The Lincoln Test for Evaluating Access & Opportunity with Credentials

In honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday today, I’ll share a little test that I use when I am thinking about equity, access and opportunity with regard to credentials. I call it the “Lincoln test” for credentials in society. It is a simple test. Abraham Lincoln had less than two years of formal education and practiced law without earning a degree. He took the road less traveled to becoming both a lawyer and the President of the United States. The Lincoln test can be summarized in a few simple questions.

  1. To what extent can someone have access to this through self-study and alternative pathways?
  2. Does this career, group, ______ leave room for modern learners who are the equivalent of Abraham Lincoln?
  3. Is competence given a higher priority than credentials?

While some might question the answer to number three, I like to think that the American government, for example, passes the Lincoln test. Even to this day it is possible for one to run and be elected or appointed to most posts in the government apart from holding most credentials (with the exception of a US birth certificate or other credentials associated with citizenship). The same is true for starting a business and even practicing law in some parts of the United States.

Still many other parts of modern society quickly fail the Lincoln test. These are the ones that restrict access on the basis of specific credentials that often have prescribed pathways for learning.

The Lincoln test allows us to challenge our assumptions about credentials, to beware of mistaking a symbol (diploma, certification, license) for actual competence to perform a job with quality. Abraham Lincoln certainly provides us with an historical example of one who was indeed competent without holding the standard credentials.