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.
Bledstein believes that the post-Civil War culture of professionalism embodied a more radical idea of individual autonomy than even Jacksonian democracy had dared to imagine. Yet even as professional careers released individual energy, they also crystallized it and gave definite form to a force that might otherwise have been anarchic. The conservative implications of professionalism were most obvious in the growing dependence of clients on professional advice. Bledstein presses hard on the theme of exploitation, emotional more than economic. “Professionals,” he says, “succeeded by playing on the weakness of the client….” “Perhaps no Calvinist system of thought ever made use of the insecurities of people more effectively than did the culture of professionalism.” The tendency of professional practitioners to undermine their clients’ self-confidence leads Bledstein to conclude that the culture of professionalism has taken “an inestimable toll on the integrity of individuals,” even while it has fattened the ego of the professional expert himself.
Given the existence of vulnerable clients and a middle class destined to exploit them, it appears only natural from Bledstein’s perspective that there should have occurred in the last third of the nineteenth century a vast multiplication of professional careers—as indeed there did. For reasons that will appear below, I doubt that clients were the passive victims that Bledstein’s theory requires, or that bourgeois careerism was potent enough by itself to produce the startling expansion of professional expertise that followed the Civil War. But the fact of explosive growth is indisputable.
By the 1880s and 1890s a renaissance was underway within the traditional professions of law and medicine, and new fields of expertise proliferated at an astounding rate. During these years, for example, the modern division of labor within the medical profession took shape as practitioners organized themselves according to specialties such as neurology, dermatology, laryngology, pediatrics, and so on. In the academic world the professional associations that still function today were formed in modern languages, history, economics, mathematics, physics, geology, forestry, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, and other fields. In these decades, as Bledstein says, “the citizen became a client whose obligation was to trust the professional. Legitimate authority now resided in special spaces, like the courtroom, the classroom, and the hospital; and it resided in special words shared only by experts.” This was the dawn of what Ivan Illich calls “the age of professional dominance.” Behind all these epoch-making events, Bledstein sees the restless ambition of the rising middle class:
The professions as we know them today were the original achievement of Mid-Victorians who sought the highest form in which the middle class could pursue its primary goals of earning a good living, elevating both the moral and intellectual tone of society, and emulating the status of those above one on the social ladder.
Concerning the actual mundane details of building new professions and renovating old ones, Bledstein has surprisingly little to say. The man who almost singlehandedly organized the American Bar Association in 1878, Simeon E. Baldwin of Yale Law School, is never mentioned in this book; neither are most of the other notable professionalizers, such as William H. Welch, who put American medicine on a scientific footing at Johns Hopkins, or Robert Thurston, first president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and organizer of the engineering curriculum at Cornell.
Instead Bledstein concentrates on the men who presided over the creation of the modern American university, for it served as nursery for all the major professions. In addition to the three most famous university presidents, Eliot, Gilman, and White, he also discusses James McCosh of Princeton, Noah Porter of Yale, Frederick A.P. Barnard of Columbia, and Presidents Angell, Bascom, and Folwell of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota respectively. These men were the ideologues of professionalism. In fact, what we have been calling the “culture of professionalism” is in essence little more than the utopian vision of a meritocratic society run by university graduates that these men projected in order to win support from prospective patrons, legislators, and popular audiences.
The Victorian university presidents remembered with special horror their own experiences as students in the “oldtime colleges” before the Civil War. It was not only dull recitations and a stale curriculum that they were reacting against as they embarked on their movement to reform higher education; Andrew Dickson White also recalled
The student brawl at the Harvard commons which cost the historian Prescott his sight, and the riot at the Harvard commencement which blocked the way of President Everett and the British minister…the fatal wounding of Tutor Dwight, the maiming of Tutor Goodrich, and the killing of two town rioters by students at Yale…the monstrous indignities to the president and faculty at Hobart of which I was myself a witness, as well as the state of things at various other colleges in my own college days.
Pandemonium swept through American college campuses time after time during the early decades of the nineteenth century and Bledstein sees in this puzzling phenomenon telling evidence of a disjunction between the needs of the first generation of middle-class students and the strained capacities of institutions attuned to an older social order.
