Professional Education – Serving Two Masters

Educating professionals was not central to university life until the last part of the 19th century. It was, in a fashion, introduced through the Morrill Land Grant of 1863, and reinforced by Charles Eliot at Harvard as the 19th century turned to the 20th.

Professionals practicing a craft: teachers, physicians, nurses, attorneys, engineers, architects, and others in disciplines whose work is to some extent regulated by the state, have a special place in institutional life, and they create unique and welcome demands on the work of our university.

A person who studies literature has one set of constraints to which they respond: the demands of the discipline as promulgated and articulated by the people who profess and carry on the traditions of the field, usually university faculty and writers.

While there are many possible pains associated with the poor exercise of understanding early nineteenth century literature, you will not get a ticket or spend a night in jail if you don’t. No one will sue you because you could not clarify the differences between the theism Herman Melville pronounced in Moby Dick, and the views expressed by John Stuart Mill in Nature and the Utility of Religion. Powerfully interesting works but ignorance of them is not punishable by anything other than ignorance, a crime thankfully not prosecutable in county court, and loss of pride. if knowledge of them would produce a sense of pride.

Here is the twist. Knowledge of Melville and Mill might create a better professional in any field.

Those who aspire to professional practice serve the state through the regulated profession to which they belong. In addition, they must serve the greater social good through the application of knowledge and insight that is not regulated by the state, but may influence the successful execution of their craft. This produces pressure in those who practice and regulate practice of these trades, and those who aspire to its practice.

Two masters.

Our responsibility to people who want to become architects requires that we train people to be able to make a building that will stand up, that will protect the health, safety and welfare of those in the extended community, as well as those for whom we design the edifice. Otherwise, the practitioner might go to jail, be sued, or lose the right to practice…the right to practice granted by the state for the benefit of the state.

However, how short we fall if we are producing professionals, again I use the case of the architect, who can make a building stand up, but who have so misunderstood the desires of people, who have so misjudged the impact of the building on the community, who have so inadequately applied understanding of the relationship of people to each other, that the building while it stands, prevents people from becoming all they can be. Pruitt-Igoe, the infamous housing project in St. Louis met every aspect of the regulation of the profession of architecture. Completed 1951 – dynamited 1972. It was uninhabitable. The structure was sound but the human condition unattended to.

In professional education we serve to masters. We must ask, “Can we do it ?”, and “Should we do it?” When we answer both correctly, our university is a better servant to those who aspire to the practice of any grand craft, and the state.

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