The Future of the Professoriate: Personal Reflections
In the fall of 2015, I launched this blog, The Professional Ethicist. There were two impetuses:
1. The “distal” impetus was the fact that, as part of the GoodWork Project, my colleagues and I had been studying the professions for many years. I have a particular interest in ethical quandaries that professionals regularly confront and address, with more or less success.
2. The “proximal” impetus was the publication, in 2016, of The Future of the Professions by Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind—a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of the likely disruption of major professions in the period ahead. Having developed my own views of the role of the professions, particularly in their handling of ethical issues, I decided to write a major essay… and then to contribute shorter blogs at approximately two week intervals.
In the course of this maiden exercise in blogging, I have had occasion to write about many professions—ranging from prototypical professions, like medicine and law, to aspiring professions, like philanthropy and journalism. And yet, perhaps surprisingly, I have not written much about my own professional expertise—as a scholar and as a professor. I intend to correct that record in the period ahead.
Suspending The Professional Ethicist, at least for a while, I am launching a blog on education on my website HowardGardner.com. This new blog is titled “Life-Long Learning: A Blog in Education.” Initially, the blog will be far-ranging and its contents (at least to me) unpredictable. Over time, the blog will focus increasingly on higher education—the sector of education that I know best and the one that my colleagues and I have been studying intensively since 2013. You can follow me on Twitter @DrHowardGardner for all of the latest announcements.
Context for This Entry: A Scholarly Meeting
When I first read The Future of the Professions, and, indeed, when I first wrote about it, I did not know the Susskinds personally. But as sometimes happens, my writing came to their attention, and we arranged to meet—over brunch in our home. My wife Ellen and I enjoyed the encounter very much and invited Richard and Daniel (father and son) to speak to the American Philosophical Society, a membership organization in which speakers deliver papers on a wide range of topics.
From their home base in England, the Susskinds traveled to Philadelphia at the end of April 2017 and introduced their innovative ideas to the gathered scholars. As is typical of meetings of the Society, the program included a wide range of topics—from climate change to the 2016 election to the evolution of Indo-European languages. Indeed, on the afternoon when the Susskinds spoke, the first paper was by Naomi Zemon Davis, a humanist; the second paper was by David Spergel, an astrophysicist; and the joint paper by Richard and Daniel can be described as a contribution from the social sciences (law and economics, respectively).
In their presentation, the Susskinds talked about the emergence, over the last few decades, of extremely powerful computational approaches (hereafter, CA). In many cases, these CA accomplish the tasks that in earlier times would have been carried out by trained professionals—and these new approaches typically execute the procedures more quickly, more accurately, and at a fraction of the cost. As examples, sixty million disputes arise each year among users of eBay, and most of them are settled quickly and amicably. At the University of California at San Francisco, a single robot completes over two million prescriptions each year; and half the doctors in the United States use Epocrates, a resource that indicates how different drugs interact. In 2014, in the United States, almost 48 million taxpayers filed their returns without an accountant, using online systems provided by TurboTax and H&RBlock at home.
The availability of these and many other CA permit far more individuals-in-need to obtain high quality services—as opposed to the current situation where most of the population cannot afford the extremely high fees charged by professionals. And the success of these CA raises questions about whether there remain important tasks and challenges that only human beings can carry out—hence preserving the professions in recognizable form—or whether the professions will be decisively disrupted and, if so, which groups and institutions, if any, might emerge in their stead.
The Susskinds recognize that computational delivery of hitherto professional services raises significant questions—for example, who is responsible if an application causes unanticipated destruction; what happens when complex moral or ethical issues arise; what kind of training is appropriate for para-professionals and professionals in a computational society; who designs the applications and how one decides among those that are available. The Susskinds rightly point out that at present the professions are themselves struggling with these issues—and, indeed, once-hallowed professions have become more like businesses and less like undertakings that are deliberately carried out at some remove from the marketplace. As the Susskinds might put it, once we define what problem(s) the professional is trying to solve, we can then determine to what extent, and in what way, that problem can be solved satisfactorily in the absence of, or with minimal involvement of, the trained professional.
A Continuing Place for Scholarly Work?
