Thursday, September 02, 2010

On Professional Language

I have come to believe that having a profession is actually about learning two things: A particular method of enquiry and a particular sort of language.


Each profession has both of these, otherwise they are not considered a profession. Some take it to extremes, like the Accountants and Lawyers. Some derive a language through complicated phrases and sometimes obfuscation, like the Philosophers and Sociologists. And, some, like educationalists and politicians, because of the nature of their task, which involves 'unschooled' people, struggle to adopt a particularly differentiated language - and hence are not considered to be 'full' professions.


We already know that people with different disciplines think differently. This is more likely to be the effect of their training rather than the cause of choosing the respective disciplines. But it is equally possible to see the use of a particular language as a sort of tribal ritual, a way to demarcate the intellectual spaces and indicate a sort of power relationship with outsiders.


There is nothing right or wrong about it; this is the way it is. But if anyone has to attempt a moral judgement, one needs to see whether these 'closed for commoners' professions enhance efficacy of public life. One can argue it does not, only that such a closed group create an artificial scarcity and raise the costs of some work, and, often, as in the case of lawyers, become a self-sustained profession. On the other hand, it is possible to see these as a form of shorthand method of communication between the enlightened ones of a certain kind, allowing easy identification and communication, leading to a specialism that makes division of labour straightforward and public life more efficient.

Which view you take depends on where you sit in the specialist-generalist divide in our society. I think the big problem in modern societies is the huge cadre of generalists without whom things won't run, but those who are at the rough end of things and live on nickels and dimes. Consider the service sector workers like Secretaries, Receptionists and Administrators, and most of all, the salesmen: Their coded world revolves around sex, football and reality shows, which do not earn them any premium. Without them, things will not run. However, they are condemned to a general irrelevance at the workplace by the lack of a discipline and access to a professional language.

Also, the stated goal of modern education may be 'upskilling' of society and turning generalists into specialists of some sort. However, the reality is vastly different: The structure of the education system is aligned towards expanding the Specialist/Generalist gulf rather than bridging it. It is most apparent in Europe, where the professions rule supreme in public life; it is also the model followed by developing economies and the 'upskilling' agenda of various governments revolves around fencing the various trades with specialist languages and credentials.

The specialisation of trades is an important issue for educators grappling with internationalization of education. It is actually an important profit driver, as 'Made in Britain' trades can earn a handsome premium. Often, there is a huge disconnect between skills required in different countries, but the language, with the pre-eminent position of English as the language of profession, seems to become more important in defining the profession than the skills themselves. This is where the alienation of language and content becomes complete: The language of profession ceases to indicate the required competence. The principal function of an international educator should be to seek to bridge this gap effectively, because, otherwise, provision of international education will worsen the inequality in developing societies, undermine public welfare and create a class of professionals completely out of sync with the realities around them. This is what has happened so far, to a large extent, and the gap between 'talk' and 'walk' has become too stark in these societies, but one would hope that this is on the mend now.

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