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The paradox of skill

24 February, 2015 - 17:30

All professions require unique skills. While demonstrated proficiency in particular skills is necessary for admission into a profession, skill mastery alone is not sufficient to define the professional. If it were, a surgeon would be simply a plumber employed to mend human pipes and valves; a lawyer simply a carpenter crafting together legal words and phrases into motions, wills or contracts; a teacher simply an actor skilled at presentation or lecturing. While the surgeon must be extraordinarily skilled in the crafts of incision and suturing, while the lawyer must be adept at the craft of legal word-smithing, and the teacher a master of the practical arts of communication, such skills are not the essence of who they are as professionals, nor are they the be and end all of their practices. Understanding this difference is the key to the classic distinction between a trade and a profession.

Both trades and professions require the practice and perfection of significant skills, but a trade is completely defined by its commensurate skill; a profession is not. As Brandeis explains: “A profession is an occupation for which the necessary preliminary training is intellectual in character involving knowledge, and to some extent learning, as distinguished from mere skill.” I would add that it is not just in “preliminary training” that intelligence and learning are required, but in all aspects of the practice of the continuing professional life.

In a time when everyone wants to be called professional, a real danger lurks in Brandeis’ distinction, an elitism (‘mere skill’), a snobbery, a class bias that is inappropriate both to the tradesperson and the professional. Once, the trades were a source of enormous pride and distinction. Through Medieval guilds a revolution in human worth and work was set in motion and the foundations of the industrial and technological revolutions laid. Through the guild structure, the skills of trades were passed from generation to generation, and the pride of association with quality and integrity maintained.

But the professions were something else entirely. Called The Learned Professions as the Middle Ages yielded to the Renaissance, the Priesthood, Law, and Medicine obviously required rigorous training in particular skills, but the application of these particular skills required a dimension of commitment and integrity not necessitated of a trade. The wisdom to counsel human beings in the midst of spiritual, emotional, physical or legal crisis necessarily requires more than technique. It requires a learned and practiced wisdom: an ethic. It is one thing to entrust your bathroom to a plumber, another thing entirely to entrust your life to a heart surgeon. Those willing to assume the unique burdens of the spiritual, physical, and legal care for humans in existential need were designated, or set apart, as learned professionals.

As I write this chapter, I am in the process of recovering from open heart surgery. The experience of putting my life in the hands of a physician is vivid. I am also sitting in my home that is being extensively remodeled. I am fortunate to have a relationship with two excellent persons: Dick, my heart surgeon and Craig, the skilled construction craftsman (carpenter, plumber and electrician) restoring our home. Both are highly skilled and wise men. Dick, however, is integral to the care and counseling that guided me and my family through my decision to “go under the knife”. Craig is full of sage wisdom about the public and foreign affairs of our times, but in no sense is my life vulnerable to his lively and wise insights that we share while he restores my kitchen and replaces the bedroom window.

Exactly three weeks ago Dick, sat on the side of my bed in a Denver, Colorado hospital surrounded by twelve members of my family and talked to me about the alternatives for dealing with a most unexpected heart problem. He showed me the very worrisome pictures of several partially blocked arteries, and told me that, in his opinion, I had no choice but to have quadruple bypass surgery. Dick said he would send my file to anyone I wished for a second opinion, but felt I should reach a decision soon. My kids asked all sorts of nervous and caring questions and he responded openly and fully. Never have I been with someone as obviously open and trustworthy at a time when so much was at stake for me.

As I made my decision to move forward with this personal ordeal, I would learn from friends in the community that Dick was one of the most skilled surgeons in the country. That was reassuring. But I already knew he was a professional: a person wise and caring enough for me to trust my life to.