Postmodern Conservative

The End of the Professions?

Among the numerous facts that have come to my attention lately is that the Republicans have not won a presidential election since 1928 without a Nixon (well, there’s only one) or a Bush on the ticket. You have to admit that’s one strange bleepin’ fact. It does strengthen the case for finding Jeb a place on the ticket — and for finding out what Tricia Nixon has been doing lately.

There is also a lot of informed speculation out there on the web about men being replaced by machines (by computers and especially robots). I’ve read that the personal physician will soon be replaced by the diagnostic computer — which (who?) of course will know a lot more and make fewer errors. The personal touch can be provided by a nurse. Nursing, everyone knows, is exploding as a profession, and it appears to be one of the very few college majors that guarantees a job to about everyone who completes the program. These probably aren’t the best times to go to medical school (and certainly you shouldn’t risk borrowing a lot to do so). One takeaway: There are probably more ways than we can imagine right now in which technology will reduce medical costs. The libertarian futurists are right about some things.

We also read that much of what lawyers do now will be turned over to machines. (Insert lawyer joke here.) The supply of lawyers already far exceeds the demand. This seems, of course, bad news for political science as a liberal-arts, pre-professional major. Constitutional law used to be touted as a really tough course that would show your readiness for law school. Well prepared by all the reading and writing you did in college, you will, it’s very, very likely, do well enough in law school to be rather securely set for life in a good firm. Many a Berry grad has followed some version of that “career path.”

But things have changed.  It’s easier to get into law school. Some pretty decent programs, in fact, aren’t filling up and are getting desperate for warm bodies. Even grads from the best programs are having trouble getting secure jobs, and compensation for lawyers is, in general, getting worse. The business of borrowing huge bucks to fund your legal education is now way too risky. Everyone knows of underemployed law-school grads (many of whom got good grades in law schools) drowning in debt. So the new challenge is to go to law school for free or at least on the cheap, and that is getting a lot easier to do, as law-school discounting is getting closer to college discounting. A reputable law school not far from where I’m sitting now used to basically stiff their students with an exorbitant tuition, and the profit was redistributed to the rest of the campus programs. Now, money is being frantically redistributed to the law school for financial aid to keep it afloat.

It’s still the case that if you want to be a lawyer you should “follow your passion” and go to law school. But you have to do so with a much more entrepreneurial spirit. Jobs aren’t guaranteed for the nerds who get all A’s. Everyone has to hustle to find gainful employment. And lawyers are more and more stuck with being independent contractors selling their labor piecemeal for a price.

Does this mean that pre-professional liberal education is no longer relevant? It means exactly the opposite. It’s more true than ever that it’s the foundation of the flexibility required to flourish in the 21st-century competitive marketplace. You probably won’t have some securely placed ”career” as a lawyer. And the most marketable skills remain lucid and precisely detailed speaking, writing, and reading comprehension, and the world still belongs to those with huge active vocabularies, those who can deploy the world of the screen and techno-jargon with effective irony, those who can really use words to describe the world as it is. And the main source of a “real vocabulary” is absorbing the content of ”real books.” 

Well, there’s another route: Being on very good terms with the “genius machines” that will be continue to expand as sources of our productivity. But that route is not for everyone. And the world belongs to those who know enough to be able to tell those nerds what to do. Peter Thiel, remember, majored in philosophy and went to law school. And Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s educational narrative is the same sort of  undergraduate foundation in real books followed by “professional development.”

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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