Over on my personal blog I have been reviewing Professor Don Aitkin's What was it all for? The Reshaping of Australia. (Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005). The first post is here, the second will come up tomorrow.
The book itself examines social change in Australia over the last fifty years in part through a prism set by the Armidale High School leaving certificate class of 1953.
I don't think that anyone of us would not accept that the professions have declined in status and not just in Australia over the period covered by Don. I mention this because he has some interesting material on what he perceives to be the causes of the decline in the professions in Australia.
The first thing he points to is the sheer increase in the scale of the professions. They grew and grew. Further, the growth was associated with the emergence of mini-professions, constant subdivision into smaller areas of knowledge, each with their own societies, journals and specialist knowledge.
As the numbers in the professions increased, as the number of professions also increased, so the general respect in which professionals were held declined.
The growth in the professions was linked not just to the growth of knowledge, but also to a broader process, the "professionalisation" of work. Here I want to quote Don:
Name and fame went with specialised knowledge, and the generalist became seen as someone who knew very little.
The problem is that this professionalisation process and the consequent rejection of the value of broader knowledge has aided the process of locking the professions into narrower silos that have, of themselves, reduced the effectiveness and power of the professions.
Here we get into somewhat slippery territory.
Central to the concept of a "profession" is the idea of professional independence. Without this, a profession becomes simply another occupation. I accept that the concept of independence is a difficult one. In practice, no profession has ever been completely independent, yet the ideal is still central to the professional ethics that lie at the heart of any real profession.
The killer today, as Professor Aitkin notes, is the rise of the concept of "compliance", a concept that has come to replace the old idea of professional independence,
In simple English, to comply means to obey. That is exactly the way the term is now used.
When people speak of compliance, they mean that the profession in question must comply with rules. Of course professions have always had rules, more precisely sets of ethics. However, now we are talking about externally, especially government imposed, rules.
One can mount a case for Government regulation. However, the modern use of compliance is in fact far broader than simple regulation. In a practical sense, it increasingly substitutes rules for ethics and professional standards.
To my mind, this lies at the heart of the decline of professions as professions.