Friday, December 11, 2009


On being asked to be professional...

I can't quite remember when this highest form of praise was introduced. I do remember it was around some time in the late eighties when, as schoolteachers, we were exhorted to be professional at all times. And then, when I moved into higher education, some senior member of the college came in to welcome us as professionals and academics, people with proper professional pride. 'So and so is a true professional' was the equivalent of five gold stars. We were doing things properly, by the book. We were 'of the professions'. We were truly, as Márai might have said, not just, 'respectable citizens' of the republic of something but, most importantly, professional respectable citizens. To act professionally was not necessarily to act kindly, to act with understanding, to act according to conscience or to act with devotion to the underlying cause, but to be proper, to act by the book according to the current conception of the book.
Professional conduct had been defined by leaders and committees and might be redefined next year, but for this year it was such and such a procedure, and following it was professionalism. The army were 'the professionals'. There was a television series called The Professionals. Highest praise. The worst thing you could be was 'amateur'. To be amateur was to be hopeless. No standards. A mess. But I have never felt professional in my life. I have felt conscientious, occasionally to the point of agony and sleeplessness; I have felt devoted at times and indifferent at other times; I have tried to understand those in my care as best I could; I tried to be interesting and friendly and interested: but I never regarded these things as professionalism. Professionalism was getting my reports in at the right time, phrasing them in the correct way, taking my part in the career structure, making constructive criticisms and looking for ever greater efficiency, or rather, ways of registering ever greater efficiency even when the result of registering was less efficiency.

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