Commentary

The learned professions

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Colleges founded on the East Coast and later on the westward moving frontier shared a mission to civilize nascent communities. On Nov. 21, 1832, pioneers “knelt in the snow” and founded Wabash College. They had come west from Dartmouth College and Andover Seminary to establish churches and schools. Letters from Crawfordsville back east to families of the first professors described in dark hues the uncivilized and uncouth behavior on the frontier.

The civilizing method was to prepare men for the learned professions: teachers and ministers. The early schools were mainly prep schools because Greek and Latin were foundations for a classical curriculum. Teachers prepared students in a common heritage of learning necessary to be effective leaders for their growing communities and to know how to conduct themselves responsibly. Ministers provided moral guidance and motivation so citizens would behave in such a manner that they and their neighbors could flourish. Montgomery County became civilized — more or less — and prospered.

On that frontier, the essential agrarian activities of hunting and farming and allied work of hand-cut lumber, food preparation and barter of goods did not require schooling. Young people learned those skills from parents through work at home on the farm and in apprenticeships of various types. Some lawyers like Abraham Lincoln were self-taught. As the frontier developed into villages and states intertwined with larger economic and political spheres, those educated by frontier teachers and ministers became the civic leaders.

The three civilizing functions of society were based on the classical education — education by teachers, a legal infrastructure administered by those in the legal profession, and norms of a moral structure instilled by ministers. Leaders were trained for an agrarian world and a barter economy, but schools and colleges enabled leaders to adapt to an industrial economy and expanded economic and political systems, albeit slowly.

An industrial economy required a public education that developed agency in shaping lives and careers. Industry did not require many in learned professions. Strength and other physical skills were sufficient to provide a pathway to a middle-class life for a family. Relatively few needed higher education to be civic leaders. Our public education system was effective in the 20th century. It was built on an industrial, assembly line model that moved students through a twelve-year program with a diploma certification at the end. Montgomery County citizens prospered.

Now we find ourselves at a new uncharted frontier, having moved from agrarian economy (simple, with two learned professions) through industrial economy (complex, with scores) to knowledge economy (complicated, with hundreds). The developed world is changing exponentially from the industrial economy to a knowledge economy. Our schools, current education models and other social infrastructures struggle to adjust to technological advances — especially in computer systems, globalization propelled by increasing speed of transportation and media, emigration propelled by inequities, diversity, and other pressures that make positive adaptation very hard. Recent chaos in school boards, political arenas, churches and communities are warning signs of the gap between rapidity of these changes and slowness in our ability to adjust.

Thoughtful educational leaders in Indiana and Montgomery County are trying to determine what will be the best education for our children, youth and adults and move judiciously with reforms that preserve the best from our heritage and create a 21st century education empowering citizens to have agency in shaping their lives and careers. Some worry that a focus on moral and ethical development will be lost amidst the changes.

Our community needs to come together for serious, thoughtful deliberations about what we want society and our educational system to be to support flourishing individuals and community. Moreover, we need to assist our teachers, administrators and school boards through the process of change. The easy default response is to complain and criticize. it is much harder to make positive contributions to the common good.

 

Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.

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