Money Is Not Important to Me: A Brief History of Professionalism

I wasn’t planning on posting the video about the wide-eyed undergrad pathetically beseeching her cynical professor a grad school rec, because it’s reached the saturation point on the academic blogosphere, but I want to make a point about it, so here it is for your enjoyment:

At one point, when the prof is talking about the dire financial prospects for someone seeking a Ph.D in the humanities, the student says “Money is not important to me.”  It’s treated as a kind of naïve affectation, but I want to argue here that “I don’t care about money” is actually a historical feature of our professional rhetoric and part of the ethos of professionalism in general.  In order to do this, I’m going to give you a long, rambling history of the American professions beginning in 1800, so bear with me or go find some cat pictures.  I won’t hold it against you.  I like cat pictures.

My major sources in this little dissertation are Samuel Haber’s The Quest for Authority and Honor in the American Professions and Paul Starr’s The Social Transformation of American Medicines. Burton Bledstein’s Cultures of Professionalism is also something of a classic in this field.

During the eighteenth century, the professions were limited to and therefore derived their authority from the gentile classes, and in the U.S. leading up to and just after the Revolutionary War, professions largely followed this European model.  In late-eighteenth century London, medicine, law, and the ministry were the three learned occupations considered respectable enough for—and therefore limited to—gentlemen.  Even within those professions, there were strata that distinguished the learned practitioner from the technician.  Physicians, for example, were classically educated and had “some medical training, which he might have acquired in various and seemingly casual ways.  He attended to internal diseases and prescribed drugs; yet, as a gentleman, he did not work with his hands” as surgeons and apothecaries did (Haber 4). Social status and education level also determined one’s potential rank within the clergy.  Bishops were noblemen, whose “preeminence contrasted sharply with the wretchedness of the deacons, who … in the eighteenth century had become a fixed ‘clerical proletariat’” (Haber 5).

Few nobles or gentlemen immigrated to the American colonies, however, which meant that the professions there had to be filled by relatively ordinary men. But at this point, that leveling was more a matter of necessity than the deliberate assault on privilege that would instigate the nineteenth century professional crisis.  Rather than lowering the status of physician, lawyer, or minister as professional titles, acquiring those distinctions raised the status of the individual who acquired them by attending one of the newly established universities.  As Haber indicates, “professionalization in America was linked with the ‘art of rising in life,’ with upward mobility” (Haber  6).  In other words, the professions, with their institutionalized associations with status and privileged knowledge, helped create the elite and ruling classes of early American society.  Yet that ruling class would not exactly mirror that of Europe.  American doctors never succeeded in duplicating the occupational ranks of physician, surgeon, and apothecary, just as “the attempt to set up a cohesive elite of Anglican priests and to bring a bishop to America failed” (Haber 9).  The emerging professional class did, however, succeed in establishing collegial organizations in the style of the Royal College of Physicians or the Inns of Court.  These organizations helped establish licensing laws “to raise standards, esteem, and, more improbably, the incomes of practitioners” (Haber 9).  By 1866, those standards and the esteem they conferred would be a rather distant memory.

Haber attributes the precipitous decline of the authority and sense of gentlemanly honor associated with the professions to the broader leveling impulses of the post-revolutionary and Jacksonian periods, which “joined with the spirit of expansion to inspire a widespread attack upon various forms of exclusiveness, restriction, and monopoly” (Haber 93).  Yet, Haber notes, this was an “equivocal egalitarianism” that “mixed a vague animus for leveling with a distinct eagerness for rising in the world” (Haber 93).  Thus, institutional gateways into the professions and the social standing those professions could confer were collapsed, but only for white men.  Rather than abolishing the notion of social hierarchies, “the expansion of political democracy in this era, through suffrage extension and the new political devices that accompanied it, to all appearances made most white males, irrespective of social standing, religious belief, merit, and even virtue, members of the ruling class” (Haber 96).

Evangelical Protestantism was both an impetus for and a beneficiary of these leveling impulses.  American evangelicalism largely eliminated Anglican Church hierarchies.  While elite divinity schools such as Harvard and Yale continued to produce learned clergymen in the tradition of the highly literate and hierarchical Puritans, the Second Great Awakening saw “a style of religious leadership that the public deemed ‘untutored’ and ‘irregular’” become “successful, even normative in the first decades of the republic” (Hatch 5).  The foundation of new Protestant sects like the Seventh Day Adventists, the Methodists, the Baptists, and the Latter Day Saints was instigated by religious visionaries that did not come out of and, in fact, defined themselves against, those elite institutions.

