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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 Report:

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 isn’t 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 aren’t 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” you—or, let’s say, prepare you—for a successful career, one that you can love. Perhaps at a liberal arts college we train you to be a “liberal artist”—that is, a person who embodies the qualities of the liberal arts.

Let’s 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 ditchdigger’s job is much like that of the president of the United States. They both step up to the tasks at hand and do them. There’s no college course in ditchdigging, and there’s 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, aren’t going to help you develop such qualities—but 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 in—creativity, shrewdness, the ability to compromise, to persuade—and what about the qualities of integrity, honesty, concern for others, and a sense of self-sacrifice?

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 “professions”—as well as jobs—are, 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 Plato—who, 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 Aristotle’s 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 Oxford’s theater program, I must admit I’ve never taken a directing class, nor an acting class. I do know a little about directing; I’ve 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 didn’t know it then) when I studied theology and interned in prisons and hospitals, and even recently I learned more over four summers at St. John’s College Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts. The specific skills for directing? I couldn’t have done without them, but I learned them as I needed them—from 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 couldn’t 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 forever.

Jimmy has authored a book about his collection, and he’s 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 isn’t selling them. He wants them to remain in the South, so that man’s 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 a change.

The funny thing is this: Most jobs aren’t really what we should call “professions,” in that they don’t 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, perhaps?

What about a major for him? That’s harder. He can tell a fake antique from a real one, so he’s 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 I’ve 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 you’d learn. It is the beginning of something, of an engagement with yourself and with the world—in this place. It’s the opportunity for a certain kind of life.


Back to Emory Report October 8, 2001