What Are Professions, and Where Do They Come From?
Origins: The professions as we know them in the contemporary world have existed for more than a century; in the United States, we might say that “progressivism ushered in professionalism.” But the professions were preceded a millennium ago by guilds—collections of tradesmen. As re-invented guilds, professions exhibit some of the positive characteristics of their predecessors (high quality work, solidarity, and an ethical core of service) as well as some more negative traits (secrecy, exclusivity, tribalism, and aversion to competition). Once training for the professions became the province of institutions of higher learning, credentialing became more public; but until the last half century, access to the professions remained largely restricted to certain demographic groups (chiefly white, male, and of Christian and Anglo-Saxon background).
Defining Characteristics: Professions are generally defined in terms of several characteristics. To begin with, provision of standard training leads to certification of competence and, typically, an accepted title (e.g. Doctor, Professor, Esquire). It is assumed that professionals will embody a core set of ethical values (e.g. the Hippocratic Oath) and will transmit these values to younger aspiring professionals. Professionals are expected to deal with complex technical and ethical issues under conditions of uncertainty and to do so in a disinterested way. Their accredited status provides legal recourse to individuals who have been ill-served by a certified professional; it also allows the launching of procedures against individuals who have claimed credentials which they have not actually earned.
It is useful to distinguish these defining characteristics from features identified with the role of the professional: kind personal relations, a wise person (sometimes called a trustee) to whom one can turn, a good member of the community, one who embraces an ideology of service. In my framing essay, I lamented the apparent waning of these desirable attributes. In the next blog, I critique the professions as they are currently constituted.
Thanks to commentators Pat Barry, Steve Brint, Stephen Gardner, Jason Mitchell, and Dennis Thompson.
This is the first 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!