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Thinking Out Loud

The Rise and Fall of Professions

by Michael Jinkins | Apr 12, 2016

ProfessionsWhen I was a kid, we didn't really have a lot of conversations about what "I would be when I grew up." It just wasn't necessary. The members of our family whom I most admired were all attorneys. Uncle Curtis (actually my grandfather's elder brother) founded a law office on the courthouse square and served as the youngest-ever county attorney. His son, Bill, and his grandson, Kurt, followed him into the same practice. Kurt is my parent's attorney these days. Uncle Curtis' siblings were all professionals. My grandfather was a teacher and his other brothers were a doctor and a chemist. It was long assumed that I would follow my mother's brother, Uncle B.C., into the law too, perhaps in his practice in Houston. In the end, however, I was called to be a minister and a teacher. I grew up in what many consider the golden age of professions, that period from just after the end of World War II (I was born in 1953) till the late 1980s.

Professions have a storied history, even a legendary prehistory. Medicine's lineage includes Galen and Hippocrates ("do no harm"). Lawyers originated largely among the scribes and clerks necessary for institutional religion. Teachers and religious leaders can trace their origins back even further. And, while the professions we recognize today are largely a product of post-Enlightenment Western Europe, you can see the rise of a professional class in the medieval period.*

A generation ago, professions, especially in the United States, were universally respected, highly valued and, according to the journal of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, Dædalus, they were "triumphant." So writes Howard Gardner, the dean of educational psychology and Harvard professor, in his fascinating article, "Is There a Future for the Professions? An Interim Verdict."**

As the president of a professional school, I have more than a passing interest in Dr. Gardner's question. And as a member of two professions, a personal stake, too.

The ancient universities of Europe, like those at Paris and Oxford, were established essentially to educate persons for professions, particularly in the church. The professions inherited certain values that were transmitted in these schools and, over the centuries, became more or less codified. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, occupations that were accorded the status of a profession could be described, as Gardner writes: As consisting "of individuals who have undergone a standard form of training, culminating in some kind of recognized title and degree. In return for the status accorded the professional, the individual is expected to provide services to individuals and institutions in need, to draw on his or her technical knowledge, and to perform this task in a respectful, disinterested, and professional manner." (Gardner, p. 78)

Gardner goes on to observe that among the other attributes traditionally applied to professionals are "the abilities to make complex technical and ethical decisions under conditions of uncertainty, to cherish and protect the key institutions and values of the profession, and to nurture, train and certify younger aspirants while always keeping the public interest in mind." To these attributes, Gardner adds that a professional is also conscious of an obligation to enact a particular "role" needed by society. (Gardner, p. 78)

These are lofty standards, even ideals, but society came to believe that it is absolutely essential for the common good that these ideals should be embodied by those who would lead religious communities, provide medical care, and carry out the obligations of legal interpretation and representation, and other core social functions. And, according to Gardner, the lofty expectations of these traditional professions became contagious. In the twentieth century, an ever-widening variety of occupations aspired to professionalization, seeking not only to develop high standards of vocational excellence but also to enrich their occupational standards with a larger vision of public service. And this trend might well have continued for years and years to come, writes Gardner, but for "two large events - one economic, the other technological -" that together have shaken "the professions to their foundations" and have led many to wonder if the professions have a future at all. (Gardner, p. 79)

Gardner observes first the economic features of a shift in social valuing that has led to the erosion of professionalism. To put his argument in a nutshell, in recent years, a person's success and credibility have become tied inexorably to income.

Gardner writes: "In earlier times, professionals had hardly been self-sacrificing; but they had generally been content to have a reasonable middle-class lifestyle. ... But in a society moving toward a 'winner take all' mentality, many professionals ... came to value their total salary more than other indices of accomplishment." (Gardner, p. 80) Thus, as Gardner noticed at a recent Harvard College reunion, while ten of his twelve closest college friends (all graduates from fifty years ago) had entered a profession such as law, medicine or higher education, virtually none of their grandchildren had done so. Instead, the grandkids were more likely to have gone to work in some aspect of the entertainment industry, technology or finance. Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Wall Street became the favored occupational destinations, said Gardner. That's where the social status is because that's where the money is.

The second shift in social valuation was more subtle, and on the face of it, even apparently benign: the rise of the digital age.

In principle, the vast technological advances of recent years could be seen as supportive to the sources of knowledge on which professionals depend. In practice, however, "the digital technologies have been at least as disruptive as the market mentality." (Gardner, p. 82) To cite just one example, Gardner writes: "Instead of having a trained lawyer draw up a trust that is appropriate for a client, an online system can pose a set of questions to a client and then produce a finished document," and at a fraction of the cost of using an attorney. (Gardner, p. 82) Whether that app is much help in a variety of other legal situations, when the terms of the computer-generated trust or will are later challenged in court, for example, is another matter, of course.

I have half-joked that it takes no formal theological education at all (ethics aside) for someone to download a sermon someone else has written and to preach it as his or her own. But it does require a good theological education to know which sermon is worth stealing. And I take seriously the advice of my physician not to rely on my iPhone to diagnose an illness. This point was recently made convincingly (for me at least) by an emergency room physician who corrected my self-diagnoses of bronchitis with the correct one of pneumonia. These arguments I've just made, however, are themselves simply knowledge-based or technique-based, too. They fail to get at the real issue, the issue of the values for which we live and which enrich our society. In the final analysis, the ultimate argument in favor of the professions goes back to their purpose as advocates for and guarantors of the public good. And this is where the current challenge to professionalism becomes most critical.

It has been observed that many of our public institutions have lost a good deal of the confidence people once placed in them, and oftentimes those institutions have earned this loss of confidence. Similarly, there is no doubt that selfish and dishonest actions, greed and incompetence on the part of some professionals have undermined public trust in the professions. The view that professionals are just another group "out for themselves" is not uncommon. And, so, why should I trust them to look out for my interests, especially when they can be replaced by an algorithm? But there is something even larger at stake than our convenience, and something far more important than anyone's professional prestige and position that we all have a stake in preserving and reinvigorating the professions.

A society without meaningful institutions will inevitably reduce itself to chaos, anarchy and injustices beyond measure. And a society that no longer embodies and safeguards the values that have been represented historically in the professions is well on its way to social disintegration.

It may be that the endangerment of professions is only a symptom of a much graver danger. If so, it is up to us all, and not just to professionals, to reevaluate what we care about and reinvest in the common good.


*Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England, (London: Folio, 2013), 44-45.
**This personal and passionate essay by Howard Gardner appears in the most recent issue (Spring 2016, Vol. 18; No. 1) of what I think is consistently the most stimulating journal focused on contemporary culture, The Hedgehog Review, published by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture of the University of Virginia.

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