An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2005

Markets vs. professions: value added?

William M. Sullivan

William M. Sullivan is a Senior Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, where he works on the Preparation for the Professions Program. Coauthor of “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life” (1985), Sullivan is currently investigating the links between professional preparation and liberal education. This essay draws on ideas in his “Work and Integrity: The Crisis and Promise of Professionalism in America” (second edition, 2004).

The prestige of the traditional professions is under siege. Not just their performance but also their claim to distinct expertise, the very core of professional legitimacy, has come under withering fire. Skepticism is particularly leveled at professional claims that the public interest is being served. Lawyers now routinely expect denigration for their professional affiliation, even from other attorneys. Physicians are not only challenged by the proponents of ‘alternative medicine,’ but face patients armed with all kinds of medical knowledge obtained through the Internet. The prevalence of ‘emergency’ teaching credentials in school classrooms calls into question the value of professional teacher training. The list goes on.

Despite the specificity of these claims to the particular circumstances of one or another professional field, these challenges circulate within a larger current of thought that is deeply skeptical of the value of the professional organization of work. The prevalence of the notion that the market is self-regulating and morally self-sufficient has cast doubt on the public value of an individual’s lengthy and expensive induction into a professional guild–into its monopoly over esoteric knowledge within an occupational domain, particularly over the recruiting, training, and licensing of personnel. Yet it is precisely within this context that professional organization, and especially the academic basis of the professional career, matters more than ever. The bruising experience of the 1990s boom-and-bust in the financial markets glaringly revealed just how important professional acumen and integrity are to the viability of the marketplace. Professionalism, it turns out, provides a public value essential to modern societies. The real issue is how to promote and ensure the viability of genuine professionalism amid highly challenging conditions.

The academic institutions in which professionals begin their apprenticeships are key. Professional schools are the single institutional context that professionals control, the sole site where the professions’ standards of good work set the agenda for learning. Professional schools are not only where advanced practitioners communicate their expert knowledge and judgment to beginners– they are also the place where the professions put their defining values and exemplars on display, and where future practitioners begin to assume, and critically examine, their future identities. That is the underappreciated challenge of professional preparation: it links the interests of educators with the needs of practitioners. How well it is met is in large part determined by how clearly it is understood.

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