February 20, 2014
What’s the difference between a teacher and a stripper? No jokes, please. One difference is that stripping pays much, much better—upwards of $100-125,000 a year. While a stripper’s career is shorter, the long-term prospects for the industry are well, pretty good; no one is proposing building stripper robots or placing a small number of practitioners online to perform for everyone in MOOSes, Massive Online Open Stripteases.
Recently, there’s been an increasing run of articles about the Wal-mart-ization of education, particularly university education. The popular belief, that once professors have tenure they can slack off and spout whatever lefty nonsense they like, isn’t totally false—except that universities solved that problem by phasing out tenure. By recent numbers, about 75% of U.S. professors don’t have tenure and never will. Many are adjuncts, meaning they teach courses a la carte and might make $20-40,000 a year, about the same wages and job security as the bartender who pours them a beer after their grading. And this is before we all get replaced by the internet. The problems of adjunct hell are increasingly well-known, and there’s a mini-genre developing of horror stories and jeremiads warning students, for God’s sake, just don’t go to grad school.
If we use the word profession in a loose sense, to mean anyone who has specialized education or training and has a sense of ethical responsibility for his or her workplace decisions, we can find that conditions in many careers are much worse than they are for educators, and for others the same dangers are not here yet but loom. As Jaron Lanier documents in Who Owns the Future?, we all enjoyed accessing music, news articles, and flight bookings for free in college… and then when we graduated we learned that no one can make a living as a musician, journalist, or travel agent anymore because in expecting all these goods for nothing, the value of the people who create them has also been reduced to nothing.
Some of these occupations are drudgery, and probably few will lament not having meter-reader or taxi driver as a future career option. Existing factory workers won’t like losing their jobs, but in the long run being able to 3-D print a t-shirt will do away with a lot of unpleasant sweatshop work. But automation is working its way up the food chain; for lawyers and accountants, powerful new software packages are starting to nip away at mundane tasks such as filing and discovery. Some of the grunt work of nursing involving bedpans and pill distribution may soon be handled by robots in Japan. Pilotless airplanes may be on the way. Research by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne expects that 47% of all jobs could be eventually automated, with engineering, health care, and creative careers among the safest—for the time being. So far they estimate that occupational therapists will be the last to go.
All of this adds up to the conclusion that the professions are, basically, endangered. If you are an educator, journalist, lawyer, engineer, or nurse, you either have the real threat that as online or robotic tools proliferate, your special value as a trained expert will decline, and you can look forward to being an interchangeable service wage earner, or worse, your job will disappear entirely through automation. The same is happening or will happen in other trained blue or white-collar fields.
But there's an additional reason, somewhat more abstract but no less threatening, that the professions are on thin ice in the west. Many jobs are imperiled by technology, but those affected can usually count on at least some public goodwill. Yet I’ve noticed that people are increasingly vocal in disliking professionals. My mother will always tell me that if you ask people, they have a high regard for teachers. That’s no use; a more important metric than asking people about sentimental images of chalkboards and apples is what they think of teachers nowadays. That will result in complaints about fad-chasing whiners who have the summer off. When I lived in Las Vegas, if I read the newspaper opinion pages, I certainly had the impression that strippers were seen as more likeable and deserving of respect.
Now, this may partly be because people have a harsher viewpoint on things they are obligated to pay for with taxes. But engineers aren’t necessarily on public salaries, and we make jokes about them being clueless nerds. Accountants are boring. Lawyers are worse; there are so many nasty jokes and negative stereotypes about them that it is believed to contribute to the rocketing depression and suicide rates among legal practitioners. Pastors and priests who dedicate their lives to service have parents glare and pull their children to their sides in public. Physicians are tagged as arrogant. Pharmacists are on the take. Nurses aren’t disliked, but they are often treated with disrespect and their medical knowledge is discounted. For many men their primary image of nurses is taken from porn videos and Halloween costumes.
Education as a profession has become porn-ified too as adult videos now feature teachers and professors as well. Fifty years ago in the U.S. when the anti-intellectual tag of ‘egghead’ was a strong one, the cliché of the absent-minded professor who was half-blind and wore mismatched clothes prevailed. There is still the odor that academics write papers no one reads, but now movies set on campus overwhelmingly feature the professor-seducer who is amorally bedding all of his female students with Marxism and beat poetry. If I have to choose, I could think of worse scenarios. But it isn’t true.
Is there a reason why there’s such special vitriol for educators generally? My guess is that, from beginning to nearly the end, there’s a power imbalance in that teachers are, well, teaching you things you didn’t know and sometimes disciplining or correcting you. We don’t like being told what to do by anyone. It’s un-American. Isn’t it elitist for this person to dare to pretend he or she is better than I am? Who is anyone to judge my paper on Macbeth and say it doesn’t make sense?
If you believe what I’m saying is ridiculous, think about two things. One is that many commenters and IT bloggers, when making hyperbolic claims that most lectures will disappear in the next decade when all classes are put online, have a sort of self-satisfied glee about this, as though professors deserve it for being so smug and hidebound. Part of this comes from the hucksters who want to promote their products, but many believe that universities have it coming. The campuses aren’t innocent. But I don’t remember so many people mocking car assembly workers and hoping they would lose their jobs sooner.