The old colleges offended the new class both by the unfocused, impractical character of the education they offered and also by their reliance on an external, authoritarian mode of discipline, erratically enforced. In contrast, the new university succeeded by taking advantage of the student’s “vertical vision.” It played on his ambition, grouped him exclusively with students of his own age, subjected him to regular tests, and reported his class standing or grade average to his parents at stated intervals. These devices had not been common in the old colleges. In 1790 when Harvard tried to introduce a required examination, students went on a rampage that emptied the examination room. Students became docile and took higher education seriously in the closing decades of the nineteenth century because by then they saw the college years as a vital stage in the most desirable careers. This was the student’s prime opportunity to discipline himself for the competitive trials ahead, sharpen his mind, conquer laziness, learn to be patient.
Most important, the variety and rigor of the university experience helped the young person identify his special “strengths”—which is to say, the experience helped him decide within which career he might expect to rise highest. Again Bledstein believes that Emerson (who was enormously popular among college students) articulated the guiding thought: “Nature arms each man with some faculty which enables him to do easily some feat impossible to any other, and this makes him necessary to society.” Therefore, “each is bound to discover what his faculty is, to develop it, and to use it for the benefit of mankind.” A similar dictum was put forward in France by Emile Durkheim in grimmer and more revealing language: “The categorical imperative of the moral conscience is assuming the following form: Make yourself usefully fulfill a determinate function.”4
Bledstein’s analysis thus substitutes the university for the Chamber of Commerce as the representative institution of bourgeois society, and self-esteem for profits as the driving force of modern historical development. These curious twists become especially clear near the end of his book when he contrasts his view of the university to Thorstein Veblen’s. Veblen attributed the failings of the American university to the corrupting influence of the industrial tycoons who held it in trust and the businesslike “captains of erudition” who administered it. Their sin was to market education like a commodity and to judge scholarship by its cash value.
Bledstein puts the matter in a different light by erasing the line that Veblen drew between cynical business practices and high-minded professional ones. In his view the tragic flaw of the American university is not the commercialism that seeps in from outside, but the professionalism that is deliberately cultivated within. “On the basis of the present study,” says Bledstein, “it would surely seem obvious that Veblen and his followers grossly overestimated the idealistic disinterestedness of professional behavior in American life, including that of the ‘scholarly’ American professor…. Neither praise nor blame for the direction of higher education in America can be leveled at the traditional villain, the business community…. No, a far more powerful element is at work here. From the beginning the ego-satisfying pretensions of professionalism have been closer to the heart of the middle-class American than the raw profits of capitalism.”
It is easy, and not inaccurate, to complain that this book is one-sided. Bledstein shows little interest in the genuine benefits professionalism sometimes has brought, and he never seriously considers what it would mean for us today to try to do without professional experts. His animus against things professional is so sweeping that it leads him to the brink of hypocrisy. One cannot help wondering what undisclosed loophole permits this professional teacher and historian to escape from his own strictures against the innately parasitic and self-inflating ways of professional people. The work of lawyers, physicians, engineers, and architects can hardly be any more egotistical than “giving” lectures or writing books. In fact, if a reader were to take Bledstein’s very severe ethical standpoint to heart, there would be nothing to prevent him from condemning The Culture of Professionalism as a self-serving display of scholarly virtuosity, designed, all too obviously, to advance its author’s professional career. To do so would be most unfair, but for reasons that Bledstein is loathe to examine.
On the other hand, the existing literature on the rise of the university and the “achievement of professional standards” in various fields is larded with self-congratulation; by stressing the costs of professionalization Bledstein may help to right the balance, even though he does not tell the whole story. Who among us does not know someone who is too professional? In every field one finds people obsessed with the pursuit of arcane professional honors, intolerant of all disciplines but their own, cut off by their expertise from basic human interests and sympathies, or perhaps even intellectually crippled by premature loyalty to the doctrines of an overpowering mentor. The costs of professionalism have been real and Bledstein exposes them brilliantly.
A more serious criticism must be directed against the extraordinary historical creativity and force that Bledstein assigns to the new middle class of the nineteenth century. His thesis rests heavily on this point. What he professes to explain is the rise of the modern university, the emergence of the culture of professionalism, and the origins of the towering edifice of institutionalized expertise that looms over contemporary society. The cause of all these developments he finds in the hunger for order, discipline, and self-fulfillment that he believes was characteristic of the new middle class.
