Questioning professional practice


November 24, 2013 by Willy Cardoso

“All professions are conspiracies against the laity” (George Bernard Shaw in the play The Doctor’s Dilemma)

Historically more commonly (documented) in the case of doctors and lawyers, but in modern times also about psychiatrists and advertisers – also, forever, if by any chance you can see some religions operating as businesses – professionals in any area, at any given time, can be accused of being more concerned with status and wealth than with helping their clients. While it is rather easy to be able to see this in some practices, such as the political, it is not as easy when it comes to scrutinizing the teaching profession.

The teaching profession already suffers enough handicaps in the eyes of… well, pretty much everyone, and in matters of status it is pretty low in some corners. And in matters of wealth… little to be said.

Nonetheless, it may be helpful to substitute pity for critique, and for a change to increase the level of reflexivity of our professional discourse. It’s already easy (because we’ve been conditioned), to point out the ideological flaws of managers, curriculum administrators, inspection bodies, ministries, headmasters, and students who don’t hand in homework. But reflexivity means looking inwards to uncover our own biases, presuppositions, predispositions – and in this case I’m interested in deconstructing the sense of self-entitlement I often feel myself and encounter around me.

As a teacher, I can feel my ‘duty’ is noble. Some teachers I’ve met like to think of the practice as a ‘call’, others get deeply offended with remarks such as ‘it’s just a job’, and a good bunch entered the profession because they wanted to ‘make a difference’. This is all questionable.

The reason I’m thinking and writing about this is because I’ve just picked up this book, by chance off a shelf in the university library, titled The Ground of Professional Ethics1. It just drew my attention, and as a consequence I’m now writing something totally unrelated to what I came here to do.

The author also starts with the Shaw reference above (what a happy coincidence?) and proposes that the attack on professional authority can be divided into three distinct groups.

The first – and the only I’ll mention – is the one that thinks there is nothing inherently good about professional practice.

As a teacher who thinks a lot about teaching I couldn’t help but think [what ridiculous phrase this is] that if there is nothing inherently good about professional practice and if I think teaching is a professional practice; hence, there is nothing inherently good about teaching. And maybe as a consequence about being a teacher.

[Before I continue, let me open a bracket here just to make clear my uncertainties. Whether teaching is categorically a profession, I don’t know. I have doubts. Whether there is nothing inherently good about teaching, this I think is true for everything actually. I think there is nothing inherently good about anything. This probably springs from my potential misunderstanding of sartrean existentialism. But now I’ve gone a bit off topic]

The author explains that in this first view, professions are not there to serve the public good, they are “houses of trade”, that is, another form of commerce. This is easy to see in some areas, with notions of entrepreneurship creeping in and becoming required competence. Moreover, and much easier to see, the increasing use of management/business vocabulary in professions like teaching supports the argument.

By attaching professional knowledge to an ethical approach to work, high professions create a self-legitimizing system whereby their knowledge is sometimes appeared to be made natural and neutral. This is also because of its scientific source and validity. However, scientific power and technology, and in turn scientific authority, are also home-grown let’s say, and as such has a tendency to work towards self-preservation. I wish I could expand on this, but no.

Departing from the principle that profession is little more than a form of commerce, that means “knowledge, skill and ethical orientation [are treated] not as objective characteristics but rather as ideology, as claims by spokesmen for professions seeking to gain or to preserve status and privilege.”2

In conclusion, “professions have no inherent legitimacy” – If teaching is a profession, it would follow that is has no inherent legitimacy either, it is simply a form of ideology and as such it could be replaced by either a system that genuinely aims at public good – but in this line of argument it is difficult to believe there is one – or by a system with more effective power/knowledge. Although in the history of education this seemed highly unlikely – for better or worse education is very efficient in maintaining the status quo – we can see today various attempts to replace it with a newer ideology which is that driven by high-technology, e.g. schools in the cloud, remote teaching via skype, MOOCs, etc; which at face-value display an ‘inherent good’, that of making education more democratic, but in its deep structure carry some questionable values, such as individualism, consumption of education as a commodity, and generally speaking a Western-capitalist way of doing things and a Western-capitalist notion of what is valid knowledge. And that is knowledge which increases performance and can be measured.

As an immediate response we can condemn cultures of performativity, but on reflection we can find out this culture is so ingrained in our way of thinking that we apply it everywhere ourselves. And so it is that the professional knowledge which justifies our professional practice – and why not mention professional ethics – is built on what is regarded as measurable performance. Being part of the problem we contribute to this form of status quo when we choose which qualifications to take, which international exams to apply, which coursebooks to adopt, which professional development programmes to engage, and so on.

It is a matter of what knowledge is valid knowledge, how much efficiency it can add to the system, and how much status and wealth it can bring… even if for a minute.


1 Daryl Koehn, The Ground of Professional Ethics (London: Routledge, 1994), 1-2

2 Eliot Freidson, Professional Powers: A Study of the Institutionalization of Formal Knowledge (Chicago: University Press, 1986), 29


2 thoughts on “Questioning professional practice

  1. eflnotes says:

    hi willy

    tough and tricky questions as usual.

    i recommend reading, if you haven’t already, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives

    not read it in a while, so as far as i recall there is an interesting part to resist being disciplined by using a US army interrogation manual.


  2. Jonathan Alderman says:

    Brilliant and refreshing!

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