Our Lost Faith in Professionals

Lately, it seems that every profession is under serious attack. Of course, lawyers have long been the butt of jokes. But now teachers are portrayed as leeches sucking the taxpayers dry, protecting their cushy jobs at all costs, and failing our children. Everyone seems to openly scoff at the idea that government “experts” know anything about anything. The “lamestream” media isĀ  generally regarded as dead, dying, or hopelessly biased (either to the left or right). And all of these criticisms seem to come together when we’re talking about academia.

I suspect that diminishing standards are only partly to blame (if at all) and that historical changes in perception provide a better explanation of the recent vilifying of the professions and professionals. So here’s my best guess at how we arrived at this lost faith:


Through the 1950s, middle class and wealthy white Americans exercised a high level of faith in professionals. After all, the professions were the core of the middle class occupationally and sometimes the road to higher wealth. The wealthy relied on lawyers, doctors, teachers, managers, etc. to maintain their standard of living. And both of these groups could expect professionals in the press, government, etc. to be drawn from their ranks and sympathetic to their desires.

Minorities and other disadvantaged groups had less faith in the professions, for good reason. Almost a century after the end of slavery, equality was an awfully long way off and gains cost blood, sweat, and often lives. The poor remained poor and underrepresented with few avenues out of poverty and little assistance except at times when large numbers of middle- and working-class Americans were also feeling the pinch of an economic contraction. Access to doctors, lawyers, teachers, or government workers was poor at best, with racism and economics keeping professionals more attuned to the needs of others.

The reforms of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s finally opened the gates to the professions for minorities and others, in terms of access to both services and positions. Slowly, opportunities for education, training, and advancement began to open up. Previously excluded groups were first allowed and then in many case welcomed into the academy, the legal world, medicine, government, entertainment, the media, etc. These accomplishments also cast new light on those who had struggled to gain access to services, bringing them needed care and attention. But such gains were slow and required continual pressure against resistance. And so, even as access increased and the more egregious wrongs were made right, faith in the professions was slow to accumulate. Each new failure breeds new skepticism about the pace of change and the commitment of privileged allies.

At the same time, many of those who had long held faith in the professions began to experience a crisis of skepticism. Some reacted out of simple racism or sexism, unwilling to trust women or minorities or the professions they represented. Others had more complicated reactions, including concerns that preferential treatment that was intended to correct past discrimination was instead leading to lower standards. And so, those who had once upheld “middle class respectability” as the bedrock of American society began to feel a growing skepticism about the occupations at the core of that value system.


Part of this story is a familiar one about the increased faith of liberals in “big government” (New Deal, Great Society) and the diminished faith of conservatives in the same. But there’s a bigger story here that goes far beyond partisan politics.

Faith in the professions is necessary to keep our society functioning. Some level of trust in expertise is needed in order to tackle the many challenges we face. It doesn’t have to mean turning everything over to a “panel of experts.” But it does have to mean trusting doctors to make medical decisions, teachers to teach, lawyers to uphold the law, and journalists to accurately report events to the best of their ability.

Ronald Reagan made famous the phrase “trust but verify.” Lately we seem to have shortened this to “vilify.” As we add ever-increasing layers of “verify” (some of which are plenty necessary), we also need to figure out how to add back in the “trust.” Otherwise we’re in for a world of mobocratic hurt.

5 Responses to Our Lost Faith in Professionals
  1. Tony
    May 18, 2011 | 6:50 am

    Mmm, I’d hardly equate teachers with lawyers and doctors. Doctors who are incompetent lose their licenses, and lawyers can be disbarred. They’re actual professions that discipline their own. Teachers, on the other hand, don’t discipline each other, and can pretty much never be fired.

    Of course, this goes to my beef with teacher unions. I have a pretty dim view of the teaching profession, and sometimes I dislike teachers being used as a bargaining chip, as in “won’t somebody please think of the teachers?”

    I have three or four teachers who were great, and who really made a difference, and so naively I think of all teachers as wonderful… but when I think about how I’ve probably had some thirty or forty teachers in total, I realize that only having three or four who were great means that those teachers were great individuals, and that there is nothing systematic about the profession that makes teachers great.

    In short, I hate it when the fond memory of one singular individual teacher is used to bargain for and justify the nine others who were terrible.

    • admin
      May 18, 2011 | 2:43 pm

      A) I’m not sure that lawyers (or doctors) are doing quite as much self-policing as you suggest.

      B) You’re right that, especially if they want to continue avoiding outside policing, K-12 teachers need to do a better job of self-policing within their profession.

      C) If you remember three or four teachers as great, I’m not sure whey that suggests that the others were terrible. Couldn’t it be that they were simply either not great or just not great for you. The nature of teaching means that even great teachers won’t connect with every student, but that doesn’t mean they’re not qualified. Looking back, I’d say I’ve had far fewer bad teachers that good and great ones. And it’s not as though every medical professional is wonderful.

      Every profession has stronger and weaker members, but I fear the teachers’ unions are souring us to them faster than we ought to be. With both conservatives and liberal reformers willing to add to that, I worry about whether we’d ever be satisfied with reforms. And if they can’t lead to renewed trust, I don’t know whether they can be effective.

  2. Tony
    May 22, 2011 | 2:03 am

    Yeah, you’re right. I guess I just have an axe to grind, when it comes to the teaching profession.

    I do often think though, that education reformers who point at teachers often neglect to point at parents, and I think, just as it is difficult to tell a teacher what to do, so too is it difficult to tell people to be better parents (and to tell people not to have kids if they can’t take of them).

    The education system needs to be fixed, but I can’t imagine there being lasting changes with parental support of students and teachers…

  3. kaahl
    August 3, 2011 | 5:19 am

    I can see this element at work in the lost faith of professions. But have you ever thought of another aspect? What about this story:

    Boom in education after WWII. Many who would have never received a college education did so. Assume some parents of baby boomers entered the professions, but other GIs joined the manufacturing sector. These were good times for US manufacturing, through the 1960s. Union organization was high, wages were good, corporations promised high pensions and insurance than could be sustained absent this demographic dividend.

    During the 1960s and 1970s, many in manufacturing and other sectors could see that certain professions really had it set–everything from lawyers, doctors, engineers to PhDs. So they encourage their children (the baby boomers) to get an education, get a degree.

    In fact from 1970s to 1990s, this “get an education and you will be taken care of” penetrated every aspect of the US–from folk lore to water cooler convo to policy-making to institutional expansion. Expand loans for education, expand support of higher education, expand research at research universities, expand everything.

    In response, non-profit and for-profit education centers have sprouted up everywhere. Everyone is churning out degree holders and there is no real place to put them . More people have advanced degrees but advanced degrees don’t necessarily confer economic advantage.

    I forgot what I was arguing but this is veering off course. Abort.

    • Jason
      August 3, 2011 | 2:31 pm

      I think you’re story makes sense for those in the individual professions, but I was more concerned about views from those outside the professions.

      As one with an advanced degree and very uncertain job prospects, I understand firsthand the malaise accompanying the economic disappointments you’ve outlined here.