Even though Bledstein opens his book with a definition of “middle class” I have put off mentioning it until now because his thesis appears strongest as long as one relies on a loose, commonsensical understanding of the term. Closer examination reveals it to be untenable. Bledstein reviews the many and generally incoherent uses to which the term has been put by American historians, takes note of sociological surveys like the one in Fortune magazine in 1940 which found that 79.2 percent of Americans regarded themselves as middle-class, and then, just as one hopes that he is about to introduce some clear thinking into this farrago, he offers the following sequence of progressively vaguer definitional statements:
The middle-class person in America owns an acquired skill or cultivated talent by means of which to provide a service…he does not view his “ability” as a commodity, an external resource, like the means of production or manual labor….
Historically, the middle class in America has defined itself in terms of three characteristics: acquired ability, social prestige, and a life style approaching an individual’s aspirations. Neither restrictions of income nor even differences between occupations have delimited the scope of the middle class in America.
Finally, as if to confirm that this drift into the haze is deliberate, he says:
Being middle class in America has referred to a state of mind any person can adopt and make his own. It has not referred to a person’s confined position in the social structure, a position delimited by common chances in the market and by preferred occupations.
By adopting a mainly subjective and psychological definition of “middle class,” Bledstein allows his thesis to approach perilously close to perfect circularity. Since the “culture of professionalism” is itself largely a state of mind, we cannot get very far in explaining its emergence and historical significance by saying that the people who brought it forth are identifiable only by virtue of another state of mind that they share—especially if the two states of mind, one defining “middle-class” and the other defining the “culture of professionalism,” overlap extensively. The explanatory power of the concept of class ordinarily derives from the reduction of complex thought and behavior to economic interest. But Bledstein expressly denies that his “middle class” is composed of people who share a certain relationship either to the market or to the mode of production. They are, in fact, simply the neither-rich-nor-poor who labor in what economists call the “service sector” of the economy.
It is no mere oversight that leads Bledstein into these difficulties of definition. Anyone who wishes to write about the new middle class must contend with the possibility that his subject is an empty category with no real existence outside the minds of academicians. This possibility was not denied even by Emil Lederer and Jakob Marschak, the social theorists who gave prominence to the idea of a “new middle class” in a well-known 1926 essay. They, like Bledstein, wished to account for the salaried white-collar employees, ranging from mere clerks and salesmen to lawyers and industrial managers, whose growing numbers upset the original socialist expectation that society would be split between propertied entrepreneurs and unpropertied proletarians. No one doubts that such middling people exist, only whether they are sufficiently bound together by mutual interest and sympathy to constitute a class.
Lederer and Marschak conceded at the outset that the group’s membership was so diverse that it could be “comprehended as an entity only in contradistinction to the other classes.”5 In his book White Collar (1951), C. Wright Mills described it as a passive and fragmented group, lacking any independent way of life, ordinarily too disorganized to act, and capable of no more than a “tangle of unconnected contests” at best. “Whatever history they have had is a history without events; whatever common interests they have do not lead to unity; whatever future they have will not be of their own making.”6 Eight years later Ralf Dahrendorf concluded that in spite of all the efforts of sociologists to clarify the position and significance of the class, “there is no word in any modern language to describe this group that is no group, class that is no class, and stratum that is no stratum….” “It neither has been nor is it ever likely to be a class in any sense of this term.”7 Far from refuting these weighty opinions, Bledstein never mentions them.
In order to hold this heterogenous mass of people together long enough to write a book demonstrating their inconsequentiality, Mills let the lowest and most numerous ranks of the new middle class, the mere clerks and salespeople, stand for all the rest. An incautious reader of his account is likely to forget that prosperous lawyers and corporate vice presidents wear white collars too. Bledstein, who is eager to create the opposite impression that the class has historical force and a coherent culture, turns Mills’s white-collar group on its head, letting the professional elite stand for the whole. He defines “professional” so broadly that almost everyone is included, and those who are not are assumed to be busily upgrading their occupation so as to become professional someday.
