Disaggregating the Professions: General Comments
Among professionals who commented on my initial essay, lawyers were by far the most numerous; I’ve responded to some of their points in my previous post. Happily, there were also comments on the essay by representatives of different professions, as well as comments with respect to other professions. I am responding to these comments below.
-Though the so-called “minor” professions (such as teaching/social work) were mentioned in passing in the initial essay, I devoted most of my attention to the traditional professions. It’s important to stress that much of the most important and most needed work at the present time is carried out by teachers, nurses, and social workers—professionals who rarely garner the headlines but who are in the trenches every day. (I would include here those who have been trained to be ministers—though, nowadays, that term has been applied promiscuously to anyone behind any pulpit.) With respect to each of these professions, there are different stresses—for example, evaluation of teachers by their student test scores, pressures on nurses to work longer hours, issues of compensation for social workers as insurance policies change unpredictably, and ordained ministers competing with self-proclaimed gurus. These professionals deserve kudos for the remarkable jobs so many of them do, often against considerable odds.
In the short run, it seems unlikely that the status of any of these “minor” professions will be raised to that of the so-called “major” professions. Indeed, there will continue to be tensions with respect to abutting professions: nurses’ relations to physicians and physician assistants; social workers’ relations to psychiatrists and psychologists; teachers’ relations to their supervisors and to the local school boards and municipal officials. The more that the minor professions are given authority and autonomy, the more we can and should expect professionalism at a higher level. Indeed, more so than many in the major professions, members of minor processions are likely to evince a strong sense of calling—recalling the traditional “service strand” of the professions, rather than the more recent “expert strand.” But to the extent that they are treated as second class workers, or worse (for example, the way that public school teachers are villainized in many corners today), members of minor professions will not have the opportunity—and may cease to harbor a desire—to behave as professionals in the most admired sense of that term.
-It is possible that certain occupations may increase in professional status. One such profession is that of librarian. Once roughly equivalent to that of teacher, in a highly digital and connected world, librarians have seen their workload and their expertise valorized—and often they are now called “information specialists.” Like those technicians who handle servers, the role of librarians in the world today is considered far more important than in past years, and these workers have the opportunity—and perhaps also the obligation—to assume the role of major professional.
-Lines may also blur in other ways. An increasing number of professionals—and especially physicians—are gaining formal or informal training in business. These dual-trained professionals may elect to straddle these areas either because multiple expertise are needed or because they seek far greater control of their occupational situation. While this trend is understandable, it also raises what I’ve come to term the “two hats” problem. When the role of physician (focused on healing) collides with the role of corporate executive (balancing the books and growing profit margins), the individual is faced with a decision about which role is predominant.
-On my analysis, journalism has long been a quasi-profession, entailing for journalists the behaviors and ethos of full-blown professionals while neither requiring the training nor having the certifications of doctors, lawyers, or architects. Given powerful and fast- changing digital landscape, the role of journalist is more fragile and more disputed than before. Many observers would say that all of us are now journalists and disdain those who claim a special mantle in view of training or expertise. In my own view, however, journalists on whom one can rely over the long run will become increasingly valuable—though perhaps, alas, rare.
-While some would like to extend the term “professional” to cover the spectrum of occupations, I am conservative on this issue. I essentially did not discuss the military in the essay nor in subsequent posts, even though by most definitions it readily qualifies as a profession. Nor has there been discussion of politics—possibly because whatever professional sheen once characterized American political figures has long since disappeared. (I write during the months leading up to the presidential nominations of 2016.) I am well aware of efforts, over many years, to apply the label of “professional” to individuals in business, particularly managers and corporate leaders. But in my view, the only obligation of individuals in business is to obey the law and make a profit. Like any other individuals, businessmen and women can elect to behave in a highly professional way—but that election remains an option, not an occupational obligation.
Just as I do not consider business to be a profession, I don’t consider individuals engaged in sports or the arts to be professionals. Yet, as was pointed out by Laurie Brown, often artists have a much longer training—whether in art school or in the studio—than other professionals, and they deserve to be valorized for that dedication. The same point is true, of course, with respect to highly skilled athletes. We should note as well the many bona fide professionals who work in the arts or sports. We expect the doctor for the sports team to carry out her medical practice in a professional way; by the same token, we expect the teacher or the professor in an art school to live up to the expectations of the profession of educators.
-I found of special interest the comments about architecture from David Handlin. While artists are not considered professionals, architects lay claim to that descriptor. Reflecting on nearly a half century as an architect, Handlin points out that much of the traditional work of architects is now undertaken by a gaggle of experts, few of whom are themselves professionals. Moreover, the one trait that used to characterize all architecture—the ability (and, presumably, the desire) to draw—is now done by computers. What is left is leadership of the enterprise; much like the conductor coordinates the orchestra players, the architect coordinates the other experts and workers. And so, perhaps not surprisingly, the professional term architect has been ‘hijacked’ to apply to any individual whose job it is to lead or to orchestrate the contributions of a whole team (see also the less lofty term “curator,” also used promiscuously). So while the nature of the architect’s job has changed greatly, the status and importance of the role has been maintained. As Handlin says, in conclusion, “So, indeed, these are tumultuous times in the profession, but there will always be architecture.”
-I leave the final word to a philosopher who sent me a private message. He quipped that as a member of “the second oldest profession,” he felt his practice was unlikely to be disrupted either by monetary seductions or ubiquitous apps.
Thanks to commentators Pat Barry, Steven Brint, Laurie Brown, Thomas Ehrlich, David Handlin, Jason Kaufman, Joan Miller, Rick Miller, Terry Roberts, Peter Sims, and Wendy Woon.
This is the eighth in a ten-part series in which I respond to the comments received regarding my essay “Is There a Future for the Professions? An Interim Verdict.” To follow along, click here for a general outline of the planned responses, and check back often for new posts!