homeblog aboutcontact

A singleton for certificates

Julius Faber

2017-11-24

In Germany, where I live, we just celebrated the 500 years anniversary of the reformation. Back then Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the All-Saints Church in Wittenberg, among other criticizing the church’s practice of selling indulgences that would relief the buyer of their sins so that they can go to heaven. Being the only one able to determine who had sinned while simultaneously being the sole source for relief from sins was too much power in one position.

Since then, humanity has gone a long way: We established democracies who separate power into different organs controlling each other and we invented specialized mechanisms (e.g. cartel-laws) that try to prevent such situations of concentrated power from occurring.

Everywhere? Ivan Illich, a clergyman, points out that for one very important aspect of our society (maybe the most important?) this is not the case:

“We permit the state to ascertain the universal educational deficiencies of its citizens and establish one specialized agency to treat them.”

In this post, I want to explore this point, why it is so difficult to address and how “fathom” could contribute to finding a way out of it.

The Need to De-School

Let me jump ahead: I think it was a mistake to do so. Schools are neither good for establishing deficiencies, nor for treating them. Why?

According to Illich, “education” has become the new world religion, a fact that reflects in the ubiquitous desire of parents to send their children to school, which is the only place (why else would schooling be obligatory?) where one can get an education - and with it a way out of poverty and other miseries of life. Yet, as Illich eloquently puts it, to equate education with obligatory schooling is “to confuse salvation with the church”.

One of Illich’s main criticisms, for which he was once called to Rome to justify himself in front of the Vatican, is that the institutionalization of basic needs, such as in the case of schools (education) or missionaries (faith), is limiting an individual’s freedom to fulfill those needs to the services that those institutions are willing to provide to them - creating new ways of poverty in the process. By increasingly relying on institutions, individuals learn to be helpless. Instead Illich argues to shift the responsibility for learning back to the learner - that we shall take education in our own hands, establishing or own ‘deficiencies’ in that sense and seek out ways to address them.

And ways to address them there are many! Illich lucidly describes a range of alternative teaching and learning methods (read an overview here) and backs them up with inspiring real-world examples, such as how a friend of his recruited a bunch of teenagers, trained them for a week in the use of an instructive manual originally designed for linguist-graduates and had them successfully teach Spanish to some 300+ members of his Archdiocese so that they could deal with a sudden surge of Puerto-Rican immigrants.

Towards a new kind of education

In order for people to become more open to his new educational opportunities and these stories to become the rule rather than the exception, he suggests a very radical measure: Akin to the first amendment which forbade the state to meddle in an individual’s religion, Illich suggests that “the state shall make no law with respect to the establishment of an education”. In a similar vein, he proposed that to inquiries into an individual’s racial background or their bedroom habits, inquiries into a someone’s learning history would be illegal. It would be still okay to do tests to establish whether one has the necessary skills for a position, but illegal to require that he attained it in a certain way.

While this would most certainly make people pursue educational opportunities outside of school, implementing such an idea would be a huge challenge. But putting the general feasibility of such ideas aside for now, there is another problem here: Certificates are really useful for coordination, so people would still want to have them. With no ‘official’ (government-backed) learning paths (and respective certificates) or any laws that assure the quality of educational claims their number would grow and grow into a jungle of different certificates and tests that no individual could make sense of by themselves.

This lack of a single source of truth would create a need for ‘certificate-validating’ institutions - ultimately leading again to a centralization of trust and thus to the same problems that motivated the abolishing of schools in the first place.

Decentralizing certification

Without a decentralized, truly inclusive way of issuing and verifying credentials, Illich’s vision of a deschooled society can not come to fruition. And this is where, we hope, fathom comes into play: Providing certificates generated from a social process implemented on a blockchain, fathom can act as a single point of reference and trust. Fathom is inclusive and scalable because anybody can be assessed and become an assessor. There is no limit to how many people can use a peer-to-peer social protocol to interact with each other!

By specifying how different assessments of the same skill can be related to each other, it leaves it open to anybody’s interpretation how someone’s proficiency at a skill shall be established, allowing for a wide diversity of assessment styles. For example, a fathom certificate backed by 5 assessors is essentially saying that five persons have used the method they think is most appropriate and have come to the same conclusion.

The process is entirely topic-agnostic and therefore we hope that whatever community is in need of a credential, it will be able to use fathom for it. Once enough people are using the system, anybody able to clearly define what a credential entails, should be able to find assessors for it.

Then, hopefully, people will be able to learn however they want, whatever they want.

-julius