There is a well-known idea that work in the service of the public counts, or should count, as a vocation, an idea dating from at least Max Weber, the German sociologist. Talk of a vocation can sound almost wilfully old-fashioned nowadays. But is it?
For Weber, professionals had to be capable of living up to the ethical and other demands placed upon them by their situation: There was what Paul Du Gay has called a “moral economy of office” arising out of the way that they enacted their role. The attributes of the professional were not a subtraction from what it was to be a person. Quite the reverse; they represented a massively positive achievement requiring the mastery of a difficult milieu and practice. Nowadays, some professions still at least honour the idea, even if it sometimes appears to be in the breach, and not least a set of professions which universities help to inculcate – medicine, law, and so on.
I am straying on to dangerous ground though. Talk of professions and academe can sound grating. In numerous books, the professionalization of higher education is not necessarily portrayed in a positive light since it can be understood simply as a cycle of credentialization.
Still, I wonder if we should think about vocation and profession again. One of the problems with contemporary academe is that it has slipped from being something that at least approached a profession as its sense of vocation has been undermined. So many of its trappings now tend to suggest the opposite of a profession. To the general public, I suspect that academics are no longer seen as having a vocation, and therefore a true profession. So academe exists in an uneasy relation with the public and the idea of public service.
This is by no means all the fault of academics. The external pressures to conform to a deracinated idea of what an academic is are strong and growing. But, as Anthony Kronman puts it in his excellent little book, Education’s End, it hasn’t exactly been helped by the laying aside of goals such as “helping students to come to grips with the question of what living is for.”
But how to inject as sense of vocation back into a sorely pressed academe? There Is a vogue currently to revive the idea of oaths. We not only have the Hippocratic Oath and the Oath of Geneva in Medicine but now the MBA oath dedicated to promoting “responsible value creation” whose “long-term goal is to transform the field of management into a true profession, one in which MBAs are respected for their integrity, professionalism, and leadership.” There is even talk amongst the International Bar Association of a Hippocratic Oath for lawyers.
Would an oath work for academics and what would it include? Well, I haven’t a clue but a debate around its contents might at least be worth contemplating.