Keeping the Professions Alive and True to their Mission: Lessons from the Netherlands

by Howard Gardner and Danny Mucinskas

For those of us who believe that the professions are a remarkable human creation, worth maintaining and even enhancing, these are depressing times.

On the one hand, so-called professionals, equipped with titles, prestige, and generous income, all too often behave in ways that are embarrassing, if not patently illegal. To mention just a few examples, we have recently seen medical researchers who hide support from drug companies from the public and then provide the results that the companies seek, and educators who falsify test scores in order to receive higher salaries.

On the other hand, powerful and “intelligent” digital applications perform many of the major tasks once handled by trained professionals, in ways that are quicker, more accurate, and far less expensive—and these trends are guaranteed to continue and intensify in the years ahead. “Intelligent” programs can now diagnose melanomas more accurately than physicians, and at least half of the routine work done by lawyers can now be done more efficiently and less costly by digital applications.

When Howard and his colleagues began a study of “good work” a quarter of a century ago, involving both traditional professions like law and medicine, semi-professions like journalism and education, and non-professions like theatre and philanthropy, we had already begun to sense these trends. In studying journalism, we already saw disruptive forces at work—and fully one third of the one hundred journalists whom we interviewed were ready, even eager, to leave the profession altogether. (We interviewed an equal number of researchers in genetics, and none of them even considered leaving their jobs). We also interviewed five kinds of lawyers and found that those in the developing arena of “cyber law” were among the most energized.

The purpose of our project was to understand how people do “good” on the job, what their values, motivations, and responsibilities were, and how they handled vexing situations as they arise. Researchers often heard interviewees talk about the supports or lack thereof within their professional domains and associations that supported or hindered their ability to carry out “good work.”

But members of the Good Work Project (which has now morphed into the more expansive initiative known as The Good Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education) were unprepared for the speed and decisiveness of the decline of the professions over the past two decades—at least in the United States, and, as we have learned from the writings of Richard and Daniel Susskind, in the United Kingdom as well. Since the appearance of the Susskinds’ important book The Future of the Professions in 2015, our team has made diligent efforts to voice our concerns and to seek partners, but on American soil we have had modest success. Still, we persevere and are grateful for our collaborators. For example, legal scholar John Bliss of the University of Denver has used our frameworks and tools with law students to explore their professional identities; and colleagues at several educational institutions over the years, such as tGELF in India, have used our GoodWork Toolkit as a part of professional development activities for teachers.

In one of our most fruitful associations, as early as 2009, we were in initial contact with a group of scholars and practitioners in the Netherlands. Led by Thijs Jansen of Tilburg University, members of this group shared our concerns and hopes for the professions today. They created the Professional Honor Foundation (PHF). This organization is dedicated to the study of the professions and professional identity and, to the extent possible, their revitalization in the current social, economic, political, and technological environment, all of which continue to rapidly change in the 21st century.

Over the years, thanks particularly to the efforts of Wiljan Hendrikx, we at The Good Project in Cambridge have kept in touch with the individuals who are spearheading the many activities of PHF. In addition to exchanging messages, papers, books, and regular updates, we also had a very useful gathering at Harvard in October 2016, bringing the two teams together face-to-face for an exchange of ideas and a reaffirmation of our common enterprise.

Recently, as part of our continuing contacts, Howard travelled to the city of Utrecht and spent several hours with Thijs, Wiljan, and a number of their colleagues, all of whom are studying and attempting to refashion for the better different areas of professional practice.

Howard’s visit came as the Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro had just won the 2018 election in his country, as the U.S. mid-term elections were a mere week away, and as worrying political trends were all too salient across much of the globe, from the Americas to Eastern Europe to East Asia.

Yet, within just a few hours, Howard’s spirits were lifted, and he felt a new surge of hopefulness.

Why this renewed optimism? Because on several fronts, PHF has made genuine inroads. To be specific, here are some of the promising developments:

  • In work in the profession of accounting, their recommendations have been widely discussed and at least partially adopted in the Netherlands on a national level, with promising signs as well in the United Kingdom, customarily a bastion of neo-liberal thinking in the erstwhile professions.
  • In the management of local municipalities, several teams of civil servants have met regularly to discuss the rights and responsibilities of those who need and should merit public trust. These teams have drawn on the Good Work Toolkit, which PHF has used and further developed over the past 7 years.
  • Teams of medical workers—physicians, nurses, aides, and more—have convened to sort out their individual and joint responsibilities and to reconsider healthcare management practices. Some of the results are described in a book on the medical profession.
  • Most dramatically, in education, our own field, a fledgling effort to raise the position and stature of educators around the world has picked up considerable support in several countries as a component of the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM). This movement started with the book Flip the System, published in 2015. As the title signals, this book put forth the radical notion of turning the education system upside down. In lieu of the top-down bureaucratic approach currently dominating the sector, this movement puts individual educators at the heart of good education. The particular foci in this case are decent salaries, respect for professional judgment, and popular support from the public.

Why, in comparison to the United States, have these efforts been crowned with more success? We can suggest a few possibilities.

First of all, while The Good Project is largely the effort of trained social scientists, PHF draws on several disciplines (e.g. philosophy, management) and on expertise in several professions (as noted, medicine, accounting, management, teaching). Rather than focusing on general processes and practices that ostensibly travel across the professions, most of the efforts of PHF have been directed at specific professions, and their work may therefore be more directly applicable.

Second, rather than depending largely on conceptualization, exhortation, and scholarly writing, PHF has devoted efforts to developing hands-on interventions with practitioners, which begin with the practitioners concerns and involve co-development over time of effective sessions, practices, and policies. A PHF-developed version of the Good Work Toolkit has been quite helpful in facilitating these interventions.

Third, the materials developed by PHF have been directed largely at specific professions—for example, attending (and even convening) conferences and authoring short pieces in profession-specific publications.

Our final “takeaway” is the most speculative. When individuals think of the professions, they typically envision law and medicine. That is understandable, because these are the best known and most attention-grabbing professions. But they may also be the most difficult for outsiders to influence; they are large, powerful, well-protected, and equipped with strong justifications and rationalizations for current practices and malpractices (consider the mammoth United States ABA and the AMA, basically lobbying organizations).

A possible lesson for The Good Project and others lies therein. Instead of focusing on trying to impact those more established professions that have been around in essentially their current form for centuries, begin instead with less visible and less powerful (and therefore less defensive) professions like accounting, K-12 teaching, and municipal management, leaving law and medicine for a later day.

Two possible candidates come to mind from the United States. First, the principles of good work are crucial in engineering. Our colleague Richard Miller, President of Olin College of Engineering, has been a champion in this respect, and to our knowledge, no one has had as much success in conveying the central role of ethics in the professions in the U.S. and abroad as Miller and colleagues, and their work has spilled over into higher education more generally.

Second, almost invisible to many of us, information technology professionals, who “serve” our computers, networks, and digital systems, have tremendous power, and we trust them to act in a professional way, even when we find out that this is not the case (as the recent firestorm of allegations against Facebook would indicate). Wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony if those whose work has done so much to disrupt the professions could end up serving as a model for professional behavior in the 21st century?

As The Good Project’s team looks ahead to the future and the opportunities we may have to influence professional practice in the United States, we see there is much inspiration to take from the dedicated work that PHF has done and continues to do in the Netherlands and beyond.

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