A second fact is that we no longer really know what the word profession means, or are willing to accept its basic premises. Originally one professed his calling before God, and over time the idea accreted that a professional has a sort of life-long commitment to using his or her expertise ethically. An engineer makes decisions based on personal discretion so that people aren’t endangered; nurses want to avoid a death; lawyers want to keep an innocent man out of prison; journalists want to avoid misleading or misinforming readers.
These sorts of ideas are now gradually going out the window because when people make individual decisions based on their experience and training they tend to want more money and are harder to swap around; thus corporations have a financial and legal interest in reducing professionalism. If an instructor is simply a service provider with a headset and limited decision-making he becomes more replaceable and thus cheaper, and so on to other occupations. If you look at old photographs you will notice that everyone seemed to have a uniform at one time as a mark of their trade. You could recognize a milkman from a movie ticket-taker. Now it’s jeans all round, as it’s another way of denying any unique identity between you and your job—to skirt dangerously near to Marx, it displays what he might have called the alienation of labor.
But again, it’s not just evil corporations behind this. The west is becoming increasingly hostile to the idea of experts. We either don’t trust professionals and assume they’re frauds protecting their own cushy turf, or we go further and deny that formal degrees or training matters at all in a wide range of affairs. We suspect politicians for being experienced, preferring outsiders who are innocent of the workings of government, and who are just like us. If scientists tell us the earth is warming, that’s their opinion; we even feel we have a right to our own facts, and that our viewpoint is equal in value. I may be stretching my argument, in that so far when we’re sick we don’t ask for a surgeon who’s just like us, as opposed to some fancy-pants ivy league graduate. But think of how many television or movie plots you know where decades of training and practice were trumped by the hero’s streetwise hunch.
The apex of this cynicism is the conspiracy theory. We jump on every rumor which claims that a swimsuit model knows more about immunization than an entire medical industry. Almost by definition, such theories involve a sinister them who are always professionals, whether presidents, popes, or financiers. I know of no conspiracy theories about shadowy leagues of hot dog servers. My only consolation is that, in a weird way, conspiracy theories treat professionals with a sort of undeserved awe, believing that they are capable of such global feats of intrigue. I’d be mightily impressed by a president who could secretly arrange to explode two skyscrapers without anyone knowing. These are the same people who can’t get a budget passed?
Like the resentment of teachers, there’s a certain amount of adolescent defiance in all this as well. Many teenagers go through an anti-authority phase and stage their own private rebellions, and feel that displaying their world-weary skepticism for expertise and the professional establishment makes each one of them a mini-Christopher Hitchens of snark. Some apparently never outgrow this. If you’re going to be emo, I would prefer you be like the teenagers who write bad poetry about wild horses running free.
Disdain for professionals has also been explained as class envy, but there’s an obvious hole in this: we cross the class and income spectrum. My upbringing was thoroughly suburban middle class in culture and mindset. I see nothing wrong with this. As Camille Paglia might say, I’m not above a fart joke. Moreover, while the U.S. on paper doesn’t have a class system based on birth, it certainly has one based on money, and many professions are very poorly paid, as my stripper comparison suggests. The 1% has some overlap with the professions, but not much. Salon recently featured a Baltimore ghetto denizen whose income plummeted after giving up selling drugs for adjunct lecturing. 1% doctors tend just to be really, really rich doctors.
Even the word profession is often treated with hostility. One line of attack is to dilute the term into meaninglessness by including everyone in it, so that everything resembling a job which involves an exchange of money is considered a profession. Such people then become angry with you and call you a snob when you suggest that leaf raking maybe isn’t really a profession. The other extreme is to set the bar so high that no one is a professional: “There are no real x anymore, as everyone’s in it for money now.”
In the long run, we’re all dead. In the shorter run, at least the U.S. is not going to give up its anti-intellectualism and its adolescent fantasy of the rule-breaking rebel who twits the noses of the stuffy, condescending experts. I work with ‘professionals,’ and some are indeed jerks with Amy Chua-size attitudes. But there will be some reckoning when bridges begin to collapse and people become sick because of the false equivalence that everyone’s opinion is equally valid, even if it doesn’t help those in the humanities very much at first. The consequences of you telling me that grammar rules are just my opinion or a tool of the grammar cartel are serious as well, but will take longer to show.
So what advice can I give? The jobs are going to go, and despite the degree inflation which seems to require more and more credentials for the same occupation, it is going to be increasingly difficult to make a living in one career that a person can feel invested in. Ironically, we may have to define ourselves and find fulfilment in the things we don’t do to make money—our avocations which are not professions. Second, and this may in fact be harder, there may need to be a cultural change where we stop telling ourselves and our children that every opinion we have is as demanding of respect as one gained through a lifetime of experience.
As well, be an architect. I am always impressed by architects, who belong to one of the only professions I can think of which is more or less universally liked and portrayed benignly in popular culture. They have a cool factor without sliding into hipster pretension, and even the serious-minded appreciate their practical utility in designing real-life buildings based on tangible principles. I am sure that they have more sex. I seem to be ending by discussing sex again, though it accords with the contempt many people have for professions—one of them is always called the world’s oldest.