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Howard Gardner & Lee S.


The professions in America today:

crucial but fragile

W hether one sees the professions as a century. It is dif½cult to envision our era
high point of human achievement, or, in without the physicians, lawyers, and ac-
George Bernard Shaw’s piquant phrase, countants to whom we turn for help at
as a “conspiracy against the laity,” there crucial times; or the architects and engi-
is little question that they have played a neers who shape the environments in
dominant role in industrial and postin- which we live; or the journalists and
dustrial society since the early twentieth educators to whom we look for informa-
tion, knowledge, and, on occasion, wis-
Howard Gardner, John H. and Elisabeth A. dom.
Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Some forty years ago, in a Dædalus is-
the Harvard Graduate School of Education, de- sue devoted entirely to the professions,
vised the theory of multiple intelligences, a cri- guest editor Kenneth Lynn declared,
tique of the notion that there exists but a single “Everywhere in American life, the pro-
human intelligence that can be assessed by stan- fessions are triumphant.” He went on
dard psychometric instruments. His most recent to comment, “Given this dramatic situa-
books are “Changing Minds” (2004), “Making tion, it is truly extraordinary how little
Good” (with Wendy Fischman, Becca Soloman, we know about the professions.”
and Deborah Greenspan, 2004), and “Good We appear to know much more about
Work” (with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Wil- the professions now than we did forty
liam Damon, 2001). Gardner has been a Fellow years ago; certainly there is no paucity
of the American Academy since 1995. of scholarly and popular literature on
speci½c professions, if less on the profes-
Lee S. Shulman, a Fellow of the American Acad- sions in the aggregate. But the profes-
emy since 2002, is president of the Carnegie sions themselves have not remained fro-
Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching zen over that time. Indeed, they have
and Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Educa- recently been subjected to a whole new
tion Emeritus at Stanford University. His latest set of pressures, from the growing reach
books are “Teaching as Community Property: of new technologies to the growing im-
Essays on Higher Education” (2004) and “The portance of making money.
Wisdom of Practice: Essays on Teaching, Learn- In recent years, the professions have
ing, and Learning to Teach” (2004). not always had good press. Worried by
evidence of incompetence and dishon-
© 2005 by the American Academy of Arts esty, the general public seems to have
& Sciences lost its uncritical admiration for the pro-

Dædalus Summer 2005 13

Howard fessional. Some in higher education see Elliot Freidson, Anthony Kronman, and
Gardner creeping professionalism as the enemy Paul Starr–just to name a few who have
& Lee S.
Shulman of liberal learning. Perhaps most dra- approached the professions from a so-
on matically, potent market forces, untem- ciological perspective. These authorities
& profes-
pered by forces of equivalent power, have stressed the role of explicit training
sionals have made it increasingly dif½cult to regimens, formal licensure, and proce-
delineate just how professionals today dures whereby untrained, incompetent,
differ from those nonprofessionals who or unethical individuals can be excluded
also have power and resources in the from practice.
society. In our view, six commonplaces are
Triumphant on the one hand, under characteristic of all professions, properly
critical scrutiny on the other, the profes- construed: a commitment to serve in the
sions stand in need of fresh attention interests of clients in particular and the
today. In the essays that follow, our au- welfare of society in general; a body of
thors review the professions in contem- theory or special knowledge with its
porary America–and the very idea of own principles of growth and reorgani-
having a vocation or calling. We raise zation; a specialized set of profession-
the question of whether the professions al skills, practices, and performances
will survive in their recognizable form, unique to the profession; the developed
evolve into quite different entities, or capacity to render judgments with in-
dissolve entirely; and whether the meth- tegrity under conditions of both techni-
ods that have been developed for educat- cal and ethical uncertainty; an organized
ing professionals are adequate to the approach to learning from experience
current intellectual, practical, and ethi- both individually and collectively and,
cal demands of these roles. thus, of growing new knowledge from
the contexts of practice; and the devel-
G enerically, professions consist of opment of a professional community
responsible for the oversight and moni-
individuals who are given a certain
amount of prestige and autonomy in re- toring of quality in both practice and
turn for performing for society a set of professional education.
services in a disinterested way. At mid- The primary feature of any profession
century, American sociologists like Ber- –the commitment to serve responsibly,
nard Barber, Everett Hughes, Robert selflessly, and wisely–sets the terms of
Merton, and Talcott Parsons limned the compact between the profession and
the de½ning characteristics of the pro- the society. The centrality of this com-
fessions. Barber, for example, identi½ed mitment de½nes the inherently ethical
four attributes: a high degree of gener- relationship between the professional
alized and systematic knowledge; a pri- and the general society. It also sets up the
mary orientation to community interest essential tension between the two poles
rather than personal interest; a high de- of professional responsibility: the duty
gree of self-control of behavior through to serve the interests of one’s immediate
a code of ethics; and a system of mone- client and the obligation one has to the
tary and honorary rewards that symbol- society at large. The lawyer’s dual re-
ize achievements of the work itself. In sponsibilities of serving as both an of½-
more recent times, important studies of cer of the court and as a zealous advo-
speci½c professions have been carried cate for her clients exemplify this ten-
out by Andrew Abbot, Howard Becker, sion. Failure to deal responsibly with

