Work in the Precarious Economy   /   Spring 2016   /    Work In The Precarious Economy

Is There a Future for the Professions?

An Interim Verdict

Howard Gardner

The Dean's Roll Call (detail), 1899, by Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (1844–1916); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts; Barbara and Theodore Alfond Gallery/Bridgeman Images.

When it comes to the lives of professionals, the digital technologies have been at least as disruptive as the market mentality.

For as long as I can remember, I have looked up to individuals who are called “professionals”—doctors, lawyers, and architects, to name a few. I aspired to be a professional, I became a professional, and I continue to hope that young persons of promise whom I encounter will become professionals. But in recent years, I’ve become increasingly uncertain about whether professions will continue to exist, at least in a form that I can admire or even recognize. There are many views about why professions are on the wane—indeed, to put it sharply, about whether the professions are being murdered or whether, to maintain the metaphor, they have been committing suicide. I’ll deliver my interim judicial verdict at the end of this essay. But since my own life so closely parallels the ups and downs of the professions in the last several decades, I begin in an autobiographical vein.

My parents, Hilde and Rudolph Gaertner, escaped from Nazi Germany in the nick of time—arriving in New York Harbor on Kristallnacht, November 9–10, 1938, the infamous Night of Broken Glass. Many of their relatives and friends were not so fortunate. My parents were not themselves professionals—my father had been a businessman, and my mother’s desire to be a kindergarten teacher had been thwarted by the rise of the Nazis. With neither professions nor funds, they soon found themselves living in very modest circumstances in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where I was born five years later.

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