By treating all claims to professional status with equal seriousness, Bledstein hopelessly entangles whatever may be culturally valuable in the idea of a profession with what is patently pretentious and fraudulent. In these pages neurosurgeons are not distinguished from tree surgeons; “professional” football players and beauticians stand on an equal footing with chemists, architects, and aeronautical engineers. The first profession mentioned, on page four, is mortuary science. Pinkerton detectives are said to exemplify the intimidating authority that a profession can wield. Incongruously interspersed with these pseudo professions are an equal number of references to authentic ones, whose work possibly does require the extended training, mastery of esoteric bodies of knowledge, and mutual discipline and support that the professional mode of occupational organization affords. Bledstein seems unwilling to admit such differences lest his idea of the middle class fall apart.
Nor is this the only contortion Bledstein goes through in order to give the middle class a commanding position. He gives as leading examples of “professional trends” in the late nineteenth century such curious developments as the mass distribution of books by subscription, the organization of the nation’s first lecture bureau, the formation of the first pro baseball team, and the first running of the Kentucky Derby. He also understands professionalization to include certain “novel uses of space and protective boundaries to regulate the social experience of the individual.” By this elastic standard almost everything exemplifies the professional trend. Specifically, he has in mind the division of space into public parks, private homes, and civic buildings; the allocation of leisure time to special places like baseball diamonds, golf courses, and football gridirons; and the sorting out of words into specialized publications like Bicycling World, or technical vocabularies like that of bridge building. This “structuring of space and words,” he says, “belonged to a larger process: the professionalization of American lives.”
Now all these things certainly happened; they were vital elements in an important cultural transformation, and Bledstein’s account of them is extremely perceptive—quite possibly the best we have. But we gain nothing by calling them examples of “professionalization.”
It would be far more accurate to say that all of these developments and professionalization are manifestations of a still larger process which Max Weber called “rationalization,” the ominous tendency in European civilization for impersonal calculations of least cost and maximum efficiency to enter, and finally dominate, every sphere of life. The only thing the founding of the American Bar Association has in common with the running of the first Kentucky Derby or the sale of books by subscription is that all three represent steps toward the systematic exploitation, or rationalization, of nationwide markets for particular services that previously had been confined to local markets by the slow speed and high cost of transportation. Bledstein’s awkward efforts to stretch “professionalization” to embrace every new refinement of the division of labor—and, for that matter, every advance of rational order of any kind—is obfuscating, and merely testifies to the superiority of Weber’s formulation. There would be no need for this inflation of terms if Bledstein were not trying to make professionalism serve as the cultural keystone of the entire middle class.
Still another difficulty arises from Bledstein’s conception of the middle class. Because he stresses the class interest underlying professionalism so heavily, his discussion of exploitation has a robust Marxian flavor to it. But in Marxian theory the concept of exploitation derives its force from the clear separation of the exploiters and the exploited into two different, mutually exclusive, classes. If we ask whom Bledstein’s middle-class professionals exploit, the answer is their clients, who obviously do not constitute a distinct class. Nor are clients likely, on the average, to stand much lower in the social order than the professional people who “exploit” them, for the most common criticism of professionals has always been that they confine their clientele to the affluent. No doubt professional people do overcharge clients, intimidate them, and cultivate emotional dependencies, and we may wish to call these practices “exploitation.” But contrary to the impression conveyed by Bledstein, this form of exploitation is not typically a class phenomenon. The most objectionable offense remains denial of services to the poor, which certainly is a class phenomenon, but about which Bledstein’s analysis is silent.
The way out of these difficulties is not to abandon Bledstein’s important achievement, but to modify it in two major ways. The first is to demote the middle class to a lesser position and look instead to the most dynamic elements within it. The struggle to modernize higher education and extend the orbit of institutionalized expertise in American culture did not pit the middle class against the rest of the population: it pitted a small, cultivated forward-looking gentry elite against the inert middle class and nearly everyone else. The university presidents Bledstein discusses were important spokesmen for this elite and historians have only recently begun recovering the names of others.8
The second way one might modify Bledstein’s analysis is simply to recognize that professional people are not exempt from the laws of supply and demand. They cannot derive an income from their expertise unless there is a demand for it. Like any producer of goods or services, of course, they have a limited ability to stimulate the demand for their work; but it would be fatuous to suppose that they can create demand out of thin air. Consequently, any major expansion of professional services such as the one we are concerned with could not have happened without an intensification of the demand for those services. Moreover, the increase of demand must have preceded or at least been concurrent with the increase of supply: while it is possible for increases of demand to occur first and bring about increases of supply, the reverse is inconceivable.