Just as populism and sectarian innovation had profound implications for the future of American Protestantism, similar forces would shape nineteenth century medicine.  First of all, increasing emphasis on technical know-how over elitist classical education led to a proliferation of training colleges, opening the medical field to nearly all white men and even some women who wished to pursue medicine as a career.  Accompanying that expansion of opportunity was a relaxation of standards.  In the 1820’s, individual states were already beginning to abolish medical licensing laws, and such rollbacks escalated through the 1850’s.  Yet, as Paul Starr points out, the reasons for the near wholesale elimination of licensure were complex and its affects paradoxical.  Attacks on medical licensure began as a way of ensuring competence, as popular opinion held that a medical license was “an expression of favor,” the means by which medical societies maintained their unearned place of privilege (Starr 58).  As Starr argues, a medical license was only meaningful “if it was accepted as evidence of objective skill.  But the belief that medical societies and boards of censors were merely closed corporations, like the banks and monopolies, utterly subverted their value as agencies of legitimation” (Starr 58).  Abolishing licensure was a means of forcing traditional medical practitioners to compete on the market with other approaches, reaffirming the belief that rational knowledge ought to be accessible to the layman, free from “all the traditional forms of mystification that medicine and other professions had relied upon” (Starr 58).  This shift in attitudes was, in fact, a crucial turning point that would enable mid and late nineteenth century doctors and researchers to challenge “outdated bases of legitimacy” and build a profession based on modern science, which Starr argues “shares with the democratic temper an antagonism to all that is obscure, vague, occult, and inaccessible” (Starr 59).  However, that same populist shift would also hamper those very scientific developments, which, in their constantly compounding specificity gave “rise to complexity and specialization, which then remove knowledge from the reach of lay understanding” (Starr 59).  The mid-nineteenth century, then, the tumultuous half-century period between the decline of eighteenth century professional medicine and the rise of modern medicine saw that profession first reach its nadir in terms of both authority and competence.

Thus, the 1880’s and beyond were marked by a gradual resurgence of the very idea of professionalism as a class of workers marked by the specialized competencies they derived from education.  Medical colleges and law schools were reformed.  Licensing laws were re-established.    The AMA was formed, and as the twentieth century began, new professions began to arise, and the rise of those new professions had a direct relationship to the formation of the modern university.  In the 1920’s, future doctors were, for the first time in over a century, required to get a Bachelor’s degree before entering medical school.  The disciplines that constitute the humanities began to consolidate around particular required no degree—began to arise.

People who occupied these disciplines also began to articulate certain ideals about what it meant to be a professional.  Industrial capitalism was starting to become a big deal, of course, and professionals began defining themselves in contrast to the two essential human components of that system—the laborer and the businessman—and they did so by articulating a particular relationship to money.  Namely, people involved in business were all about money, but “professionals” were totally above such mercenary concerns.  Rather, professionals were loyal to a different set of ideals and ethics and therefore didn’t care about money. Now, in the late nineteenth century, this was a rather disingenuous position.  It conceals the degree to which the formation of barriers around the professions—education requirements, licensing—were constructed in order to raise the standard of living for those who occupied them.  By eliminating competition from irregular practitioners, for example, doctors were able to command a much higher wage.   In a way, the appeal to higher ideals and ethics—“I don’t care about money”—was a way of reducing cognitive dissonance, of insisting that the elimination of competitors (which resulted, once again, the exclusion of women and non-white persons) was purely a matter of ensuring standards.

So, for a period of time, “I don’t care about money” was as much about preserving privilege as it was about making sure doctors and lawyers knew what they were doing.  To argue such isn’t to argue that the regulation of professions that so directly impact the public well-being is a bad thing.  It’s simply to say that it wasn’t entirely about the public well-being, and it behooves us to be honest about that.

So what does this have to do with professional rhetoric and the dismal employment situation for academics today.  Basically, I’m arguing that “I don’t care about money” has made it impossible for us to have truly honest public conversations about what things cost and how much the people providing certain services—like medical care and education—deserve to make.  One the one hand, that rhetoric can be a way of shutting down anyone who suggests that certain professionals maybe aren’t entitled to millionaire salaries (doctors and lawyers, anyone?).  But on the other hand, if you are working in a low-demand professional field that is facing budgetary retrenchment, the people who control the money will be perfectly happy to use your sense of professional ethics and ideals to pay you less.  If you and your colleagues are constantly giving off the vibe that you’d totally work for free if you had to, someone may eventually take you up on that.