14 Dædalus Summer 2005

this tension frequently creates the condi- tion, is a drama that unfolds regularly in The
tions that we have termed ‘compromised every professional domain. professions
in America
practice.’ Fourth, the hallmark of all professions, today:
Second, every profession lays claim to even beyond the prototypical practices crucial but
a theoretical knowledge base–a body of of each, is the ubiquitous condition of fragile
research, conceptions, and traditions uncertainty, novelty, and unpredictabili-
that is the normative touchstone for its ty that characterizes professional work.
efforts. Whether that knowledge base is While much of professional practice is
a body of biomedical research and theo- routine, the essential challenges of pro-
ry, a collection of sacred texts, or a body fessional work center on the need to
of laws, regulations, and legal decisions, make complex judgments and decisions
professions rest much of their authority leading to skilled actions under condi-
on knowledge that, to some degree, de- tions of uncertainty. This means that
velops both independently of the prac- professional practice is frequently pur-
tice of the profession and in conjunction sued at or beyond the margins of previ-
with it. For this reason, most of the pro- ously learned performances. That cir-
fessions, properly understood, have a cumstance creates two related chal-
place in the academy, the world of high- lenges for professional practice and edu-
er education. Both during professional cation: professionals must be trained to
education and through the course of operate at the uncertain limits of their
one’s career, the practicing professional previous experience, and must also be
is expected to remain current with the prepared to learn from the consequences
growth and changes in that knowledge of their actions to develop new under-
base. standings and better routines. They
Third, the de½ning characteristic of must also develop ways of exchanging
any profession is its mastery of a domain those understandings with other profes-
of practice. Professions are essentially sionals so the entire professional com-
practical performances. It is no accident munity bene½ts from their insight.
that we regularly refer to professional The need for professional judgment
‘practitioners’ and professional ‘prac- and action under conditions of uncer-
tice.’ The technical skills of analysis and tainty gives rise to the ½fth common-
argument, treatment and ritual, deliber- place of professions: the continuing
ation and diagnosis, action and interac- need to learn from one’s experience–
tion, are the hallmarks of any profession. to grow smarter, wiser, and more skilled
We typically identify professions by the through the very experience of engaging
very practices in which their members in professional practice thoughtfully and
engage. These practices have often de- reflectively. But no single practicing pro-
veloped quite independently of the puta- fessional can accomplish that end and
tive knowledge base and ethical norms adequately aggregate and judge the les-
of the profession. There is thus a pre- sons of practice while working in isola-
dictable conflict in practice between the tion. The conditions of professional
norms of the academy and the norms of practice and professional learning de-
the professional practice community. mand the establishment and smooth
How that conflict plays out in de½ning functioning of professional communi-
the standards for competent practice ties.
and malpractice, as well as the condi- The sixth feature is therefore connect-
tions for approved professional educa- ed to learning to practice as a member of

Dædalus Summer 2005 15

Howard a professional community, charged with the preparation of professionals: physi-
& Lee S. responsibility for establishing and re- cians, theologians and clergy, lawyers,
Shulman newing standards for both practice and and teachers of the disciplines. It was
on professional education, for critically re- already clear in the late Middle Ages that
& profes- viewing claims for new ideas and tech- preparing young people (and they were
sionals niques and disseminating the worthy unimaginably young!) to ‘profess’ was a
ones widely within the community of serious challenge, and that a new institu-
practice, and for generally overseeing the tion–the university–needed invention
quality of performances at all stages of to accomplish that end.
the career. Across the centuries, controversies
At the present time, few would dispute have swirled around the ways the profes-
the claim that physicians, lawyers, archi- sions organized themselves for practice.
tects, accountants, engineers, and clergy Varieties of guilds and professional soci-
are professionals. Most would consider eties, as well as diverse educational insti-
nurses, social workers, and teachers as tutions, set standards of quality and li-
members of critically important, albeit censure. Their purpose has been to en-
less prestigious, professions. (The lower sure quality through controlling access,
prestige of the latter group of practition- thus protecting the public from the dan-
ers is generally attributed to the status of gers of incompetent practitioners, and
those whom they serve, and to the fact to safeguard the professions against the
that their ranks have long been populat- slings and arrows of outraged clients,
ed primarily by women–a situation that political leaders, and organized (as well
may be changing.) Other practitioners as disorganized) competitors.
such as politicians, journalists, and At the start of the twentieth century,
foundation program of½cers have some various authorities wrote foundational
claim to professional status. We would works on the professions. From the so-
not consider artists, entertainers, ath- ciological perspective, Max Weber em-
letes, or businesspersons to be profes- phasized a moral, as well as a technical
sionals in the usual sense; but it is worth and pragmatic dimension, across the
noting that any individual or group may learned professions. Surveying the med-
choose to behave as a professional. And ical profession in the United States, edu-
we can suggest as well that some groups cator Abraham Flexner emphasized the
of workers, like engineers, have im- critical connections between the medi-
proved their standings as professionals, cal profession and the recent explosive
while others, such as accountants in re- growth of science; this trend called for
cent years, have undermined the status the embedding of professional education
of their profession. within the universities. In the United
States, the Progressive movement of the
W hatever the ½ne points of de½nition, era both enhanced the prestige of the
professions and conferred upon them an
the professions date from ancient times
–the Hippocratic oath, for instance, has elite status. Professionals were expected
been with us for millennia. Aspects of to put aside personal motivations and to
training, expertise, membership, and ex- behave in a selfless and socially responsi-
clusion were characteristic of the medi- ble way.
eval guilds. When universities were cre- At midcentury, as documented in the
ated centuries ago in Europe, they were earlier Dædalus, the professions had at-
intended primarily as institutions for tained the heights of status, and the best

