Disabling Professions & The Educational Enterprise

I recently read a provocative little book from 1976 called Disabling Professions (Illich, Zola, McKnight, Caplan, and Shaiken). The authors caution us about the increased professionalization in American culture. In the chapter by McKnight, he suggests that professions thrive upon labeling other people as having needs that only the professional can meet. A dependence develops, one where a belief emerges that things are best left up to the professionals, that others will do best to have their needs cared for by these experts. One need not agree with all aspects of this text to accept the caution about professionalization or to muse about its implications for education. While professionals do indeed help other people, there is also the reality that professionalization sometimes has a way of defining others by their needs.

In the chapter on “Professionalized Service and Disabling Help,” John McKnight identified a series of assumptions that emerge from the professional and needy dichotomy. While not explicitly applied to education in the book, I will attempt to do so as I outline some of McKnight’s assumptions.

  1. Needs are turned into deficiencies, something that is lacking or missing in the other. As such, there is the risk of defining people by their deficiencies.
  2. This deficiency is then applied to the one who is being served by the professional, and it is often taken out of context. As such, the professional is seen as the one who is best positioned to address the deficiency, even to the point of creating new needs and deficiencies when the professional’s methods are ineffective. So, in the case of education, if a student’s learning deficiencies are not adequately addressed in the school context, then we are often more likely to label that person with a new deficiency and not to consider the possibility that the professionals and their system are ineffective for that learner. The deficiency is persistently placed in the needy one (the student) and not the professional or the system.
  3. Amid this complex situation, we find ourselves creating any number of specializations intended to address the different unmet deficiencies, or the problems that prevent the professional’s methods from being effective for some learners. In he end, McKnight notes that the professionals and their system consistently communicate that: “You are the deficient. You are the problem. You have a collection of problems” (p. 82).
  4. There is rarely the consideration that the needy or the needy’s peers are the answer to the problem. The solutions reside with the professional, securing that professionals authority and position.
  5. The professional is the one who should have the power to define the questions to be asked. In other words, the professional doesn’t just identify some objective need in the the learner. The professional defines and determines the need itself. So, in education, the professionals set the curriculum, set the agenda, decide what is and is not proper behavior of a learner, decides the best learning pathway, decides the assessments, decides what learning and other needs exist, etc.

McKnight summarizes some of these ideas by explaining what the professionals say:

“We are the solution to your problem. We know what problem you have. You can’t understand the problem or the solution. Only we can decide whether the solution has dealt with your problem” (p. 89).

Reading this text, I found myself thinking about the applications to education and modern schooling, but also thinking about the many movements that challenge such a system: open learning, collective knowledge generation, peeragogy, self-organized learning environments, self-directed learning, and other democratizing developments. These argue that solutions often reside in the learn and his/her peers. These do not necessarily discredit the role of a teacher, mentor, or facilitator. However, they do challenge us to reconsider the role of such people, not as ones who exist to define the deficiencies, set the agenda, and meet the needs of the deficient; but to guide and support the process of growing into people who have the competency, confidence and capacity to direct and manage their own learning.

There is education that seeks to meet the needs of learners. Then there is education that helps learners progress toward meeting their own needs. That is the difference between teacher-directed and self-directed learning (SDL). With the former, the teacher is the professional and the student’s role is to submit to the judgement of the professional. While there are times when it is wise and prudent to heed the wisdom of a professional, democratizing movements in education are less about the role of the professional teacher and more about helping students grow into what we might want to call professional learners.

This is not about devaluing the role of the teacher. Teachers most often remain valuable resources in these democratizing contexts. The difference is where we place the emphasis, responsibility and where the authority resides. In the professionalized education system approach, the teacher is the authority and has the primary responsibility for making sure that students are learning. In democratizing environments like the web, this begins to change.


Posted in blog, education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.