October 8, 2001
Teaching more than 'profession'
Clark Lemons is professor of English. This essay is adapted from his 2001 Oxford Convocation address.
As a new full professor at Oxford College, perhaps I am now really a
full-fledged professional, or at least perhaps I ought to
think about what it means to be professional, to be a professor. I am
a teacher; is a professor the same thing? Let me read what an early Christian
writer said over 1,000 years ago about teachers, something I read in Emory
A teacher ought to be a stranger to the desire for domination, vainglory
and pride; one should not be able to fool him by flattery, not blind him
by gifts, nor dominate him by anger; a teacher should be patient, gentle
and humble as far as possible; he must be without partisanship, full of
concern and a lover of souls.
Now I have to ask: What can this advice have to do with being a professor
or with being professional? The advice itself seems to be
pretty good. What if we changed the word teacher in the passage
to businessman or businesswoman, or to attorney or doctor? Still good
advice for anyone, even if we might have to think a little about what
being a lover of souls means.
But isnt there a lot left out of that definition? Actually, anything
having to do with the imparting of information or knowledge and anything
having to do with training in a skill. Of course, skills are important,
but The Desert Father is talking about qualities. He also is assuming
one can be taught qualities, at least in the case of a teacher.
Tonight I want to think about the difference between a liberal education,
which would teach qualities, and a professional education, which, I think,
would teach the skills of a profession.
Emory College and Oxford College are liberal arts colleges. They arent
professional schools, and to call them pre-professional schools is trivializing.
Yet, paradoxically, a liberal arts college is a training school because
one of the things it does is train youor, lets
say, prepare youfor a successful career, one that you can love.
Perhaps at a liberal arts college we train you to be a liberal artistthat
is, a person who embodies the qualities of the liberal arts.
Lets look at the distinction between liberal education and skills
training. Both liberal education and professional or skills training prepare
you for jobs. Some jobs require few skills; some many.
Consider a ditchdigger: The skill required of a ditchdigger is minimal,
right? He needs to know how to dig a ditch and be strong enough to do
it. But imagine his job from his boss perspective: Will he show
up on time? Will he remember to dig the ditch deeply enough? Will he step
up and apply himself to the task he is given? Will he cheat the company
or steal from the job site? In other words, what kind of person is he?
Oddly enough, the ditchdiggers job is much like that of the president
of the United States. They both step up to the tasks at hand and do them.
Theres no college course in ditchdigging, and theres not one
in being a president either.
What both of these jobs do require, more than particular skills, are
certain qualities that develop from experiences, from reflections upon
them and from family, friends, teachers. Professors, as experts
in their fields under whom you train, arent going to help you develop
such qualitiesbut teachers, those who are lovers of
souls, perhaps will.
What would you need to be the ideal president? Well, all sorts of things
neither we, nor any other school actually offer courses increativity,
shrewdness, the ability to compromise, to persuadeand what about
the qualities of integrity, honesty, concern for others, and a sense of
The president brings much more to his or her job than the ditchdigger
(we hope), but neither is really a professional. Professions involve the
application of learned knowledge; jobs, on the other hand, are what we
are hired to do. It would probably surprise us all if I were able to figure
out what percentage of my job is actually related to the professional
training I received for it. My point here is that even what we usually
call professionsas well as jobsare, finally, about
qualities before they are about skills.
If we were interviewing for president of the University or dean of the
college, would the decision finally come down to professional training
or to the qualities of that person? The latter, I think. Am I saying that
for a job qualities are more important than professional skill? If
I need an operation, I want a doctor who understands Anatomy 101 and
will get all my body parts back together and in the right place. Professional
skills are essential, absolutely, but without personal qualities they
are, to the pragmatic person, pretty useless. I want a skilled physician,
but I also want one who has read Platowho, by the way, announced
wisely in the 4th century B.C.:
This is the great error of our day in the treatment of the human body:
that physicians separate the soul from the body. Where temperance is implanted
in the soul, then health is speedily imparted, not only to the head but
to the whole body.
