Catalyst Book Press

The places, ideas, and people that change us

The Problem With Professionalization

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problems with professionalization or the problems that institutionalization brings to professions. Although I’ve been thinking about this problem for several years, it has really come to the forefront of my mind because I’m teaching a class on Health & Healing in Sub-Saharan Africa at Stanford this spring. The first week of school, I had my students read an essay by Steve Feierman and an excerpt from a book by John M. Janzen. Both scholars touch on the medical “pluralism” that exists in African today: though colonial states and missionaries brought biomedical health systems to the continent, they never replaced indigenous healing systems. Today, Africans (educated and uneducated, Christian or Muslim or other) access both systems for different illnesses, recognizing the legitimacy of both systems. Some of my students really struggled with this, inherently believing that biomedicine is superior because it’s based on empirical evidence. Both Feierman and Janzen attempt to disprove this assumption, arguing that indigenous healing systems are also based on empirical evidence and long periods of testing different treatments. They also point out that just as indigenous health systems offer cures that are based outside of this western scientific paradigm, western science is also based on unexamined assumptions that sometimes limit its effectiveness or its ability to recognize the validity of certain cures because they are untestable. Healing, Feierman pointed out, is mysterious.

One of my students proffered the idea that perhaps somebody should make indigenous medicine “official” by  introducing education, programs, certificates–a way to weed out those who haven’t undergone sufficient training. And this is what got me thinking about professionalization and institutionialization. Of course, indigenous healers do have a system of training, and the people of Africa have methods of legitmizing healers–but the comment betrayed a strong belief that if something is credentialed, it is “better” than something that is non-credentialed.

Later that week, I was talking to a fellow graduate student in the history department. She commented that when she was teaching a course last quarter, her students kept wanting her to give them a “narrative” so that the history she was teaching them would make sense. They wanted a context, a story, a way for it all to fit together. She resisted, she said, but had to provide something because they seemed to need something so bad. All my frustrations with professional history came out with my sudden and rather warm comment, “This is just the problem with professional historians. We’ve come to embrace the belief that narrative is bad because it’s privileging one version of the story over another–and as a result, we’ve made history inaccessible and incomprehensible. We’ve completely abdicated our responsibility to communicate with the public, or to educate.”

I’ve made comments elsewhere that I don’t believe credentialing somebody in education makes them a better teacher. In fact, I think sometimes it makes them a worse teacher–but may make them a better teacher within the public school system as it stands, which all too often isn’t really about teaching but about controlling a too-large-group-of-kids and somehow teaching them the memorization skills they need to do well on tests. I’ve begun to realize that credentialing historians makes us feel smug and superior to people who write popular history, which isn’t “real” history. Likewise, I’ve long felt that the institutionalization of art through the widespread and popular M.F.A. program is a tragedy because of what it means for the connection between art and real people.

I’m not against standards–and God forbid that I would be against standards in medicine! But I do think some careers and professions don’t need certificates, diplomas, degrees. For example, art: The insitutionalization of art frequently makes it inaccessible and irrelevant to people outside of the academy. Why should art, any art, be contained within an elitist system? What good is it? And if someone protests that someone needs to protect art from being dumbed down, well–such comments echo/smack of the idea that the “unwashed masses” have such plebian tastes, they can’t be trusted to know what is good. I can’t stand that attitude.  When I went to the AWP, I saw many fine and wonderful small presses whose books I love–Milkweed Press comes to mind. But I also saw so many journals and books that I found so incredibly dull, I’d rather chew off my toes than read them! And this from a woman who loves books, who loves the arts, who loves nothing more than to read.

Also, I’m not against training, or mentoring–but those don’t carry with it the baggage of THE DEGREE. Gaining knowledge is one thing–but the piece of paper calling you an official, credentialed artist or brain is yet another. A while back, I read an Economist article profiling Evan Williams, the founder of Blogger. They pointed out that his stint at Google was short: “Google values official brains—the credentialled, academic sort—whereas Mr Williams dropped out of university in Nebraska because he found the concept somewhat silly. He left Google after less than a year.” As someone who was homeschooled and then entered a typical state college (NMSU) and now am “learning” at an elite institution (Stanford), I can see Williams’s reasoning all too clearly.

Of course, this is about more than art. It is about the Ph.D. I’ve come to accept that like everybody else, I have a problem with pride. It’s felt good saying, “I’m getting a Ph.D. from Stanford.” I’ve always felt apologetic about my M.F.A. from humble UTEP. Maybe if I’d gone to Iowa, I’d feel just as proud. But I think underneath it all, I’d have this niggling thought that I’d bought into the propaganda that what makes something “good,” what legitimizes art or history, is an official paper, a stamp of approval from those who have power. It’s certainly been my problem with professional history despite my pride in saying, “I’m going to Stanford.” I get offended when my professors distinguish their own history as “real” history, as opposed to the kinds of history that non-educated Africans gather in their villages, without the tools, money, fears, standards, and narrow assumptions that guide so-called “real” history.

I guess I don’t have any real conclusion to this–only that I think it’s a tragedy to see art corralled into the academy. History lost touch with the people a long time ago; I hope art doesn’t do the same. Perhaps there will always be twin tracks–those who slowly filter out of the insular world of the academy to affect the people, and those who refuse social legitimacy in favor of their art.



April 10, 2008 - Posted by | art, the artist's life | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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