The Challenge of Career-Driven Professionalism

Originally posted: July 9, 2006

[The following are excerpts of a speech, “The Inescapable Civic Embeddedness of the Long Distance Learner: Challenges, Obligations, and Opportunities,” presented by Dr. Calvert to doctoral students and faculty of Walden University, July 9, 2006 at Indiana University Auditorium, Bloomington, Indiana. Access the entire address by clicking here; learn about To Restore American Democracy: Political Education and the Modern University here. The author welcomes comments; contact Professor Calvert at]

I have been asked to speak on an important part of Walden University’s mission, the bringing about of positive social change. This means identifying a problem in our society and examining it in a way — broadly, in depth, and with a view to what might be done about it — that might motivate Walden’s doctoral students to improve themselves and their community. I applaud Walden’s commitment to fostering both positive change and individual improvement through its educational programs, and this evening I will do my best to contribute to this commendable project.

. . . [First I want to suggest how Walden University might help solve a] more fundamental problem. We currently live within what it is no exaggeration to call a dysfunctional polity. No, I’m not talking just about the present administration (this is a non-partisan analysis) but the system itself. It’s not doing its work very well. This is partly because in growing numbers American citizens are not doing their work very well, are disengaging themselves from public life on the national level. My call here this evening is for Walden University to help turn this around — and thereby strengthen and make more effective its own work. . . .

Let me now turn to another challenge. It is suggested by a phrase used by Walden University, and other institutions as well, to describe the kind of student it seeks to attract. It is the sort of person who would want to “interact with other successful, career-driven peers.” By now it’s no surprise to find “career” linked to “success” at or near the center of almost any school’s efforts to recruit students.

This means, as I’ve said, that concept of a career tends to be equated with personal success as measured by upward socio-economic mobility and is taken for granted as a positive thing. Success these days in a career, or in a succession of careers, sometimes seems to require that the success-seeker put aside exactly what the older workaholic did — all of one’s merely private life other than work — everything merely “urgent,” as one Web site puts it, in favor of the career itself: (I’m quoting here.)

The urgent thing (your boss, your current assignment, the customers you handle, the mortgage you’re paying, your short-term needs… ) is stopping you from acquiring a longer perspective of how your life will be in five or ten years if you don’t evolve at pace with the world. For this or other reasons you may have failed to set your career objectives . . . , but [not to worry, they conclude] it’s never too late to become a bit more self-centered. This sort of validation of self-centeredness, on one level anyway, is as old in American life as Horatio Alger.

So is its deformation, indeed its degeneration, universally condemned as careerism — the propensity of certain individuals to pursue their own self-interest unscrupulously, deviously, even viciously, by any means available, with no regard for anyone but themselves. Careerists, also known as opportunists, toadies, suckups, and worse, we shall no doubt always have with us. It’s hard not to notice that in academia in recent years the more career-driven new professors are, the more easily they are “managed” by an administration patterning itself after the modern corporate hierarchy. The difference between such persons and the out-and-out careerist is sometimes hard to detect.

Now let me oversimplify and exaggerate, but only slightly, to drive home the point. I take my cue from the outlook of the Young Urban (or Upwardly Mobile) Professional, the Yuppie of the Reagan Years. Remember the movie Wall Street and the Ivan Boesky character, Gordon Gekko, the guy who told us that “greed is good,” but also Bud Fox, the archetypal yuppie?” If you don’t, read James B. Stewart’s Den of Thieves — or his essay in our book. Focused to a fault, goal-oriented indeed, cynically manipulative and indifferent to how he may hurt others in his scramble for personal “success,” success at any cost in some cases, the Yuppie is nicely captured in this little story:

Two yuppies were hunting grizzly bears somewhere out west. Spying their prey on the next ridge, one of the yuppies took out his expensive high-powered rifle, affixed to it his expensive telescopic sight, drew a bead, fired off a round, and hit the bear. Wounded just enough to make him mad, the bear, sighting the source of his affliction, took off running full tilt toward the yuppies. Whereupon, one of the yuppies calmly took off his expensive hunting boots and put on his expensive running shoes. The other yuppie then said, “you damned fool, don’t you know a man can’t outrun a grizzly bear?” His companion replied, “That may be so. But in fact, my friend, all I have to do is outrun you.”

We don’t need Jack Abramoff or the late Ken Lay or Jeff Skilling to tell us that such persons are still with us. We know intuitively that “self-centeredness” per se is a human frailty, and we know, too, that whether the career-driven self is a good thing depends not on the drivenness or the career but on the quality of the self in question. This is a matter of character.

It is also not too much to say that career-drivenness and careerism exist on a continuum and that the line separating them is sometimes blurred and shifting. But the origins of the otherwise strange conviction that self-centeredness is simply and obviously a good thing is also rooted in the economic libertarian side of the Idea of Progress and is one of its utopian assumptions. And I would hold that the same also applies to the uncritical acceptance of the career itself as a way of thinking of the life well lived. More on this in a moment.

But what is most useful about the stereotyped investment bankers of the Reagan era is they bring into sharp relief an older conception of what it meant to be a professional, operative in American society at least until the late nineteenth century. Old though it may be, it’s worth thinking about. Simply put, the older professional — actually as old in concept as Plato — was someone possessing a special kind of knowledge and devoted to serving a specific kind of client. Uppermost always to the professional was that the purpose of the specialized knowledge was the good of the c
lient, not his or her own wealth or social status or power.

In the civic republican language of early America the professional was serving his own good, of course, and his client’s, but also the public good, and the three were linked. And in the religious language of that older time, what professionals — and others as well — did with their lives was not to pursue a career but to follow a calling, also called a vocation. The trick was to figure out what you were good at, how your “God-given” talents distinguished you from others, and once you knew these things you knew how you ought to devote your life.

The “others” you were helping, of course, were the entire community of which you were a part, a collection of different persons working at different occupations, but flourishing or suffering together as a unit. In both cases the individuality of its parts required a due unity of the whole, the “pluribus” of the society presupposed and depended on its “unum.” Its diversity, paradoxically, depended on its commonality. . . .

This brings me to the students in the audience. What I’ve said about a Walden education, far from getting in the way of your professional training, suggests a kind of professionalism largely lacking in America today. I’m thinking of that older meaning of what it means to be a professional I talked about earlier — a life’s work, however it may be defined as a career, that will in the end be measured not by the size of your income, though that may well be large, but by the magnitude of your contribution to the common good — I mean by what you can persuade your fellow citizens to agree with you is positive social change.

As for yourself, this to be sure will require turning away from that one half of what Jefferson meant by the “pursuit of happiness” defined in private, individual, subjective, Lockean terms. Instead you can seize on Jefferson’s Aristotelian or civic conception of happiness, thus meeting your political and professional obligations, but also earning status and prestige, and yes, income. But these latter won’t be your “goal.” These things will come to you, unsummoned, as a byproduct of your vocation, your true self, we should all hope, conscientiously exercised. . . .

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