A Professional Vocation Requires a Liberal Education

The concept of vocation may seem to have little purchase now on a person’s choice of career; it was once associated primarily with a religious vocation to the priesthood within the Christian tradition. Nevertheless, the term still has resonance in the public mind, particularly with regard to the life of the professional—lawyer, priest, doctor, and so on—as it suggests the use of one’s gifts for the greater public good. We could do well to recover the values it carries with it. Indeed the several recently reported scandals in the National Health Service, for example, have led many to call for “a more professional approach” from all involved: the Care Quality Commission, senior managers, civil servants in the Ministry of Health and Social Services, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals. “A more professional approach” means putting patients first for the sake of the common good. A more professional approach also implies an awareness of the tradition of service and understanding into which the professional has entered when taking up his or her career.

Currently, as I have noted, the term “profession” covers wider range of occupations than those traditionally associated with it. Harold Silver and John Brennan talk of liberal vocationalism and analyze the historical tradition and language of vocation in order to extend their application to other professions, such as engineering and business studies (Silver and Brennan, 1988). They suggest that if a person is to deliver his or her professional training effectively, he or she also needs to be liberally educated; without this personal education, they argue, the person will lack the range of knowledge and experience within which to place his or her technical knowledge and apply it with human concern. In particular, it is a liberal education that will inform a professional of his or her inheritance and of the human tradition in which, as a doctor or priest, the professional stands. Moreover, as Newman emphasized in a previous quotation, the Aristotelian notion of the virtuous person is relevant here: a good education must give attention to the character of the person as well as equip him or her with the competence and skill to practice professionally. The lawyer, doctor, accountant, engineer, or priest remains a person notwithstanding his or her professional vocation.

Liberal education is a long-standing tradition in the United States:

A truly liberal education is one that prepares us to live responsible, productive, and creative lives in a dramatically changing world. It is an education that fosters a well-grounded intellectual resilience, a disposition toward life-l ong learning, and an acceptance of responsibility for the ethical consequences of our ideas and actions. Liberal education requires that we understand the foundations of knowledge and enquiry about nature, culture and society: that we master core skills of perception, the importance of historical and cultural context, and that we explore the connections among formal learning, citizenship, and service to our communities. (Board of Directors of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 1998)

In later publications, the Association of American Colleges and Schools discussed programs of study whereby the professional could be liberally educated, but the general perception was that liberal education was at least as much a style of learning as it was concerned with curriculum content (Peer Review, 2012). There is openness to the opportunity to explore and inquire, and there is encouragement to reflect on what one discovers in conversation with others, with the consequence that one comes to embody what one knows. This is close to what Aristotle means when he talks of acquiring the habit of thinking and behaving with integrity.

Martha Nussbaum has frequently defended the importance of a liberal education for the sake of human well-being (Nussbaum, 2010). She is critical of the policies of government and professional bodies, which she argues have reduced education to the acquisition of facts and an attention to outcomes with a focus on value to the economy. As a result, the qualities and personal benefits of the humanities are neglected in the interest of courses in science and technology and preprofessional courses in subjects such as accountancy and international finance. “Getting things right” is what counts most toward becoming a good professional. Economic pressures have led, in any case, to increases in staff-student ratios and class sizes, meaning that vital opportunities for discussion in small seminars, in which ideas can be tested in conversation with others, are much reduced or absent altogether. MacIntyre is right when he says, “It is by having our reasoning put to the question by others, by being called to account for ourselves and our actions by others, that we learn how to scrutinize ourselves as they scrutinize us and how to understand ourselves as they understand us” (MacIntyre, 1999, p. 148).

In particular, the attraction of preprofessional courses at the undergraduate level challenges the opportunity of the undergraduate seeking to enter a profession to become a liberally educated person. The result is that the professional, when he or she takes up an appointment, has a limited range of experience on which to draw when dealing with a client; he or she will therefore be inclined to rely on his or her technical knowledge to see him or her through. One might say this professional lacks the practical wisdom that comes from experience, which Aristotle calls phronesis; it will not be acquired at a stroke, but if it is not identified in professional training, the professional will lack the consciousness of what it means and how to develop it. This practical wisdom is more than a matter of language, but learning the language is essential if it is to be practiced; it should, in time, become second nature. If one is to be a true professional, he or she will have in mind, first and foremost, his or her vocation to serve the interests of society. Without that, he or she will be more inclined through weakness of will to be satisfied that his or her duty is first to comply, second to serve the interests of the company, and third to build up personal resources. The lack of debate and conversation in the experience of education removes the grist by which the undergraduate comes to terms with new ideas and the challenge of the perspectives of others.

Richard Sennett emphasizes that working with others is an acquired skill that must be formed early through the acquisition of good habits (Sennett, 2012). Moreover, in our current society, in which traditional bonds are disappearing, we have to find new ways of building and practicing the art of cooperation. Nothing could be more important for professionals. If they are to win the confidence of their clients, they will have to do more than be a source of information and objective advice. Clients will want to be assured that professionals are interested in them and are focused on serving them personally and not merely their own financial interests or those of their companies. Professionals will not be able to do that if they are not in conversation with the tradition and aware of the fullness of the context within which that takes place. Both are essential if professionals are to grow as people and evince pleasure in cooperating with their clients. And to grow as a person, it is necessary to become aware of one’s vulnerability, otherwise one will always tend to rely on external authorities, such as rules and regulations; one will be compliant rather than morally responsible to the detriment of a client’s interests and one’s own moral sensitivity.

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