16 Dædalus Summer 2005

in each profession were admired as role ergistically complementary to one an- The
models. However, admissions policies other. Most of the thematic essays in professions
in America
and licensing predilections largely this issue of Dædalus grow out of these today:
barred the professions to women and two research groups’ decision to collab- crucial but
those who lacked a privileged back- orate on a set of papers that draw lessons fragile
ground. The trends of egalitarianism in from the groups’ joint efforts.
the 1960s opened up the professions to a Led by scholars at the Carnegie Foun-
much wider pool of talent; at the same dation for the Advancement of Teach-
time, however, the ideal of the disinter- ing, the Preparation for the Professions
ested professional became more elusive, Program has sought to understand the
and criticism of the ‘elite’ professions nature of professional training today in
mounted. a variety of ½elds, including medicine,
It is worth noting that now, at the very law, engineering, teaching, nursing, and
time when professions are being chal- the ministry. Scholars at Carnegie are
lenged in America and other Western also studying the Ph.D. as a profession-
societies, attempts are being made to al degree that prepares individuals for
consolidate them in other parts of the careers in the academic professions of
world. In contemporary China, for ex- mathematics, history, neuroscience,
ample, strenuous efforts are underway chemistry, English, and education.
to establish the law as a realm independ- Thinking of the Ph.D. as a program of
ent of the state, and to train lawyers to professional preparation sheds entirely
see themselves as of½cers of an inde- new light on the concept of a ‘doctor of
pendent judiciary. Controversy swirls philosophy.’ The work of the Carnegie
in Hong Kong and on the Chinese main- team looks primarily at the period lead-
land about the degree to which journal- ing up to professional practice, most of
ists should defend the state, engage in which occurs in formal educational set-
self-censorship, report in a neutral man- tings. The commonplaces laid out above
ner, or serve as a counterweight to of½- have emerged during the ½rst phases of
cial propaganda. It would be ironic if the Carnegie study.
professions were to gain credibility in Under the direction of scholars at
East Asia even as they are becoming de- Claremont Graduate University, Har-
legitimized in societies where they once vard University, and Stanford Univer-
thrived. sity, the GoodWork Project examines
more mature practice–the experiences
R oughly a decade ago, reflecting of both new and veteran professionals
as they attempt to cope with changing
trends in psychology and education, two
groups–the Preparation for the Profes- conditions and powerful market forces.
sions Program and the GoodWork Pro- The GoodWork Project has investigat-
ject–embarked on large-scale studies ed journalism, genetics, theater, law,
of professional life in America today. philanthropy, and higher education,
The goals of these empirical investiga- among other ½elds. As currently con-
tions were to survey a number of Amer- ceptualized, good work consists of
ican professions and to draw broader three facets: excellence in practice of
conclusions about the status and pros- the profession; an enduring concern
pects of professional training and life. with the social and ethical implications
Both studies include a comparative di- of one’s work; and a feeling on the part
mension and have turned out to be syn- of the practitioner that he or she is en-

Dædalus Summer 2005 17

Howard gaged in work that matters and that feels
& Lee S. good.
Shulman Much of the impetus of the Good-
on Work Project came from our realization
& profes- that unchecked market forces constitute
sionals a strong challenge to the professions.
When no line remains inviolate save the
bottom line, the distinction between
professionals and ‘mere workers’ disap-
pears. It is our observation that the cur-
rent emphasis on market models and
principles, in the absence of signi½cant
counterforces of a religious, ideological,
or communal sort, constitutes an enor-
mous challenge to all professions. This
observation is con½rmed by our studies
of young workers. While all acknowl-
edge and applaud the features of good
work, a signi½cant number of young
professionals feel unable to pursue good
work at this time. And so they console
themselves with the belief that once they
have attained monetary success they will
be able to pursue it–a prototypical tri-
umph of ends over means.
Taken together, the essays in this col-
lection attest to the continuing impor-
tance of the professions in America and
elsewhere; to their perennial fragility,
particularly in the face of powerful and
relatively uncontested forces; and to the
need both for excellent and ethical train-
ing during formation and for strong
educational and institutional support
throughout one’s professional life. It
took centuries for professions to achieve
their central role in a complex society; it
would take far less time to undermine
their legitimacy. As a society, we need to
decide whether we value our professions
enough to provide suf½cient continuing
popular and institutional support.

18 Dædalus Summer 2005