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Why the Old Is Better

Reinvention as the death of professionalism.

by Barnabas
April 28, 2004

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"And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, "The old is better.'"
— Luke 5:39.

Two things only the people anxiously desire: bread and the Circus games." 
— Juvenal (Roman poet and satirist, est. 60-140)

"A profession is a group of persons who share a similar occupation, a common basis of knowledge and skills, and a distinctive standing in society. They are also supposed to share a common set of values, including the pride for their competence and standing, and the desire to keep their occupation under autonomous control and supervision." 
— Simon Schwartzman. Higher Education Policy, 7, 2, 24-26, 1994.

Recently I attended a professional conference in which the featured speaker spoke of plans to reinvent "for the new day" the profession to which both he and I belong. This profession meets the conditions stated by Schwartzman in the epigraph. It is also a classic profession, which ups the ante even further:

1) A classic is a prototype or standard. It cannot be "reinvented" without losing its essence.

2) It addresses needs beyond Juvenal’s cynical "bread and the Circus games," for otherwise cooking and clowning would take care of us.

3) It has stood the test of time, as in the biblical comparison between old and new wine.

So the speaker’s words made me sick at heart, but not because I think the reinvention will succeed. In the forty years I have been practicing my classical profession, there have been several earnest assaults on its integrity. But it keeps bouncing back. My sadness rather is for the time and resources that will be wasted, for the young professionals who will be led astray, and for the clientele who will be subjects for experiment rather than people to be served.

The profession will bounce back because the need for it changes shape but not definition. That is why, after all the fuss and feathers and a few misspent and even ruined careers, at the end of the century we will still be doing what we are doing today. Of course we will learn some new techniques. We hope to be increasingly efficient. We will still be doing the same things, but may do some of them differently. That is called growth, not reinvention.

Maybe growth was all the speaker meant, but if so he overspoke. Similar language in the past has been taken to mean more than growth and has contributed to those misspent and ruined careers I just mentioned. The danger of reinvention is that some will start doing different things and not even notice how different they are. I’m reminded of two former colleagues who had changed professions and then informed me earnestly that they were now doing "real" things. In truth, the things they had begun doing were real enough, but they weren’t the same things they were called to do before, nor even valid substitutes for them.

When I accepted my current position, I wondered aloud at being offered the job at such a late point in my working life. A contemporary said to me what someone had said to him when he took a similar position. "They want you because you know what to do when you go to work in the morning." In other words, they want a professional.

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