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Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See for full contents of our site

January 20, 2010


Ed Smith, Intelligent Life - A young nurse, interviewed by John Humphrys recently on BBC Radio 4's "Today" program, was asked what she considered the two most important qualities in her job. "Being caring and being compassionate," she replied.

"Not being professional?" Humphrys countered, emphasising that her answer was very unusual.

"No, not being professional," she confirmed.

How did the concept of professionalism become so dominant? And why is it assumed to be innately desirable? Professionalism has certainly travelled a long way in a short time. In the space of a hundred years, the words "professional" and "amateur" have virtually swapped places. At the end of the 19th century, an amateur meant someone who was motivated by the sheer love of doing something; professional was a rare, pejorative term for grubby money-making. Now, amateurism is a byword for sloppiness, disorganisation and ineptitude, while professionalism-as Humphrys suggested-is the default description of excellence. Ours is the age of professionalism; it is a concept in perpetual boom. But all bubbles, as we have painfully learned about finance, must eventually burst. Is it time we let some of the hot air out of professionalism?

In 13 years as a cricketer I watched ultra-professionalism become entrenched as received wisdom. Between 1996 and 2008 I played under 14 different coaches and captains: every one of them began the new season with the stated aim of "making the team more professional". It was a goal that no one challenged and a process that never ended. . .

The question no one ever dared ask was: is professionalism actually helping us to play cricket any better? There were very good reasons for not asking the question. It was too risky-because professionalism supplied not only the dominant ideology, but also the ruling class. In 1996, my cricket team had one coach, working closely with the captain (who has much more power in cricket than in most sports). But by 2008, there were so many coaches, analysts and hangers-on that I couldn't keep up with all their names. Geoff Boycott estimated that the current England team has an auxiliary staff of 13. Even in financially strapped county cricket, the ratio of support staff to players has grown dramatically. Players learn not to ask the question: "What is it that you do, exactly?". . .

Over-professionalism is everywhere. Teachers in England are trained to plan lessons in segments of three minutes, a theory which leaves little room for spontaneity in the classroom. They are also often exhausted before term even starts because of the endemic pressure to plan every lesson weeks in advance. It is all too tempting for teachers to sacrifice freshness-which is impossible to measure or record on paper-in favor of form-filling. But can education ever be mapped out in such prescriptive terms? Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, thinks not: "The erosion of trust in education is sucking the life out of classrooms, teachers and students. You can tick all the boxes under the sun and still be a lousy teacher. You cannot encapsulate the human experience of learning in some mechanistic pedantry.". . .

Nor is over-professionalism confined to the public sector. Journalists at several British national newspapers are encouraged to submit weekly work-plans, even though the stories haven't yet happened. We can all congratulate ourselves on how hard we are working, but does it make for better articles?. . .


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Physics envy: if you don't understand what people are doing, force them to count something.

January 20, 2010 12:51 PM  

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