Professionals must help people more than do their thing
Published 12:00 am Monday, October 2, 2000
Despite deserved honor awarded to the professions and appropriate deference paid to professionals for centuries, they have all been compromised by a characteristic dark side and this plagues us today as never before.
Monday, October 02, 2000
Despite deserved honor awarded to the professions and appropriate deference paid to professionals for centuries, they have all been compromised by a characteristic dark side and this plagues us today as never before. The major problem of all professions is that too many practitioners enter to help people help themselves and then settle for "doing their own thing" and lose honest interest in helping people.
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Traditionally, the full-fledged professions are the learned disciplines of law, medicine, and divinity. In addition, we can be concerned about occupations that are largely professional, semi-professional, or professional within commercial or institutional contexts. These might include many fields of the healing arts, teachers, accountants and similar occupations.
Physicians, lawyers and clergy are expected to make available scholarly knowledge and particular skills to enable people whose needs are too complex to meet from within common resources. Theoretically and traditionally, people choose the professional practitioner and self-identify their needs. They are called, then, clients and not customers. The professionals’ goal is the welfare of people and not profit. They offer human services rather than a commercial commodity.
Theory or concept is such, and is very much preached to students in the graduate professional schools such as medical and law schools and theological seminaries. But it is in these schools that things begin to go wrong, because the schools often do not accomplish what they profess – preparing physicians, lawyers and ministers. Having graduated from three seminaries, I worried about this concerning professional ministry. So, I did my doctoral research eager to learn what is required to educate and train effective pastors.
Teaching in a Chicago college in the later stages of my research was convenient, because both the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association maintain headquarters there. They had staff people responsible for studying and advising on professional education for their respective disciplines. An initial conference led to several weeks of meetings and significant mutual understanding. We came to recognize the characteristic failure of each type of professional school is rather much the same as the others.
The lawyer was first to identify it: "The typical law graduate knows a frightful amount of law but very little about people." The physician complained: "Too many medical schools turn out half-baked scientists and undone physicians." To this I had to acknowledge that many seminaries graduate half-baked theologians and undone pastors; they know a lot of theology but don’t know how to relate to people.
Mind you, none of us had any idea of how many graduate professional schools were guilty, and we would refuse the liability of identifying which were. That was 25 years ago, but I have been watching all three types of schools and sense it is still a serious shortfall.
The three of us went on from there. What are the consequences of such failure in professional education or education for the professions? The physician was first to observe: "The typical hospital is operated not so people get well, but so doctors can do their thing." He added: "If people get healed, that’s wonderful. But it isn’t really necessary – just so the doctors get to do their thing." What is the "thing" for a physician depends upon the interests of the individual – surgery, trauma, neurology or some narrow interest within one.
The lawyer, with a similar mix of honest realism and resigned cynicism, put it: "A lot of lawyers don’t care that much about getting their clients out of trouble as long as they get to do their thing." They are even less interested, he said later, in keeping clients out of trouble, because there is more money in getting them out of trouble. Their "thing" also varies – courtroom drama, clever litigation, ingenious contracts.
Ministers, priests, rabbis and the like? Following the images offered by the other professions, I had to put it: "Too many churches (or other institutions of religion) are programmed not so people experience moral and spiritual healing, but so preachers (or whatever they fancy themselves to be) can do their thing." If people become redeemed, that’s wonderful. But it isn’t really necessary – just so the preachers gets to do their thing. It can be preaching, music performance, drama or whatever the individual thinks is his or her "thing."
Each profession has a great number of professionals who truly help people, and it is these we need to trust. But M.D., J.D., or M.Div. only indicates graduation and neither technical competence nor professional responsibility.
When medical schools are structured and programmed to create people-healing graduates, doctors can become physicians who heal people. When law schools encourage people-helping graduates, lawyers can become advocates who protect people. When seminaries inspire people-helping graduates, ministers can become pastors who actually minister to people. Throughout their professional practice, physicians, lawyers, and clergy need to think less of doing their thing and more about using their thing to help people help themselves. That’s what it means to be professional.
Wallace Alcorn’s column appears Mondays