professionals as grizzled veterans or as reflective learners

In stressful, front-line professions–such as teaching, military service, nursing, or policing–you may encounter the idea of a “professional” as someone who has done the job in one of its harder forms for a long time. People who merely study or teach the topic, or those who have had brief or sheltered experience on the job, are not true professionals.

An alternative sense of a “professional” is someone who has reflected deeply on the role from a variety of perspectives. For instance, reading and talking about the history and sociology of schools may contribute to a teacher’s professional development.

Of course, there are other senses of professionalism apart from these two. I like the idea of “democratic professionalism” developed by Albert Dzur and others: a professional as someone who works with citizens who hold other jobs and roles to strengthen democracy together. There is also a trustee ideal, in which the professional safeguards public values in return for the right to provide certain services.

But those are ideals. In almost any actual professional setting, you can find grizzled veterans telling the newbies how it’s really done, plus formal academic requirements and assessments. These two ways of thinking about professionalism constantly compete for legitimacy, while more idealistic conceptions remain somewhat hidden or marginal.

If veterancy and academic study are the main options, then I’d advocate for a mix of the two. Experience is valuable. It can impart practical wisdom drawn from numerous concrete examples (phronesis). People who have spent years in a job often (not always) deserve respect for their service. Thus there are benefits to hiring veteran professionals as teachers and professors, employing them as mentors, placing students in practical internships, etc.

Yet professionals should also hold a critical stance toward their own role and learn from the concepts and tools of other disciplines. For instance, a teacher is better off understanding the sociology of schools even if the authors of sociology articles would make bad K-12 teachers. Their value does not derive from direct personal experience. Phronesis is useful, but so are other forms of knowledge, including theory and empirical data.

In pretentious settings, such as highly selective college and universities, it can be necessary to fight for the legitimacy of experience and to make space for veteran practitioners. However, in places like police stations and some K-12 schools, it can be hard to make space for critique. Whether teaching professionals in an academic way will improve their practice is an empirical question; the answer will probably vary depending on who teaches what, to whom, and how. There is no guarantee it will work. However, if a profession is going to improve, then at least some people who hold the job must draw insights from outside their field, including from scholarship.

See also: separating populism from anti-intellectualism; Public Work and Democratic Professionalism; Democracy in schools: Albert Dzur talks with principal Donnan Stoicovy; a way forward for high culture.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.