I like to rant. I do it a lot in class. Sometimes, when I get done, my students have looks on their faces that I take to be a mixture of overwhelming shock and awe. The torrent is a giant wave at which to marvel and a force of nature to fear. After a couple of classes, they get a little used to it — as much as you can get used to a tidal wave. I try to dial it back sometimes, but then I think I confuse them because they aren’t getting the whole story. It’s really hard to edit a rant — particularly when you are in it.
This week, I was trying to explain the rise of the Progressives and professionalization. As I made a conscious and passionate decision not to be a professional, it’s hard not to go all out on this lecture. It’s a hot button. I get hot.
So, in the midst of talking about the glory of zoning ordinances and city planning and health departments and safety regulations, I segued off onto racism, sexism, and the Progressives’ overwhelming self-righteousness and authoritarianism. My students only slightly blinked when I went off on the United Way. They looked completely bewildered when I talked about universities as places of indoctrination into racist, sexist, bigoted agendas. I had to back-track a little on that one to explain. Yes, on the one hand, it’s great to build sewer systems and promote public health, but there’s a dark underside to the Progressives, who were looking to control others and force their preferences on them. Woodrow Wilson wanted to spread “democracy” to the world — but it was entirely a democracy of his design and he was not interested in giving it to the women living in the United States. As the great white savior, he could force “self-rule” on backward Nicaraguans, but he wouldn’t give the freedom to vote to Americans with wombs — because science clearly demonstrates that women are inferior to men and unworthy of this basic civil right (and Wilson gets to decide that). See, Progressives were the great arbiters of what is right and good, and their positive works were wrapped up in their priggism. They could pretend all they wanted that they were more enlightened than their predecessors, but the truth is that urban planning and sewage systems weren’t new in the 19th century. Humans managed to develop means to record their stories and build architectural wonders even without the benefit of enlightened, progressive thinking for eons before this time. And, you really don’t want to get me started on the tyranny of the dictionary (as if you are somehow a moron because you put an “e” in judgment).
These Progressives — with their oh, so modern ideas and scientific (racist/sexist) thinking — filled the ranks of burgeoning professions, and even created some of them as the 20th century dawned (Really, you need a degree in Home Economics to effectively do what women have done for thousands of years before?). For ages, human beings had made great discoveries and even managed to flourish on multiple continents, but now, you needed to be certified by some authority to be a competent practitioner in your field — as if having a diploma makes you Immanuel Kant (Was his degree from U of K?). Who could believe that because you have accumulated a certain number of credit hours and taken the requisite courses, you are the equal of Isaac Newton? Conversely, who would want to be an idiot like Thomas Edison? No man achieves greatness without a degree. No, you have to get it, and if you don’t, we won’t hire you or promote your ideas or give you the means for research. Thus, we can pretend that a general business degree means anything more than general bullshit and refuse to hire you without one. And, since we control access to the jobs and financial aid you need to achieve (if you are not a wealthy amateur), we can use our power to keep out undesirables. We won’t accept women or blacks to our schools. If some schools do let them in and try to train them, we won’t give them jobs. Angie Debo spent her life as a research librarian (read: chick job) because even with her graduate degree, no one would hire her as a historian because she was a woman. Vivian Thomas was officially a lab technician when he helped develop the field of pediatric cardiology and trained young white men to do what he was not allowed because he was black. Not having a damned diploma takes nothing away from what these two did, but the certification process made sure they didn’t get status, recognition, or pay for it, even though thousands of less gifted white men got that for doing less. Professionals have sold everyone on the need for education to achieve, yet today women and minorities still face heavy burdens in getting their educations and less compensation even when they do.
In the meantime, in agreeing to be a professional, you have to give up methods or means of doing your work that are eschewed by the guild. Use herbal “concoctions” for healing? You’re a quack, not a doctor. Critical of free market ideology and the infallibility of market models? You are a communist, not an economist. Doubt that it is possible to write True history? You are not one of us, and there is no place for you in the profession. We can dismiss you and keep you out. See, professionalization is simply systematized discrimination. It pretends to be about the method, but it’s really about controlling the maker. And, it doesn’t really make you safe or eliminate incompetency. It’s a prejudiced pretense. I really want no part of all that.