The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 1 (Spring 2016)

Is There a Future for the Professions? An Interim Verdict

Howard Gardner

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 1)

For as long as I can remember, I have looked up to individuals who are called “professionals”—doctors, lawyers, and architects, to name a few. I aspired to be a professional, I became a professional, and I continue to hope that young persons of promise whom I encounter will become professionals. But in recent years, I’ve become increasingly uncertain about whether professions will continue to exist, at least in a form that I can admire or even recognize. There are many views about why professions are on the wane—indeed, to put it sharply, about whether the professions are being murdered or whether, to maintain the metaphor, they have been committing suicide. I’ll deliver my interim judicial verdict at the end of this essay. But since my own life so closely parallels the ups and downs of the professions in the last several decades, I begin in an autobiographical vein.

My parents, Hilde and Rudolph Gaertner, escaped from Nazi Germany in the nick of time—arriving in New York Harbor on Kristallnacht, November 9–10, 1938, the infamous Night of Broken Glass. Many of their relatives and friends were not so fortunate. My parents were not themselves professionals—my father had been a businessman, and my mother’s desire to be a kindergarten teacher had been thwarted by the rise of the Nazis. With neither professions nor funds, they soon found themselves living in very modest circumstances in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where I was born five years later.

Parental aspirations for my younger sibling, Marion, and me were high. As I was the proverbial “bright Jewish boy who hated the sight of blood,” almost everyone who thought about it (including me) assumed that I would become a lawyer. I went to Harvard College, where indeed I took a course in the law with constitutional scholar Paul Freund, who encouraged me to go to law school. But not one to leave any stone unturned, I also took some pre-med courses and, in the summer before my senior year, arranged an interview with the dean of admissions at Stanford Medical School. Only after graduating from college and spending a year in London on a fellowship did I make what was for me a daring decision: to abandon the prototypically aspirational professions and instead pursue graduate studies in developmental psychology. For fifteen years after receiving my doctorate, following a path which in retrospect was quite risky, I pursued full-time research on “soft” (research grant) money. In 1986, I was fortunate to receive a professorship at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. At last, I was a professional—indeed, a professor!—and our family’s ambitions were fulfilled. And so I’ve remained until today.

I’ve allowed myself this autobiographical indulgence because it closely tracks the course of the professions over the last several decades. When I was growing up, at the very time when post-secondary education was exploding in the United States, becoming a professional (which did include becoming a professor) was a very high aspiration. It was not, however, equally open to everyone. For historical and cultural reasons, most professionals were white, Anglo-Saxon males, principally from privileged backgrounds. If you were an immigrant or the child of immigrants, Jewish, female, of impoverished circumstances, and/or nonwhite, your career choices were restricted. Supreme Court justices Thurgood Marshall, Clarence Thomas, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor merit admiration because of the overwhelming initial odds they overcame. Fortunately, by the time I was choosing a career, these barriers were receding, more quickly for the first listed groups than for the latter cohorts.

While I was in college in the 1960s, Daedalus, the publication of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, published an issue devoted to the professions. As the editor, Kenneth Lynn, phrased it, “Everywhere in American life, the professions are triumphant.” And indeed, my close friends and I almost all chose to enter one or the other of the professions. When, recently, at our fiftieth college reunion, we jointly reflected on our career choices, ten of twelve were either doctors, lawyers, or professors—the eleventh had actually completed law school but had not practiced law. (The twelfth had become a movie director.) If we had polled the same individuals, and other of our classmates, about the careers our children (and grandchildren) were pursuing, a far lower percentage would have responded with the traditional professions. Instead, we would have heard repeated references to Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street, terms like start-ups, venture capital, angel investors, and hedge funds, and the names of corporations such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon (the latter started, we should note, by young persons who had attended, respectively, Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton). Few writing today, whether in Daedalus or The Huffington Post, would describe the traditional professions as aspirational, with respect to the options considered by the most sought-after graduates of elite institutions. And if young graduates did elect to pursue the traditional professions, they would likely work at one or more of the aforementioned corporations.

To read the full version of the original article, please visit The Professional Ethicist blog by Howard Gardner at

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Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His many books include Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences and, most recently, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World. This essay is reprinted with the permission of the author from the Professional Ethicist blog of The Good Project, a research activity based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.1 (Spring 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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