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Power to the Experts

The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America

by Burton J. Bledstein
Norton, 354 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Ten years ago Paul Goodman tried to teach a course on “Professionalism,” at the New School for Social Research. The course failed. Goodman watched with mounting embarrassment as the journalist, the physician, the engineer, the architect, and other friends he brought to speak to the class were dismissed as “liars,” “finks,” and “mystifiers.” If any teacher could count on receptive students in 1967 it ought to have been the author of Growing Up Absurd, yet Goodman could not persuade his class even to take seriously what he thought was the premise of the course: that “professionals are autonomous individuals beholden to the nature of things and the judgment of their peers, and bound by an explicit or implicit oath to benefit their clients and the community.”1

He knew, of course, that these words express an ideal and do not correspond in any simple way to the corrupt reality of professional life. But admitting that did him no good. The students were intent on showing that “every professional was co-opted by the System,” that “every decision was made topdown by the power structure,” and that professions were “conspiracies to make more money.” Puzzled by their refusal to acknowledge the sincerity of his own critical standpoint, Goodman tried to get them to concede that however corrupt the professions might be the tasks they performed were indispensable in any imaginable social order. The students replied that “it was important only to be human and all else will follow.”

Suddenly,” said Goodman, “I realized that they did not really believe that there was a nature of things. Somehow all functions could be reduced to interpersonal relations and power. There was no knowledge, but only the sociology of knowledge.” He knew then that he could no longer get through to them.2

The historian Burton Bledstein gives the ideal of the professional little more credence than did Goodman’s students in the 1960s. His book The Culture of Professionalism is a history of the very ideals that Goodman took so seriously, but Bledstein believes that they were never anything more than a self-serving myth. After the sorry spectacle that lawyers presented during the Watergate affair, and a decade of Medicaid scandals and spiraling malpractice insurance costs for physicians, it becomes difficult to believe anything better of professionalism. Certainly within the university the snarling underside of professional scholarship is more plainly exposed to view in this era of retrenchment than it was a few years ago.

Whether organized professionals really help us to achieve insight into the “nature of things,” as Goodman believed, is the question of paramount importance, but it holds little interest for Bledstein. What does interest him, almost to the exclusion of anything else, is the self-satisfaction that people derive from becoming “professional.” His tendency to let the whole range of critical inquiry collapse into the single implicit question, “Are professions compatible with the ideal of equality?” is distinctly reminiscent of the cast of mind that Goodman found so frustrating in the Sixties. The resemblance ends there, however, for unlike Goodman’s students Bledstein is a careful and sophisticated scholar. His argument is original, he builds it intelligently, and the result is a formidable reinterpretation of recent American history. He may go too far when he compares his interpretation with Charles Beard’s account of the rise of industrial civilization or Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, but his confidence that he has hit on a new and important theme is not misplaced.

When reduced to a few sentences his thesis is deceptively simple. Bledstein believes that in America today life is organized by the habits and attitudes appropriate to a “culture of professionalism,” which came into existence during the last half of the nineteenth century. The agent of this cultural transformation was a new middle class bent on making the world safe for its own characteristic obsessions with self-discipline, social control, and rational order. The main instrument of reform was the modern university which began developing after the Civil War under the inspiration of German models and the leadership of such men as Daniel Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins, Charles William Eliot of Harvard, and Andrew Dickson White of Cornell. Much of the book is devoted to these and other Victorian university presidents who Bledstein believes laid the institutional foundations for modern culture.

The “culture of professionalism” itself defies quick definition, but we all know people who exemplify it. They identify life with work and career, confident that merit will always find its true reward. They take what Bledstein feels is inordinate pride in the cool self-mastery that enables them to bring their talent and training to bear on challenging problems, thereby advancing themselves and serving society at the same time. What seems to puzzle Bledstein most about the adherents of this culture is their stern conviction that no matter how hierarchical their society may be, it is a just social order if it springs from an initial condition of formally equal opportunity.

If we set aside for the moment Bledstein’s strictures against meritocracy, we find his basic contention involves a relationship among the university, the middle class, and the professions so commonplace that at first glance it seems impossible to refute and hardly worth writing a book about. Everyone already knows that the university—whatever loftier purposes it may also serve—earns its keep by catering to middle-class students and acting as gatekeeper for the professions. All Bledstein wants to do is show historically how this quid pro quo among the middle class, the university, and the professions came about and examine its cultural implications. But customary social arrangements often take on a startling new aspect when seen in historical perspective, and the shock value of Bledstein’s inquiry is doubly magnified by his insistence on the primacy of class. By treating both the university and the professions largely as expressions of class interest he achieves a surprisingly fresh and unsettling perspective on higher education and professional life today. Even if Bledstein’s argument finally is not entirely convincing, it is close enough to the mark that no one with a professional degree on his wall or a PhD after his name will read this book without feeling uneasy.

