Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Erosion of Professionalism in Our Society

Over the past few weeks, I have been slammed with mounting end-of-the-semester tasks at the university as well as approaching deadlines on three books. Thus, with all due self-respect, my absence from my blog actually has been for valid reasons. Over these few weeks, nonetheless, I continually have seen the further erosion of professionalism in our society.

A professional can be either a person in a profession (certain types of skilled work requiring formal training/education) or in sports (a sportsman/sportswoman doing sports) for payment. With a focus on the former (i.e., professions involving certain types of skilled work requiring formal training/education), I hearken back to the “Preamble” of the American Personnel and Guidance Association’s 1965 Ethical Standards Handbook. Essentially three criteria for a trade or skill to be called a professional are addressed and they are as follows:

1. The existence of a body of “specialized knowledge, skills and attitudes.” Importantly, (a) it is derived through scientific inquiry and scholarly learning; (b) it is constantly tested and extended through research and scholarly inquiry; (c) comprises a literature of its own (even though it may, and at times must draw from other areas of knowledge); and, (d) is known and practiced by members of the profession.

2. The exaltation of service to the individual and society above and beyond personal gain, which: (a) includes the possession of a philosophy; (b) is translated into a code of ethics which is known and practiced by members of the profession; and (c) the public recognizes, has confidence in, and is willing to compensate members for the provision of their service

(3) The members of the profession: (a) have acquired the professions body of specialized knowledge, skills and attitudes through professional preparation (preferably on the graduate level) – at a college or university and/or through continuous in-service training, continuing education and personal growth after the completion of formal education; (b) constantly examine and improve the quality of the profession’s professional preparation, in-service training, and continuing education programs; (c) constantly examine the quality of services to the individual and society; and, (d) limit membership, and the practice of the profession, only to persons meeting stated standards of preparation and competencies; and, (e) are afforded a life career and permanent membership as long as services meet professional standards.

I recently was in my favorite local gas station having a cup of coffee with friends and a man walked in wearing a uniform on which the following words were above the left breast pocket: “Howard – Your Professional Lawn Care Specialist.” Howard seemed like a nice young man – I smiled and wished him a good day. However, in my mind I asked him, “Howard, I’m curious – where did you get your graduate degree in lawn care and are you familiar with the code of ethics for professional lawn care?”

For the past 7-10 years, specifically, I have observed an escalating erosion of professionalism. When I first became a university professor, I had a Faculty I.D. card and parked in the faculty parking lot. Now I’m a member of the staff and park in a Staff Parking Lot. When I first became licensed, I was a Psychologist – when I retired from private practice two years ago, thanks to the insurance industry’s attrition of the professional/occupational caste system, I was a “provider.” Recently when talking one of my many “ists” about this phenomena (specifically my podiatrist), he laughed and said “At the hospital I have to remind myself that I’m a doctor – there I’m a ‘wound-care provider’.” Is it any wonder why the numbers of applicants to Ph.D. and M.D. programs have decreased over the past five years! The night I went from a softball game to the Emergency Room with a compound broken finger, I was nervous… wondering, “I hope the attending physician truly is a professional and the help I need isn’t being outsourced.”

In 1977, Professor Saad Nagi gave an inspiring speech at the National Rehabilitation Counseling Association’s national convention. Basically, Dr. Nagi suggested three “ultimate” decisions that professionals make (if they truly are professionals). The following will briefly discuss these “ultimate decisions” with representative illustrations:

1. Who Do I Serve? Professionals ultimately decide who they serve and who they do not serve. For example, if you look closely at courses listed in college and university catalogues, the term “Instructor’s consent required” explicitly means that professor has the right (and responsibility) to determine who will and who will not be allowed to take his or her course. If a floor nurse in a hospital were to discover that a family member was a patient on his or her floor, he or she would have the right (and the responsibility) to request another nurse attend to the family member.

2. How Do I Serve? For a professor, this refers to the issue of “academic freedom;” no administrator at a college or university will dictate or tell a professor how to teach a course. Likewise, an agency may establish goals for clients receiving services but should not dictate to the professionals employed by the agency (e.g., counselors, social workers) how to best serve the clients on their caseload.

3. When Do I Terminate Services? When students complete a degree in higher education and attend their graduation ceremony, the appropriate academic officer, such as a dean, will introduce the graduating students by name and then say, “Mr. (or Madam) President, based on the recommendation of the faculty, I request that these students receive their aforementioned degrees.” It is the faculty who decides when students have completed degree requirements – not the Dean, etc. Likewise, the only person other than yourself who can sign you out of a hospital is your attending physician.

For many professionals today, Who? How? and When to terminate services? decisions are being etched away and lessened by legislative mandates, insurance company policies, budgetary micromanagement and a host of other professionalism infringements on behalf of powerbrokers.

Nonetheless, this phenomenon is not the sole propriety of the United States. For example, a very interesting article addressing “workload remodeling” in Great Britain recently stated, “This article employs the concepts of ‘professional jurisdiction’ and ‘formal knowledge’ to examine threats to teacher professionalism in England arising from the British government’s workload remodeling policy to expand the numbers and remit of staff in schools without qualified teacher status.” (This also is happening in many school systems our country, as well as numerous others.)

Question: What will happen if this trend continues?


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