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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.