The Professions: Can They Help Us Invigorate Non-Professional Education?

For many years, within the United States, the phrases “higher education” and “the professions” have evoked different associations. When you go to a four year college to pursue higher education, you are supposed to sample broadly across subject matters and disciplines; hone your speaking and writing abilities; and master critical (and perhaps creative) thinking.

In contrast, when you seek training for a profession or vocation, traditionally after you have graduated from a four year college, you master those skills and make those networking connections that will help you to succeed as a physician, lawyer, professor, social worker, or architect. Of course, in many other countries, you typically choose a profession after completing secondary school; and it is assumed (rightly or wrongly) that you have already accrued those skills and understandings that many Americans pursue in college.

Indeed, this “division of labor” has occurred in my own thinking and my own blogging. Until this past spring, I wrote a bi-weekly blog called “The Professional Ethicist.” In mid-2017, I suspended that blog so as to a launch a new one called “Life-Long Learning.” Ultimately, this new blog, which you are reading, will focus increasingly on higher education, and specifically higher education of the non-vocational variety—think Princeton, think Pomona.

Yet, nowadays, as I have detailed on both blogs, the educational and vocational landscapes are undergoing tremendous changes, at a very rapid pace. In the case of the professions, an ever increasing amount of the routine work is now being executed by smart apps or programs or by trained paraprofessionals; accordingly, the survival of “professions as we have known them” is by no means assured. With respect to higher education, the costs are so great, and the anxieties about finding work post-college are so acute, that the very phrase “liberal arts” is considered toxic. The search for vocational justifications of curricula (and even of extra-curricular activities) is ubiquitous.

Amidst this rapidly shifting domain, an understanding of professions may prove helpful to both sectors. On my definition, professionals are individuals who have acquired expertise in a practice valued by a society; are able to make complex and often vexing judgments in a fair and disinterested way; and, as a consequence of their expertise and their ethical fiber, are offered and merit trust, status, and reasonable compensation.

Though professions were at one time cordoned off from the rest of society, that situation no longer obtains. We can argue about whether that shift constitutes a desirable state of affairs. But I’ve come to realize that ultimately we would like expertise and ethics from every member of society, from every citizen. The phrases, “She is acting like a professional” and “How professionally done!” should be applicable to any worker, whether a plumber or waiter, a minister, musician, or mogul. Indeed, I would not want to live in a society where the notion of “behaving professionally” had lost its meaning.

How does this formulation link to higher education? Under reasonable conditions, any young person who has succeeded in secondary school and is attending college should be on her way to disciplined thinking—that is, being able to analyze issues and think in the way of a scientist (e.g. a biologist, a chemist), a social scientist (e.g. an economist, a psychologist), a thinker in the humanities (e.g. a historian, a literary or artistic connoisseur). Mastering a particular discipline is not nearly as important as apprehending the ways in which various spheres of scholarship make sense of the world. College should be the time at which—and the place in which—students acquire ways of thinking that are elusive for most individuals until later adolescence. As possible candidates for these modes, I would suggest philosophical thinking (what are the enduring conundra that humans have struggled with, how have we done so, and how have we fared), interdisciplinary and synthetic thinking (how do we combine insights from, say, history and physics, in thinking about the concept of time); and an understanding of semiotics (what are the different symbol systems, ranging from written language to computer codes, by which individuals have captured and communicated their knowledge and how do those symbol systems work). In future writings, I’ll flesh out these requirements.

By the completion of such a secondary (high school) and tertiary (college) education, students should know what these forms of expertise are like and also know, if not have mastered, the sector(s) where they would like to be employed, at least for a while. They are on the way to achieving one leg of professionalism—call it relevant knowledge and skills.

Which leaves the second facet: being aware of vexing problems, having the motivation to tackle them, and being committed to doing so in a disinterested and ethical manner. One established way of gaining this expertise is to work as an intern or apprentice in an office or company that exemplifies and transmits an impressive professionalism. (Conversely, an internship or apprenticeship where professionalism is routinely flouted portends future failure in thoughtful tackling of tricky dilemmas.)

My “modest proposal” is that the college itself should serve as a model of professionalism. Teachers, administrators, and other adult members of the institution should hold themselves to high standards, expect those standards to be observed by others, and hold accountable members of the community who disregard or undermine the standards. And going beyond specific individuals, the rules, structures, practices, and—an important word—the norms of the college community should capture and embody the values of a profession. In this case, the profession happens to be education and/or scholarly research. But colleges are inhabited by a range of professionals (from lawyers to engineers to ministers to nurses and physicians); accordingly, the community should model the stances of professions in general, and, equally important, what it means to behave in a professional manner.

This last paragraph may sound idealistic, if not “holier than thou”; but I mean it, seriously and literally. I have observed enough workers in numerous institutions over many years to feel confident in saying that some embody professionalism, while others flout it, knowingly or unknowingly. Moreover, ill-chosen leadership can rapidly undermine the professionalism of an institution (and if you think I have in mind the current executive branch of the federal government, I won’t dissuade you), and it’s much more difficult to resurrect professionalism than to wreck it.

The very fragility of many of our professions and many of our colleges may harbor a rare opportunity. If we were to take (as a primary mission) crafting our institutions of higher education as laboratories for the professions, we might end up strengthening both. And, indeed, if we look at the earliest years of our colleges in the United States, the picture I’ve presented here would be quite familiar. It’s perhaps worth noting that in the 17th century, it was the ministry for which college students in the American colonies were being prepared.

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2 Comments on “The Professions: Can They Help Us Invigorate Non-Professional Education?”

  1. tumaini gadiel November 22, 2017 at 10:35 am #

    so are professional made or born?

  2. Howard Gardner March 13, 2018 at 4:37 pm #

    just saw your comment, a few months late. I think of ‘professions’ as a distinctly human phenomenon, one that began in classical times (the Greeks and Romans, and perhaps other cultures had early forms of professions) but really flowered in the last 100 years or so. Professions are now under attack for many reasons and it is not clear that they will survive, in recognizable form. No one is born a professional– you need to be born in a society which has professions; decide to pursue a professions, like law or nursing or teaching; and then to think and act like senior professionals whom you admire.

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