What’s Good and What’s Bad about the Professions as Currently Constituted?
It is very important to distinguish among the several professions—there’s a risk in painting with too broad a brush across the vast professional landscape. (I’ll deal with some of the pivotal differences in subsequent blogs.) That said, on the whole, contemporary professions still lay claim to mandating high levels of technical training and, in general, to fulfilling the expectations associated with their status and roles. They typically exhibit a high degree of expertise. And through professional organizations (e.g. the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association), they cling assiduously to their special status.
This tenacity may include the adoption of rough tactics designed to prevent any impingement on the power and status of the profession. In this respect, the physician is much better protected than the licensed taxi-driver, who has little recourse against his neighbor who decides to become a driver for Uber. On the other hand, when individuals generally considered to be professionals—like college professors—join a union, they may signal that their professional status does not suffice to secure for them the rights to which they believe they are entitled.
On my initial formulation, an important part of each profession is its claim to provide services in a disinterested way. The question has been raised about how far such disinterestedness does and should extend.
Let me take an example from journalism. Decades ago, Leonard Downie, an editor of The Washington Post, did not exercise his right to vote. He felt that even the appearance of aligning himself with one candidate rather than another undermined the disinterestedness associated with his role. Nowadays, this stance seems quaint to most observers. Yet the question arises whether journalists should feel free to march in favor (or against) particular social or political causes; whether they should be permitted to oscillate between ‘objective’ reporting and personal opinion pieces; and whether they should share their instant views on issues of the day—for example, by tweeting.
I am conservative on this issue. I don’t think one can separate “Jones the reporter” from “Jones the marcher”; and “marcher Jones” dilutes the power and veracity of “reporter Jones.” That said, I don’t mind if my doctor supports a particular political candidate or tweets about a favorite television program, so long as the messages have nothing to do with her medical practice. In other words, the dividing line is the possible overlap between one’s professional role and the particular cause one is espousing.
There will be ambiguous cases: if the doctor’s research is supported by a certain drug company, I need to know this and to be persuaded that her recommendations have nothing to do with that support. And, to return to the journalist, it does not bother me if a political reporter announces that she supports a particular baseball team.
Thanks to commentators Pat Barry, Thomas Ehrlich, Linda Greenhouse (who cites Anthony Lewis), Tom Hoerr, and Jason Kaufman.
This is the second 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!