Teaching, Trades, and Professions

“Cleaning Windows”

Van Morrison

Teaching, Trades, and Professions

Painting shows many working and a few watching

Ford Madox Brown, Work (1852–63).
Source: Scanned from the cover of the following book:
Herbert F. Tucker: A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture. Blackwell 1999, ISBN 0-631-20463-6

The difference between a tradesman and a professional is a tradesman is paid for what he accomplishes and a professional is paid for what he attempts. Some may find this distinction a bit facetious and I admit that it probably is, but as Sidney Smith said, “You must not think me necessarily foolish because I am facetious, nor will I consider you necessarily wise because you are grave.” Beneath the facetiousness I believe there is a useful grain of truth, especially as it applies to education.

When we hire a tradesman to do some work for us, say build and install some cabinets, we do not pay for the work, at least’s not in full, until the work is done according to pre-arranged specifications. When we seek the services of a professional, a doctor for example, we cannot know beforehand if these services will be rendered successfully, at least not in the sense of producing the outcome we desire. If I visit the doctor with a cold, or some other incurable disease, the doctor can give me advice but he cannot make me well.

In any occupation there are three necessities, the right skills, the right tools, and the right materials. The first two items are the same for a tradesman and a professional but the third is very different. Both the professional and the tradesman can acquire the training they need to do the work required by their occupation. Both the tradesman and the professional can acquire the best tools for that occupation. It is the materials that make the difference. A tradesman can select the materials he will use. If he is building my cabinets he can select the best woods and the best fittings for the project, or we can agree on materials of a lesser quality and agree to a finished product of a lesser quality. The materials of the professional, on the other hand, are his patience, his clients. They must be taken in the state that they present themselves and the degree of success that the professional can achieve will be determined by that state.

The question then becomes are teachers tradesmen or professionals? I think, for the most part, even those critical of the results that teachers produce in the classroom think of and refer to them as professionals. However, the attitude many of these critics take towards education suggests they see teaching as a trade and expect the outcomes of the classroom to resemble the outcomes of tradesmen and not professionals. Critics of classroom teachers seem, often, to operate from a premise that all students can achieve at the highest level and that teachers ought to be able to evoke that level of performance from all of their students.

If we assume for the moment that those who assert all students can achieve at the highest level are right, and I think that teachers ought to begin with this premise with each of their students in any case, a student, unlike a piece of lumber, can make choices and some students may not choose to work at the levels of which they are capable. If a student persists on pursuing unwise choices, the teacher is limited in what he can do. But I think the problem goes a bit deeper than this.

I think this can be seen most readily in the area of standardized testing. These test are premised on a belief that all students can perform competently on these tests. Assume for the moment that this is true, I am not sure it is, but that is a different argument. There is also the issue of the skills these tests measure. The impetus behind this testing is among other things the dissatisfaction those in the world of work have with the skills students bring to the workforce upon their graduation from high school. Employers have been concerned that our students enter the workforce unable to perform the tasks that are being asked of them and that these tasks require skills students should have received in school.

What is the purpose of education, to develop the mind and imagination of the student or to prepare the student to complete a task? We talk of making our students life long learners, but is that really what the work place wants from them. John Ruskin in his book The Stones of Venice writes about the craftsmen employed by architects in the Gothic Period of the late Middle Ages. He praises the architects of this age because of the opportunity they gave to craftsmen to develop and use their imaginations. This resulted imperfections in the workmanship, but those imperfections produced a building of greater beauty. He wrote:

You must either make a tool of the creature or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. All the energy of their spirits must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves. All their attention and strength must go to the accomplishment of the mean act. The eye of the soul must be bent upon the finger point, and the soul’s force must fill all the invisible nerves that guide it, ten hours a day, that it may not err from its steely precision, and so soul and sight be worn away, and the whole human being be lost at last – a heap of sawdust, so far as its intellectual work in this world is concerned; saved only by its Heart which cannot go into the form of cogs and compasses, but expands after the ten hours are over, into fireside humanity. On the other hand if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing; and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out come all his roughness, all his dullness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure, pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only, when we see the clouds settling upon him. And, whether the clouds be bright or dark, there will be transfiguration behind and within them.

Often what the workplace wants is a tool, an employee that will do the work they are given exactly as they were instructed to do it. Some students may be looking for this in an occupation. They may want a job that does not make too many demands upon them so that in their free time they can focus on other things that challenge their minds and imaginations but have little or no relationship to the work they do to pay the bills. This to me is why teaching is a profession. We cannot control, as much as we may want to, all the outcomes in our classrooms; all the choices our students make.

We can do our best to give our students the skills, knowledge, and insights they need to succeed in the world of work or the university; we can help them to realize their ambitions but we cannot make their choices for them. Nor ought we to prepare them to do little more than follow instructions. The measure of a teacher’s success is not in how well they have learned the alphabet or to manipulate numbers or to remember their grammar rules. The measure of success is in the students’ ability to do meaningful things (meaningful first for the student but hopefully for the larger society as well) with the skills and concepts they have been taught.