Friday, May 06, 2005

Professional Amateurs I

I've been wanting to write about this for some time, but the discussion of work which has arisen in response to my "real world" screed particularly prompts me in these thoughts.

It seems to me that, along with a general devaluing of work and people, the status of "professions" is in doubt, at least here in America. When I talk about a "profession" I don't mean just any position: I once heard someone called -- without evident irony -- a "professional waitress", which just seems a category fallacy to me. Not that it wasn't a worthwhile job, not that she wasn't highly skilled: it just wasn't a profession.

At least when I talk about professions, I mean a cluster of historical occupations: law, medicine, divinity (i.e. ordained ministry), perhaps teaching, government or the military, there may be others. These occupations were more than just jobs, or even careers. In entering these professions, one acquired not just a set of skills (as an apprentice carpenter might) but needed to become a certain sort of person, be formed in a certain sort of wisdom. There was moral formation, or at least accountability, as a part of becoming a professional; today, vestiges of this are found in "morals" attestations for professions such as lawyer, pharmacist, priest and so forth. The Hippocratic Oath is a clear example of this.

At one time, there was also a sense that one never stopped being a doctor, a lawyer, or what have you: at a dinner party, you might corner your physician friend to ask her about some ailment; you wouldn't expect an employee of Streets and Sanitation to take out your garbage. The individuals who were entrusted (I use the verb intentionally) with this profession were also expected to serve others and work for their good. There was also an explicit trust of these people, and an expectation that they would exercise wisdom and discretion as needed.

Of course, I would not argue that that trust, wisdom, status, discretion and so forth were not abused. They have been, and sometimes quite startlingly. Dr. Harold Shipman, the U.K. physician/serial killer is one obvious example, as is the abuse and neglect by clergy which is coming to light. (Nor, I hasten to add, is my posting about professions some bid to argue for status or superiority of my position as a priest -- not at all.)

But I think it is a serious mistake to continue heading in the direction of de-professionalization, which is a way of mistrusting everyone and making such occupations into mechanizations. In short, it is a means of further de-humanizing culture, of taking away such things as wisdom, trust, discretion, and even artistry. One way that this is being done here in America is through HIPAA, a broad set of rules to be used by hospitals and health care workers. Now, many of the provisions are helpful and, I think, motivated by concern for the patient, and that is good. Part of the way that professions have been abused in the past is when respect verged into awe of the practitioner -- think of the physician who acts as if he were God. This actually worked against what I am arguing professions were (should be) about, which is wisdom in service to others.

My beef with HIPAA is that it so constrains the release of the patients' information that it institutionalizes distrust, at least with professionals. (I note that there does not seem to be a similar distrust of insurers.) And when distrust is institutionalized, that shapes us in a certain sort of way -- one which, I would argue, dehumanizes us.

There is more to say in a future post, namely, what a profession now might look like, musing on whether the sorts of expectations set out here for "professions" ought to be expanded (I think so), and some thoughts about vocation/ profession, and whether pastors/priests are professionals (Again, I think so: but maybe better, they are "professional amateurs").


Blogger Benedict Seraphim said...

Very good start, Fr. Jason. I am anxious for more.

Friday, May 06, 2005 2:46:00 PM  
Blogger Gaunilo said...

Several years ago I latched onto the concept of "vocation" (w/ a deliberate nod to the etymology) as a way to describe what I was after in training as a theologian - the term "ministry" was overreaching (at least for me) and "career" was too banal. I think that roughly coheres with what you're saying here.

Incidentally, what you say about a profession requiring one to be a "certain kind of person" echoes AMac on something he said last week about doing ethics (I still owe you a post on that, coming this weekend!).

I made a comment to this effect before, but it really seems to me that as our society is increasingly market-driven, and universities look more and more to training people for the business world and look to develop ties with the business world themselves (e.g. the disturbing trend of university medical labs hooking up w/ pharmaceutical companies for funding purposes, or such like), the vision of the traditional liberal arts education, which aimed at creating certain types of people conversant with the range of human knowledge and equipped to be members of the culture as much as players in the market, is increasingly marginalized. Hence the tacit disdain for the "soft disciplines", the humanities, and God knows for arcania like theology.