The origins of the culture of professionalism date from the appearance of the middle class itself.3 In the eighteenth century Americans spoke loosely of “middling classes” or “the middling sort,” terms that referred to a broad range of farmers, artisans, shopkeepers, and other small property holders comprising perhaps 70 percent of the white population. These were people whose work changed little from one year to the next and whose social standing was likely to remain constant for a lifetime. Only in the nineteenth century did the more exact term, “middle class,” come into use to reflect what Bledstein believes was a quite different social reality. Although the Oxford English Dictionary first records the use of the term in 1812, Bledstein argues that the watershed in America was in the 1830s and 1840s.

By then the urban-industrial transformation was well underway, per capita income was rising steeply, and glaring inequalities in wealth were becoming a regular feature of the social landscape. The spread of labor-saving machinery was opening up new occupations in which wit and ingenuity counted for more than experience. Static rank in a local community no longer sufficed to define the identity of people who took mobility for granted and conceived of life as a series of ascending stages of wealth and prestige. It is immaterial for Bledstein’s purposes that statistically mobility may have fallen short of expectations. In the popular imagination, “middle” no longer meant a fixed position; rather, says Bledstein, “it referred to the individual as ‘escalator,’ moving vertically between the floors of the poor and the rich.”

As far as the middle-class American could see, nothing prevented him from rising into the highest reaches of society but hard luck or his own inertia or lack of potential. By the same token, there was nothing to prevent him from plummeting to the bottom but his own anxious striving, for the same forces that swept away the old barriers of privilege also robbed him of the security of established status. Freer to make his own way in society than his ancestors had ever been, he was at once exhilarated and frightened.

In this fluid and boundless social world the attribute most conductive to survival was a preoccupation with self so intense that there was little precedent for it in history. “The middle-class person was not merely self-reliant,” says Bledstein, “he was absorbed in his own egoism.” He desperately needed legitimation for his self-centeredness and got it from intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who gained fame on the lecture circuit by being a spokesman, as Bledstein puts it, “for the moral management of a calculated life.”

The Victorian ideas of “character” and “career,” to which Emerson contributed, were, according to Bledstein, middle-class inventions with a single purpose: to provide individual lives with the structure that tradition and community could no longer supply. The man of “character” so admired by the middle class possessed an inner psychological firmness that enabled him to resist pressure and rise above circumstance. In Bledstein’s apt formulation, “Character was the deepest self of the man that bound together the whole of the individual.” Corresponding to the inward coherence of character was the outward continuity of career, which ideally meant a “pre-established total pattern of organized professional activity, with upward movement through recognized preparatory stages, and advancement based on merit and bearing honor.”

People of strong character naturally dedicated themselves to careers, for they possessed what Bledstein calls a “vertical vision of life.” The vertical vision blurred and attenuated all human relationships except those relevant to one’s anticipated promotions and future professional development. It prevailed at the expense of human sympathy and communal solidarity. For example, in the everyday “horizontal” world the young university instructor and the policeman might live side by side in an Eastern city and earn the same income; but as an aspiring professional scholar, the instructor thought “vertically” and identified himself not with his neighbor but exclusively with the successful senior people in his field—even if they ignored him or abused his trust or loaded him with drudge work at low pay. Eventually the policeman would adopt the vertical perspective and struggle to define his work as a profession too.

Having established the existence of a strong middle-class predisposition to overcome disorder and create structure, both within the person and in the world at large, Bledstein then tries to show how the university and the professions served this end. Professions did so, of course, by being consummate careers. More than any other occupation they offered the rootless middle-class person a strong sense of identity and an ample field for self-fulfillment in regular, ascending stages appropriate to the “vertical vision.” By becoming professional a person set himself apart from the crowd and gained the ability, within his specialized field, to look beneath surface appearances to the fundamental order of things. The pleasures of belonging to an elite were nicely tempered by the thought that his expertise was an unselfish, even democratic, service to the community.

  1. 1

    Paul Goodman, “The New Reformation,” in Beyond the New Left, edited by Irving Howe (New York, McCall, 1970), p. 86.

  2. 2

    Ibid.

  3. 3

    The professions themselves, of course, long antedate what Bledstein calls the “culture of professionalism.” In Italy a strong professional class emerged alongside the universities in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In England the word “profession” was in use as early as the fourteenth century to refer to particular orders of monks and nuns; by the sixteenth century it was applied to other vocations, especially law, medicine, and the military. For broad surveys of professional life in Europe and America, see Carlo Cipolla, “The Professions: the Long View” in Journal of European Economic History, vol. 2 (Spring 1973), pp. 37-52; William J. Bouwsma, “Lawyers and Early Modern Culture,” in American Historical Review, vol. 78 (April 1973), pp. 303-327; and Samuel Haber, “The Professions and Higher Education in America: A Historical View,” in Higher Education and the Labor Market, edited by Margaret S. Hill (McGraw-Hill, 1974).

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