole life. Moreover, in Bogotá, those people that have dedicated their lives to studying law are generally estratoseis dwellers so completely out of touch with the life of everyday Colombians that they don’t have a clue about the problems that genuinely need fixing.

Related link: Transcending the TransMilenio

Coming from the UK, the whole thing seems rather bizarre. The Mayor of London holds a law degree, but the idea of him having completed further studies is unthinkable. In fact, a PhD would face serious problems with the voting public and be widely seen as a poindexter with negligible real-world experience.

And of course, that’s exactly what people rail against these days. There’s a real feeling that modern-day politicians are divorced from the real world, existing in their own bubble of theoretical success and statistics on paper that bear no likeness to real life.

Politicians, of course, are not the only manifestations of this – their works themselves are just as bad. Colombia, and Bogotá in particular, is the king of on-paper success. Take the TransMilenio – it’s hailed in city-planning conferences as a successful solution to urban transportation problems. The only problem is that it’s as useful as a chocolate teapot.

That doesn’t bother the experts, of course, as they never go near the thing, hanging out instead in their hotels and conference rooms, never interacting with the people that actually use the broken system. Or look at the capital’s miles and miles of bicycle paths, largely unusable because they’ve been planned by a faceless bureaucrat behind a desk, who probably has a stack of diplomas on their CV.

Undergraduate degrees are routinely becoming standard minimum qualifications in fields where they have no right to be, and increasingly Master’s are becoming not signs of pure academia but merely another step on the rung towards a high-paying position. Indeed, it’s more and more common to see 25 year old ‘Master’s’ yet to do an actual job.

This perforates most sections of society. People who study music, for example, end up in orchestras – glorified high-culture cover bands. Diomedes Díaz, meanwhile, didn’t go to music school. He just knew what sounded good – which after all is the key to music. I once pointed out to Claro that my right to stay in Colombia was basically irrelevant to them as I could pay the contract they were offering me upfront in cash. But, without the correct piece of paper, computer said no.

So what can we do in the future? We can think about experience over qualifications, about character over pieces of paper and on ability to think rather than ability to cite other people’s ideas in place of your own. When the time comes to elect our new Mayor of Bogotá, reject the policy wonks in favour of someone who knows how the world works and what matters to regular people.