In the question-and-answer session directly following the presentation by the Susskinds, and in the considerable discussion among attendees in the aftermath of the meeting, one issue kept emerging. And given that the American Philosophical Society is composed primarily of academic scholars, that question is not surprising. To put it succinctly: in the world that has been described, is there a place for scholarly work, and, if so, what is that place and how does that work get carried out?
It is appropriate that this question arose at APS. The society was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743, while America was still very much a British colony. APS followed the example of the Royal Society of London (the Society that many of us associate with Sir Isaac Newton), founded in 1660. At these organizations, scholars presented ideas—typically in the form of brief papers or reports—and then other scholars, some from the same field, many from other fields of scholarship, made comments and criticisms, raised questions, and sometimes suggested new lines of work. In the intervening centuries, many other scholarly organizations have of course arisen, but the general approach of paper delivery and commentary has proved remarkably robust.
What conditions prompt the creation of such learned societies, with their scheduled meetings and predictable program of papers and discussion? One needs individuals (or groups) who work in one or another scholarly tradition—perhaps as broad as history or physics, or much narrower, such as early medieval history or string theory. These individuals probe an issue or problem or paradox that has intrigued them; they have mastered the relevant research; they have thought long and hard about the puzzle and if possible collected relevant data; they probably have drafted some notes and run them by informed colleagues; and then they have submitted the paper to a committee which decides whether they should be invited to make a formal presentation at a scholarly meeting.
Enter the Professoriate, with its Two Branches
The practice I’ve described is presumably carried out nowadays in most developed countries, particularly ones with universities, research centers, or laboratories. I see the practice as relatively new (centuries old, not millennia) and one closely tied with the emergence and growth of a profession that can loosely be described as the professoriate.
Originally, the professoriate focused on the sharing of knowledge and writings that had been deemed worthy by appropriate authorities (Aristotle being the prototypical authority). The European universities of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance were primary entities that transmitted knowledge. Even today, a large part of the profession of the professoriate is devoted to the dissemination of knowledge, especially that knowledge which is considered to be consensual within the disciplines.
Only on the eve of the Enlightenment, about the time that the Royal Society was founded, did the professoriate broaden its portfolio to include the creation and dissemination of new knowledge, from various disciplinary perspectives. And only at this time did the role of teacher/disseminator gradually enlarge, so that its practitioners saw themselves as contributing new knowledge—whether it is adding a single brick to an already existing edifice (what Thomas Kuhn calls “paradigmatic” scholarship) or, less often, opening up a new branch of knowledge (launching a new paradigm).
Rightly or hyperbolically, those who attend such scholarly meetings think of themselves as individuals who are creating new knowledge and sharing it with informed and interested peers. In effect, here is the question that attendees at the APS were posing to the Susskinds: Computational approaches can carry out many, if not most or all of the work of a professional practitioner, but are such approaches capable as well of creating new questions, coming up with new ways of approaching them, and adding significantly to human knowledge? Indeed, in the future, will there be the need for scholarly societies, and, if so, will they be attended by human beings, by robots, or some amalgam thereof?
I don’t know how the Susskinds would respond to this question. When asked a similar question with respect to the arts, Richard Susskind replied that even if computational approaches can produce works of art that are powerful, we will still admire those works of art produced by a human being—just as we appreciate a great chess player, even if she loses a match to IBM’s Watson, or a great runner, even if the average gazelle can run more rapidly. And, with respect to societies like the APS, the Susskinds added that individuals will similar interests will continue to congregate and converse, as the group gathered in Philadelphia has done for centuries.
Returning to the Professoriate
I can readily see a time when much of teaching, particularly of certain subjects to individuals who are no longer young, can be handled more proficiently and at much less cost by star teachers whom students encounter online or by well-designed programs which do not feature human teachers at all. In that case, there will be little reason for each institution of higher learning to have its own faculty. (I am less confident that young persons can or should be taught by individuals or programs with whom the youth have no personal ties.)
But if the time comes when computational devices can both come up with the kinds of questions that trained art historians or microbiologists are able to formulate, and then provide answers that are judged adequate (by humans or robots), then the need for and the place of the professoriate will surely be challenged. And even if human beings still gather at scholarly meetings, the robots that now control the scholarly agenda will smile benignly at the human beings… and then plan the agenda for the gathering of their own far more innovative Robotic Philosophical Society.