Thunder demonstrated angst at being in the working world; I'm clearly showing pre-angst at (re)entering the academic world!

It's great to have you back and blogging up a storm; it seems like you've been doing some great reflection on profession/vocation - spurred, I imagine, by the prospect of big life changes? If so, I can well relate!

Saturday, May 07, 2005 4:31:00 PM  
Blogger Thunder Jones said...

I wrote a paper a few years ago contrasting the Lutheran idea of vocation with the modern Anabaptist understanding of discipleship and Constantianism.

The way I see it, vocation talk is a way of dedicating yourself to something other than discipleship. If we really believe in a priesthood of believers and discipleship as the primary orientation of our lives, then we need to understand vocation as a mean to achieving an end and not an end in and of itself (frui and uti). A job provides a way to get by, but cannot be central in our identity. It can't even what we do with the bulk of our lives.

Luther, I think, does allow vocation to be primary in our identity so that he can tell someone to be a Christian executioner or an Christian baker. Luther keeps the status quo and that's often a bad thing.

Monday, May 09, 2005 9:28:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

If we understand discipleship chiefly in terms of our baptism, then might we not think about vocation as the specific means of working out that baptism in our life -- which might be identical from person to person?

In this series of posts I am wanting to talk more specifically about "profession" as a cultural role which is waning, and which Christians might have a specific take on, but I am not as wary of talking about "vocation" as you seem to be.

Yeah, Luther's got that funky "two kingdoms" stuff which causes all kinds of serious trouble, I think.

These ruminations on profession have been percolating up for some time, coming in part from my experience as a priest, and in part from my wife's experience as a pharmacist, and the import of these two "professions" and how they are changing.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005 12:56:00 AM  
Blogger Gaunilo said...

Apologies for distracting from JF's purpose in these posts; I should clarify that I too am hesitant in "vocation" talk w/r/t any general career or occupation, which I agree is problematic. I was speaking specifically of the teaching/scholarly profession as one of the classical "professions", as Jason has been saying, like law and medicine, but for which modern discourse lacks a category - there seems to be a fairly clear disjunction between "ministry" occupations in most of the church and "secular" occupations outside the church. Perhaps its my (way)low churck background I'm trying to shed, but that's what I was after.

VW has been taking a career class this semester, and in it there was much talk of "finding your calling" in terms of choosing/finding a profession. I found this a little troubling, as it raises the expectation that everyone has one true, destined occupation they are "called" to, which implies that if you miss it, you've missed your life's purpose. While I agree with JF on the need to regain a sense of "profession" in the classical sense, and there are clearly vocations/ministries one is "called" to, to wield the term for every occupation sets up unrealistic expectations for the identity-constituting character of one's career.

Not that a culture in which the average professional has two or three "careers" and is premised on a rotating door of workers is exactly ideal, either.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005 3:39:00 PM  
Blogger wenssloag said...


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Wednesday, November 16, 2005 2:01:00 PM  
Blogger mabellizer said...

Hi Jason

After reading a good blog I tend to analyze it to see what the person behind it might be like.

I've been in the goal setting business a while now and just like most people with experience in different areas of expertise, I can tell a lot about a person just by speaking to them or reading something they've written.

You haven't wrtten any goals on paper for awhile have you? And if you have I'll bet you haven't looked at them for a long time. Right?

Goal setting is hard work, and harder still if you don't have short range goals, mid range goals and long range goals.

I think you'll agree that few people really take the time to set goals of any kind.

When is the last time you really thought about setting some real goals, or are you like the vast majority of people who just "hope for the best"?

You already know successful people aren't "just lucky", they know how to set effective goals and reach them.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005 5:01:00 AM  

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