In his article*, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited,” Parker J. Palmer offers that he became a professor “animated in part by the belief that education can humanize us.” Palmer asks “Does education humanize us?” and concludes, “Sometimes, but not nearly often enough” because we “turn our graduates loose on the world as people who know, but do not recognize that our justice system often fails the poor, that corporate logic usually favors short-term profits over sustainability, that practical politics is more about manipulating public opinion than discerning the will of the people, that our approach to international relations is laced with arrogance about our culture and ignorance of others, that science and technology are not neutral but rather means to social ends.” Palmer asserts that “If higher education is to serve humane purposes, we who educate must insist that knowing is not enough, that we are not fully human until we recognize what we know and take responsibility for it.”
Palmer makes the case for “educating a ‘new professional'” as in “a person who is not only competent in his or her discipline but has the skill and the will to deal with the institutional pathologies that threaten the professional’s highest standards.”
Palmer mentions two important realities undergirding his “call for a new professional who can confront, challenge, and help change the workplace”: (1) “our large, complex institutions are increasingly unresponsive to external pressure, even on those rare occasions when an informed and organized public demands change” and (2) “the functions of a profession are not necessarily those of the institutional structure that house it . . . We need professionals who are ‘in but not of’ their institutions, whose allegiance to the core values of their fields makes them resist the institutional diminishment of those values.”
In seeking to answer the question of, “What would the education of the new professional look like?” Palmer shares “five immodest proposals”: (1) “We must help our students uncover, examine, and debunk the myth that institutions are external to and constrain us, as if they possessed powers that render us helpless — an assumption that is largely unconscious and wholly untrue” (2) “We must take our students’ emotions as seriously as we take their intellects” (3) “We must start taking seriously the ‘intelligence’ in emotional intelligence” (4) “We must offer our students the knowledge, skills, and sensibilities required to cultivate communities of discernment and support” (5) “We must help our students understand what it means to live and work with the question of an undivided life always before them”. Palmer suggests that overall, “The education of the new professional will offer students real-time chances to translate feelings into knowledge and action by questioning and helping to develop the program they are in . . . an academic culture that invites students to find their voices about the program itself, gives them forums for speaking up, rewards rather than penalizes them for doing so, and encourages faculty and administrative responsiveness to student concerns.”
In his conclusion, Palmer suggests that “The word ‘professional’ originally meant someone who makes a ‘profession of faith’ in the midst of a disheartening world. That root meaning became diminished as the centuries rolled by, and today it has all but disappeared. ‘Professional’ now means someone who possesses knowledge and techniques too esoteric for the laity to understand, whose education is proudly proclaimed to be ‘value free.'” Further, “The notion of a ‘new professional’ revives the root meaning of the word. This person can say, ‘In the midst of the powerful force-field of institutional life, where so much conspires to compromise the core values of my work, I have found firm ground on which to stand—the ground of personal and professional identity and integrity—and from which I can call myself, my colleagues, and my profession back to our true mission.'”
I found Parker’s piece so moving and significant, that it of course prompted me to think about how I can take advantage of opportunities within my own coursework (including GEDI) to transform into a “new professional” as he outlines throughout his article. For starters, I think I may assign this article as the first reading in my First-Year Writing (ENGL 1106) courses here at Virginia Tech next fall. I believe this piece gives students an conceptual excellent framework for understanding the need for a broad well-rounded education, including the ability to write. Secondly, inspired by Palmer’s work, I want to cultivate an environment in my classroom where my students feel free to critique the program itself. I plan to have students make some early decisions as a group about what we will study, how we will study it, and to make frequent check-ins with students to check the pulse of the class and how the learners are interacting with it. Lastly, I also hope that my writing classroom can help students develop the skills needed to cultivate and hone their professional identities, to be able to articulate their views and their opinions and needs in a clear, compelling manner.
*Parker J. Palmer “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited.” Change, vol. 39, no. 6, 2007, pp. 6-12.