Skills, then, are necessary but not sufficient for the formation of a
physician or ditch digger. The qualities you explore in your study of
the liberal arts (qualities like integrity of inquiry and the ability
to see and understand the true essence of any thing) are not only necessary
for most good jobs, but they spill over into your whole life and make
it happy, in Aristotles sense of that word.
My own history at Oxford also illustrates the difference between skills
and qualities, between a professional and the liberal artist. As a professor
of English and director of Oxfords theater program, I must admit
Ive never taken a directing class, nor an acting class. I do know
a little about directing; Ive been directing plays for over 20 years,
and the program here has grown in every aspect. Theater at Oxford may
actually involve more students, more hours and more audience members than
any other activity on campus.
Where did I learn to direct? I began to learn in college when I studied
English literature, including plays, and then philosophy, religion, psychology.
In seminary I learned more about directing (of course, I didnt know
it then) when I studied theology and interned in prisons and hospitals,
and even recently I learned more over four summers at St. Johns
College Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts. The specific skills for
directing? I couldnt have done without them, but I learned them
as I needed themfrom other directors, from books, from students,
from countless trips to New York.
One unfortunate example to the contrary comes to mind. A college hired
a professor with the most impressive of credentials: excellent professional
training at a top university, publications and the promise of more, and
glowing letters of recommendation. This person should have been a star
at his college, but he lasted only a couple of years. Why? It came down
to the fact that he was not a good teacher. The faculty knew it, and the
students knew it. This was a person with excellent training, but
he couldnt do the job. And even the college, in hiring him,
had fallen for the erroneous notion that teaching is primarily a profession
for which one is trained and not primarily a job requiring
certain qualities of mind and heart.
A friend of mine followed his passion and became an antique dealer. Well,
actually he was a picker, someone who travels around buying
old things and reselling them at higher prices. Jimmy Allen focused first
on folk art, which he loved, and then later on African and African American
art. Jimmy also opened his home to black artists living in the South and
encouraged others to collect their art.
In the process of his job, Jimmy amassed a large collection of turn-of-the-century
picture-postcards of black men being lynched by whites. Many of the cards
featured crowds of white men, women and children watching. He was horrified
at these pictures, but he knew that as records of actual events they were
worth preserving, and he no doubt saved many that would have been lost
Jimmy has authored a book about his collection, and hes exhibited
the collection in New York. Anyway, a few weeks ago I read that a northern
university has offered him a million dollars for the postcards. Jimmy
isnt selling them. He wants them to remain in the South, so that
mans inhumanity to man can be brought home and so that, in the end,
we can all know ourselves better and perhaps act like human beings for
The funny thing is this: Most jobs arent really what we should
call professions, in that they dont depend on training
in specific skills. Can you think of specific courses Jimmy Allen could
have taken in college for his career? History? Anthropology? Art? Ethics,
What about a major for him? Thats harder. He can tell a fake antique
from a real one, so hes certainly a professional. But
why did he collect those postcards when no one else did? And why
does he turn down a million dollars for them? The answers to these
questions are in his heart. And it is these kinds of questions and answers
you will be exploring in a liberal arts education at Oxford and at Emory.
I am grateful the University has seen fit to make me a professor. But
what Ive wanted to tell you tonight is that more important than
professional knowledge is knowledge of another, deeper and more lasting
kind. This knowledge, to be found in the study of the liberal arts, has
the peculiar property that one cannot really know these arts without becoming
a certain kind of person.
In college you may think you are studying subjects, gaining information, preparing for a profession, but what you are really doing is learning who you can be, what you want to do in life and how to apply yourselves to the tasks you take on and those that are given to you. What you will learn here is something different than what you may have assumed youd learn. It is the beginning of something, of an engagement with yourself and with the worldin this place. Its the opportunity for a certain kind of life.