One of every five employed Americans is a professional. According to the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 31,000,000 Americans who work in "Professional and related occupations"--22% of those employed and 10% of the general population. That vies with "Sales and office occupations," enlisting 33,000,000, as the predominant occupational category as of 2011, and exceeds "Service occupations" (25,000,000), "Production, transport, and moving occupations" (16,500,000), and "Management" (15,000,000). Even though professions no longer assure a secure career as they once had, professionals are not declining in number, and, conjoined under the general heading "Management, professional, and related occupations," the professional-managerial class (PMC), as Barbara and John Ehrenreich once labeled it, is the largest segment of American labor, with 52,000,000, or over 37% of those employed.
Through the nineteenth century, the overwhelming majority of Americans worked in agriculture, and professionals were relatively rare. Educational and other professionals first appear in census data in 1850, numbering about 330,000, or 2.5% of those employed, with most people--4,900,000 or 64%--still working on farms. Most professions formalized their training and organizational structures during the later decades of the century, and by 1900 there were about 1,160,000 professionals (3.9% of those employed). They continued their rise over the next century, to 7.7% of the workforce in 1940, about 10% by 1955, over 15% by 1970, and over 20% by 1990. The twentieth century was the century of the professional. *
The central conduit into professions since the late nineteenth century has been higher education. The rise of professions coincides with the rise of the university in the United States. About 4% of the population had attended in 1900. The figure is 70% now; 30% have completed four years. There is some range in the Bureau of Labor Statistics category of professionals: it includes what we might consider beta professions, such as registered nurses and school teachers, along with alpha professions, like doctors and college professors. (Nurses' aides or dental assistants, however, are in the category of "Service occupations," and police and firemen fall into a subsection of "Protective services.") But the characteristic that links them is that they almost universally require a bachelor's degree and often a master's or other advanced degree, sometimes culminating with a test or other mode of inaugural accreditation (for instance, registered nurses need four-year degrees as well as licenses, and even the humble profession of school teacher in most states requires a master's within five years of graduation). Higher education, particularly an advanced degree, usually separates the professionals from the non-professionals.
If we teach in a college or university, most of the students in front of us are there to become professionals and managers, whether doctors or nurses, engineers or information systems managers, accountants or school administrators. To confront their world and ours, I think that we should "teach the professions."
Teaching in an English department, I have developed a course called Narratives of the Professions that combines the basic frame of a literature survey with the history and sociology of professions, and I would like to tell you about it here. I have taught versions of the course at both state (the University of Missouri) and private universities (Carnegie Mellon), and at the undergraduate and graduate levels. While I concentrate on novels, I think one can teach a variant of this course in other disciplines, like history, sociology, or even business, combining a range of texts and information that compose a picture of the professions. Given the squeeze on professional jobs as well as the ambitions of our students, I think the course is especially germane now. It gives students equipment to understand the history and theory of professions as well as, more generally, the development of contemporary capitalism and our class system. When we think of teaching about class, we usually think about the working class, but this course provides another window onto class--indeed, the predominant class segment in the present United States.
The figure of the professional looms over contemporary American culture, in fiction, film, television, talk radio, news reporting, and advertising. The professional emerged as a significant figure in the Anglo-American novel from the mid-nineteenth century on. The characters that people the early British novel are typically gentry, like Lady Booby in Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews or Emma Woodhouse in Jane Austen's Emma, with yeoman farmers and servants in supporting roles. They usually inhabit the country and an agriculturally-oriented world. If there are professionals, they generally take the traditional role of clergy or military officers and serve at the bidding of the aristocracy or come from the aristocracy. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the main characters began shifting from gentry to shopkeepers, merchants, and professionals like doctors and lawyers, their position determined not by heredity, which is Joseph's and Emma's story, or aristocratic proximity, but by professional or mercantile status. They often inhabit growing towns or cities that swelled with the rise of industrialism. Professions carry a residual aristocratic ethos, but in the latter half of the century they became more formalized, requiring education, and professionals attain their standing through their work more than through position.
In Narratives of the Professions, I select novels from Anne Bronte to Dave Eggers that foreground characters who work, or aim to work, as professionals. Given its span, the course can serve to cover the latter half of the history of the novel, from Victorian to contemporary fiction. When I first started teaching it at Missouri in the late 1990s, I basically adapted it to a standard survey for English majors, in part because it gave the course a more coherent thematic thread than the usual parade of texts. (I have also added units on professionalism to theory surveys, which helped explain the post-World War II rise of criticism and theory.) Since then, I have expanded the history and sociological theory so that it is not just a sideline but essential to understanding the culture of the fiction. (It probably helped that I had moved to Carnegie Mellon, where we have a large MA program and I teach a good number of...