This is a problem that the medical profession is also facing right now, particularly in the context of debates about healthcare reform.  The public impression that all MDs make investment banker salaries is increasingly become as fantastical as the impression that professors only work six hours a week.  Pay varies according to specialty and employment situation, but doctors have seen their salaries shrink considerably over the past three decades.  My father, for example, who specializes in ear surgery, makes half a million a year.  His partner, who entered the same specialty thirty years before him, easily made the equivalent of twice that at the height of his career.  Doctors who work in research or in corporate hospitals—especially general practitioners—make considerably less than my father.  There is a very simple reason for this:  as the cost of care has risen, insurance companies have slashed provider reimbursements and corporate hospital systems have cut into provider salaries.  Private practices are becoming increasingly costly to run and increasingly less remunerative.

Now, I think there is a very important discussion to be had about whether half a million dollars is a reasonable salary for a doctor.   But once again, it is very difficult to have that discussion because doctors (rather understandably) do not respond well to assaults on their standard of living, especially when its accompanied by the implication that they are just greedy bastards.  That resistance is compounded when the President himself spouts egregiously false information about how much doctors actually make for certain procedures. Also, I think there are reasonable concerns about where the cuts to provider incomes will actually stop (at $100,000 a year?  Less than that?) and whether doctor salaries will still be enough of an incentive to prompt bright young people to take on massive piles of debt in order to go to medical school or whether it will, in fact, become a bait-and-switch like grad school.

I also think there is a very important discussion to be had about what a college professor should reasonably expect to make during their lifetime, but that is a discussion that has become all but impossible due to the total batshit ideas that pundits and large swaths of the public have about what professors actually do and, one might argue, a lack of solidarity among academics themselves.  But “I don’t care about money” is a part of this too.  One of the problems with that cartoon is that it sort of makes it seem like that undergraduate student came up with these ideas about what being a professor means all on her own.  In fact, her appeal to Harold Bloom is, in a way, an appeal to an older model of the academy in which “I don’t care about money” could be an effective way of preserving privilege, in which those who did the “business stuff”—administrators and legislators—could be regarded with disdain and hostility because of their lack of allegiance to a higher set of academic principles and mercenary obsessions with dirty, dirty money.  This is an academic culture in which that undergraduate student could have been fed a metic ton of nonsense about the “life of the mind” being its own reward.

But, of course, that’s bullshit.  We do care about money, but not all academics are very honest about that fact, even the ones who are barely making a living wage.  “I don’t care about money” is a way of saying, “I can barely make rent and I have a mounting pile of debt, but I’m still better than you because I live a ‘life of the mind.’”  In other words, “I don’t care about money” is simultaneously a pernicious bit of snobbery with a rather prestigious historical pedigree and the thing that is biting us in the ass.


4 thoughts on “Money Is Not Important to Me: A Brief History of Professionalism

  1. Wonderfully put. The other thing about the whole “money is not important to me” mindset is that it sets one up quite badly for job searching outside of academia, should that be necessary. I’m now over 7 years “out” (I don’t consider adjuncting to be truly “in”) and I still have trouble with this.

    The most traumatizing part of becoming out, after the loss of identity, was the realization that convincing other people to pay for your work is a very difficult task if it doesn’t take place in a clearly defined context. That’s one of the advantages of belonging to a profession – it provides a context in which your work is assigned monetary value. A profession that adopts the stance that “money doesn’t matter” is one that’s ultimately dooming itself.

  2. Great point. Part of me is always surprised by the fact that negotiating terms and salary is more or less an expected part of the employer-employee relationship in private industry, though the ability to participate in those negotiations either requires you to be a highly desirable employee or a member of a union.

  3. Aaaanndd this is why (among other reasons) I’m not aiming for a position in academia, despite being in my third year of a Ph.D at a school where the only accepted alternatives are aiming high in government or the private sector. (Neither of which catch my interest at the moment – at least not the high-ranked ‘acceptable’ ones) A life in the Academy is simply expected, and I’m no Gettier; even if my personality mismatch and teaching style weren’t an issue, the likelihood that I’d even come up for tenure is vanishingly slim.

    I’d rather swallow my pride and go back to being an Executive Assistant (and having a comfortable salary) than adjunct for the rest of my professional life. (Well, that, and like I said: my personality doesn’t lend itself to peonship and the politics of academia as an institution.)

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