Professional society has enormous potential for enhancing human life and ensuring social justice, but it also presents the professional elites with egregious opportunities for exploitation.
In this introductory chapter to Perkin’s The Third Revolution: Professional Elites in the Modern World, the author outlines how he will demonstrate how the modern world belongs to the professional. The professional possesses specialised knowledge based on education, competitive merit and experience in the field. He (more likely than she) dominates society because he controls ‘the scarce resource of expertise in its manifold forms’.
The opening pages appear to belong to one of those unlikely bestsellers with a Big Idea which illustrated by myriad examples of the negative effects of contemporary life often tracing the historical/ideological roots of the malaise. The language of these books (e.g. No Logo, Fast Food Nation) is frequently foreboding, occasionally shrill, but often these stylistic devices can be overlooked as the message and premise appears sound.
In this case, I’m not so sure.
Perkin starts his chapter in a quite dramatic way (capture the reader), but his tone becomes more reasonable and less hyperbolic as the chapter progresses. The results of the Neolithic Revolution, he claims, had brought wealth and power to the few, but a regression for the many. These unfortunates had been yanked from a ‘casual, carefree, improvident life of hunting and gathering in humanity’s Eden’, it seems. Or had they been rescued from short, painful, barbaric existences that offered no opportunity to progress beyond instinctual survival?
Perkin talks about the ‘seductive revolution of the professionals’, how professionals have emerged as the leaders rather than servants in the current order. He looks at seven countries which he says illustrate ten characteristics of professional society. One of these trends is the ‘centrality’ of higher education. The numbers of young people in higher education has doubled or trebled between 1960 and 1988. This, on the surface, would appear to be something worth cheering about.
Far from it, as he argues that a professional society needs to invest heavily in education in order to feed the corporate/service/political machine. In this sense, I question my own motives in enrolling in a module called ‘The eLearning Professional‘. Not only am I angling to ‘command a rent as surely as the landlord or owner of industrial capital’, but I’m involved in facilitating students in becoming the next generation of the privileged. As you can imagine, I feel a little conflicted.
Interestingly, he cannot deny what perhaps those of us idealists involved in education feel; that education is an empowering currency which makes it more difficult for regimes to deceive for very long. He cites the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites as an example of how an educated population would no longer swallow the propaganda being fed to them.So he ends the chapter in an altogether more measured way with the line that opens my thoughts here.
Would I be persuaded of the ambiguity of my pursuit of professionalism were I to read on? I don’t know. I’m unlikely to delve more deeply into it. When I struggled though No Logo and The Long Tail, I tried to make sense of the statistics and economic jargon because I knew who the bad guys were.
With Perkin, I seem to be the bad guy. And things don’t usually end so well for them.