The Professions and Service



Science and Progress

The Professions and Service

Index by Topic

Historical Timeline

Return to Main Page

Social Responsibility and the Social Sciences

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a group of social thinkers further developed the theme of social responsibility, now in the democratic context of the United States. Washington Gladden an influential Congregational minister and social reformer praises vocations in political leadership: "Every one of us knows that there are men in the public offices to whom the common good is the paramount concern, and who are honestly working to secure it with all their powers."[1] Economist and educator Richard Ely was well aware of the importance of detailed socioeconomic knowledge in public service: "We cannot love our fellows effectively unless we give them our mind. We must devote ourselves long and carefully to the study of the science of human happiness, social science." [2] Ely was a founding member of the American Economic Association, and an important contributor in establishing the study of applied economics in the United States.

Washington Gladden
Photo source: ©

The Twentieth Century

The twentieth century ushered in an unprecedented explosion of knowledge, especially in the sciences and technology. A large number of new disciplines appeared, many requiring extensive training, and placing a significant burden on colleges and universities. Related to this was a movement to eliminate many of the traditional core requirements, often replaced with an assortment of elective courses: "as required courses were dropped and elective courses of study became even more directly tied to occupational interests, the idea of acquaintance with a fixed body of knowledge, classical or otherwise, as a mark of the educated person began to disappear."[3] As implied in this statement, a casualty of this process was the notion of a common heritage of knowledge, that had helped to define the essence of Western civilization. The growing complexity of professional education and the emphasis on electives made core courses and courses on moral philosophy or ethics increasingly rare at colleges as the century developed. The result of all this was that after being trained in their professions, individuals often knew more facts, but perhaps knew less about the topics that provide values and purpose.

Education and Service

As seen in the previous pages, social values and ideals have been integral to Western civilization through most of its history, and they were taught as part of programs of most colleges and universities. John Bascom taught a variety of subjects at Williams College and at the University of Wisconsin in the Unites States. He was a strong advocate of the study of social ethics at public universities, and in his teaching he emphasized transmitting a sense of purpose to his students: "The University should send back its graduates to the community from which they came, large-minded and liberal men, with a clear perception of the public welfare and a steadfast purpose to pursue it." [4]

 Washington Gladden, quoted above, studied under Bascom at Williams College, and in one of the many  commencement addresses that  he gave to students, he expresses the essence of the call to service in the professions:

The man comes to himself only when he is forgetting himself in devotion to some good outside of and beyond himself. Let us assume therefore that each one of the young men and women before me will have found before many months, some calling which connects itself closely with the public welfare, and will be pursuing that calling, not primarily as a means of personal aggrandizement, but as a work which on its own account is worth doing, because it tends to increase the sum of human happiness.[5]

Marquette University
Photo  © Margarita G. Romagosa

Vocations and Professionalism

As each individual finds a role in the world, a vocation or profession, some are called through obvious superior skills or through strong interests, but others are placed more by circumstances, and skills are developed from necessity, to fulfill some pressing need.[6] All of these are calls to service. When the execution and development of a skill is seen as service, it has the most serious moral dimension. Samuel Florman, a professional engineer who has written extensively on the engineering profession, reflects on this dimension: “There are religious implications in technology- a little bit of cathedral in everything we build." [7]

Human creations have a reality of their own outside of their creator, but the created object carries in it the imprint of its creator as a projection of the mind that created it. The individual puts a part of himself into the result of his work. This creation always has an inherent element of generosity, since it can be used by others for their benefit.   The created object or service would not exist if this effort had not been made, and it provides some usefulness to someone in the world, even though often the creator neither sees nor knows who benefits from it.[8]

A professional can do a mediocre job or he or she can do it to the fullest extent of his or her ability. To the extent that the work is perfect, the individual has made the fullest creation, has added the most to the collective human reality. This perfection is a measure of his or her love for others and his or her care.  Quoting Samuel Florman again: “The quest for excellence is a virtuous enterprise that needs no rationalizing."[9]

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. (1881-1955), the Jesuit scientist and theologian, has written extensively on the relation between the professions and values. Writing to a friend that was trying to find moral value in his professional work, Teilhard answers: “Because your undertaking - which I take to be perfectly legitimate - is going well, a little more health is being spread in the human mass, and in consequence a little more liberty to act, to think and to love.” [10]

The Thinking Earth

The end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first century have seen a significantly new phase in the knowledge heritage of mankind. Much of the knowledge that was preserved in the documents of civilization is now encoded into the different types of memories of electronic computers, and it is now available almost instantly throughout the world's Internet. This is better in potential capability than Hartlib's knowledge bureau, but not necessarily in its current purpose or functioning, since it is fairly chaotic and often used to support very negative activities as well as good ones. Teilhard foresaw a new era of increased cooperation and shared knowledge. He used the term Noosphere (the thinking earth) to refer to this development:

In fields embracing every aspect of physical matter, life and thought, the research-workers are to be numbered in hundreds of thousands, and they no longer work in isolation but in teams endowed with penetrative power that it seems nothing can withstand... The Noosphere, in short, is a stupendous thinking machine.[11]

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ
Photo source: Wikimedia
(public domain)

But Teilhard hoped that humanity would act in concert in what he called  the collective work of the universe: "Because we love, and in order that we may love even more, we find ourselves happily and especially compelled to participate in all the endeavors, all the anxieties, all the aspirations and all the affections of the earth..."[12]

[1] Washington Gladden, Commencement Days (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1916), 31.

[2] Richard Ely, Social Aspects of Christianity (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. ,1989), 16.

[3] Christopher J. Lucas, American Higher Education: A History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 176.

[4] John Bascom, Sermons and Addresses (New York: Putnam's Sons, 1913), 189-196.

[5] Washington Gladden, Commencement Days, 11-12

[6] John Donohue, S.J., Work and Education,  (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1959),  190.

[7] Samuel C. Florman, The Civilized Engineer (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987), 20.

[8] John W. Donohue, S.J., Work and Education, 150, 164.

[9] Samuel C. Florman, The Civilized Engineer, 70.

[10] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Letters From a Traveler (New York: Harper and Row, 1962),  164.

[11] Pierre Teilhard the Chardin, "The Formation of the Noosphere" in The Future of Man, 179-180.

[12] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, "The New Spirit," in The Future of Man (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 99.