The independence of the professions

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The student representatives call me “willful,” “arrogant” and “irresponsible.” They don’t want me to run my courses in my own fashion. They insist that I should be supervised by a university committee. “We need quality control. This is our right as students.” Some other students disagree. “We’ve taken courses with Erik,” they say. “He’s great. We have complete faith in his judgment.”

I’m grateful for the vote of confidence, but both views miss the point. What is at stake here is the independence of the professions. If you belong to a profession there is no one else in society which has more knowledge than you and your peers. This is why we let professions rule themselves. No one except other members of the same profession can tell brain surgeons how to do brain surgery, lawyers how to lawyer, engineers how to engineer. The same thing applies to university teachers.

I have been supervised, guided, criticized, ridiculed and encouraged since I started my academic career some thirty years ago.  And it still happens on a daily basis. I studied with some of the best people in the business, and I still hear the voices of my teachers in my head — telling me how to present my ideas, how to argue. I’ve written five academic books and well over fifty academic articles. They were all whetted by my peers, at seminars and conferences, then by anonymous reviewers and eventually by plenty of readers. When I come to class to teach my students I bring all that with me. I want to put my students in contact with the books I’ve read and the thoughts I’ve had. I want them too to hear the voices of my teachers.

This is how we carry our humanity along from one generation to the next. There is no enterprise more noble, nothing more important.

I’m not willful, I’m not arrogant. I’m constantly supervised, monitored and admonished by all my peers. This is how the university of the spirit works. I realize of course that my students know nothing about this. How could they? They are not part of the profession.


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