This means that the central question Bledstein poses in The Culture of Professionalism needs to be supplemented, or perhaps even replaced, by another. Bledstein asks, in effect, “What happened in the nineteenth century to increase the supply of professional services?” He finds the answer in the emergence of a new class of people who are psychologically predisposed to seek the order and other gratifications of a professional career. But it is easy to imagine that an ample supply of people eager to pursue remunerative and prestigious careers existed long before the nineteenth century. The decisive changes probably occurred on the side of demand, rather than supply, and the pertinent question for the historian is: What happened in the nineteenth century to increase the number of people willing and able to pay for professional advice?
The answer in part is obvious: urbanization and the rising level of income associated with the industrial revolution made the advice of specialists accessible and affordable to more people. Demand was also stimulated by real advances of knowledge in some fields. The germ theory of disease, for example, produced a quantum leap in the utility of the advice that physicians and surgeons sold to their patients.
Finally, and most generally, it must be recalled that modern society involves the individual in relationships both with other human beings and with physical nature that are vastly more complex than his ancestors before the nineteenth century ever had to contend with. If modern man displays an alarming tendency to defer thoughtlessly to expert opinion, it is largely because alternative guides to conduct such as common sense and the customary ways of his local community have long since failed him in important areas of life. The Victorians treasured Emerson’s advice to “trust thyself,” but they could not live by it and neither can we. The conditions of modern society place a high premium on esoteric knowledge, especially when it comes stamped with the special authority of an organized community of practitioners who police each other’s opinions and thereby create something approaching a consensus of the competent. To explain fully the special authority that now inheres in a consensus of the most competent investigators would require a general inquiry into the intellectual consequences of the vast social and economic transformation that occurred in America during the nineteenth century, but nothing less will explain the rise of the expert to his present position of dominance.
Few developments from the Civil War to the present stand out so vividly or account for so much of the shape of modern America as the growth of the professions and the steady retreat of the layman before the ever-expanding claims of professional expertise. Bledstein is right to insist on the extraordinary significance of this course of events and his evocation of the subjective meaning that professionalism held for people of the Victorian era is an extremely important contribution to historical understanding. But by attributing this major cultural transformation merely to the careerist ambitions of the middle class he obscures its most important causes and underestimates the degree to which the objective conditions of life that prevail in modern society make us dependent on expert knowledge. One may lament this fact, but not ignore it.
The point is the same one Paul Goodman tried to defend ten years ago. Bledstein belatedly acknowledges its force at the very end of his book. “The question for Americans,” he says, should be “How does society make professional behavior accountable to the public without curtailing the independence upon which creative skills and the imaginative use of knowledge depend?” That question implies what the preceding three hundred pages of The Culture of Professionalism seem to deny: that professionalism can be highly conducive to creativity, and that the public demand for what is created under its auspices is, for the most part, genuine. The professions today are corrupt and deserve unrelenting criticism and reform, but their claim to be mankind’s best means of cultivating and preserving insight into the “nature of things” ought to be taken seriously.
October 13, 1977
Paul Goodman, “The New Reformation,” in Beyond the New Left, edited by Irving Howe (New York, McCall, 1970), p. 86. ↩
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). ↩
Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, trans. George Simpson (New York, Macmillan, 1933), p. 43. Italics in the original. ↩
Emil Lederer and Jakob Marschak, “Der neue Mittelstand,”Grundriss der Sozialökonomik, Section IX, part 1. Tübingen, 1926, cited in C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (New York, Oxford University Press, 1951), p. 359. ↩
Mills, White Collar, p. ix. ↩
Ralf Dahrendorf, Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (Stanford University Press, 1959), pp. 52 and 56. ↩
Readers of Bledstein’s account, having been led to think of the university and the professions as institutions brought into existence by, and for the sake of, the middle class, will be surprised to discover that as late as 1900, near the terminal date of Bledstein’s study, only 3.9 percent of the college-age population was attending (let alone graduating from) college. Moreover, by the generous standards of the census taker, only 4.3 percent of the work force in that year could be classified as “professional or technical.” (Fritz Machlup, The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States, Princeton University Press, 1962, p. 78; Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, Basic Books, 1976, p. 134.) ↩