Leopoldian Professionalism

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This session is entitled, “Looking Forward: Leopold for the Twenty-First Century. What Would He Say to His Hundredth Anniversary Class Graduating This Year?” I’m going to take a slightly different approach to the question posed to our panel. I really don’t know what Aldo Leopold would say to the class of 2009. In good philosophical fashion I will dodge the scholarly question and instead address myself to what I think he should say, and probably would if he were looking at the human prospect through 2009 eyes.

One thing in particular caught my eye in looking through some of Leopold’s writings for a clue to guide me. It was his emphasis on the importance and indeed the power of changing minds—not just manipulating “incentives” or motivations, but changing whole ways of thinking and acting in the world; transforming outlooks, feelings, desires, intellectual understanding, imagination, values, and commitments. He sometimes called this endeavor “the development of an ecological conscience.” And he believed it went hand in hand with an education about the reality of nature as a system, as a pyramid, as an interdependent nexus or network of life and of energy. An ecological conscience goes hand in hand with an ecological consciousness.

“Ecological science,” he wrote, “has wrought a change in the mental eye.” That’s the sentence that I want to use as my jumping-off point for my remarks. This remark occurs in a passage where Leopold is saying that Daniel Boone understood nature and an ecosystem and the land in a certain intuitive way, but that we now today have a deeper understanding than he did. Boone lived on a surface; ecology allows us to see more deeply beneath the surface. And it actually dovetails nicely with the passage that was read at the beginning of this session by Mary Evelyn Tucker about how the ecologist is a lonely figure, because he or she can see things that most of the rest of us miss.

This sort of formulation leads me to ask the question, “Is ecology a profession?” What are schools of environment studies supposed to do? Are they creating a group of people with a special kind of education that we ought to refer to as a profession, and if so, what does that mean? And what should professionals be doing in our society today given the problems we’ve been talking about all day long?

I think Leopold would have said to us that he’s concerned in 2009 about the potential loss in our culture and our society of two essential things. (In a recent book Jane Jacobs actually has voiced this concern.) The first is a loss of an ideal or culture of professionalism, in particular ethical, civic professionalism. And the second, consequent to the loss of professionalism, is an atrophy of our society’s moral and natural imagination. Finally, with both a loss of civic professionalism and the atrophy of a moral imagination concerning the biotic community (the “land”) comes a crippling of our social capacity to realize anything like the land ethic in our policies and practices. This is nothing less than a crisis of ecologically responsible democratic citizenship.

Faced with this prospect, Leopold—and all intellectuals and educators in the conservation movement today—would and should charge the graduates of Yale FES to recover, recapture, and recreate that sense of ethical professionalism and that sense of moral imagination, and to help nurture and restore the vital connection between our land and our democracy.

Now, what do I mean by ethical professionalism, in what sense might ecology be a profession, and how should professionals be educated? I suggest to you that we think in terms of the following three distinctions—which I believe are Leopoldian in spirit, if not in terminology or actual argumentation.

The three distinctions are as follows: (1) Education is not the same as training, or mastering a given body of information. (2) Being a professional is not the same thing as having technical or theoretical expertise. (3) Having a calling or a profession is not the same thing as having a career.

To develop a new kind of mental eye, as Leopold put it and explored it in the Sand County Almanac, is to develop a capacity for ethical judgment and discernment. It is also to develop a sense of commitment and responsibility. To have a profession is to have something to profess, and to have the qualities of mind and heart adequate to professing it with wisdom and finesse.

That’s why there is a deep affinity, certainly in the Judeo-Christian tradition at any rate, between the notion of calling and the notion of profession. Leopold’s writings are replete with narratives of calling. In the Bible Abraham, Moses, and other prophets were called by God into a relationship that established a moral transformation, a covenant. Leopold, echoing these traditional memories, describes himself being called by the voice of cranes and by the eye of a dying wolf. To be called is to be open to hearing or seeing a source of value larger and more fundamental than ourselves and our immediate interests. And such openness in turn leads one to embrace that higher value when it is confronted. That embrace is deeply transformative.

Precisely because calling and profession are so powerful, judgment and critical discernment are all the more crucial. There are true calls and false ones. In the practical application of knowledge to real-world decisions and actions, values are complex and subject to interpretation in light of context and circumstance. Values are often multiple and in conflict with one another.

So to respond to the call of a profession is not simply making a commitment per se; it is making a commitment critically, reflectively, with discernment. It entails a degree of mastering, of critical reasoning capacities and reasoned ethical judgment. Education that does not make provision for and guidance toward such mastery is not education at all; it’s technical training that prepares for a career, but does not enable a calling.

Are we training, in our schools of environment studies, a cadre of individuals who have the specialized knowledge that gives them a new mental eye, but also that sense of professionalism or calling that shapes moral discernment and moral judgment? If we aren’t, if we are not giving them a Leopoldian mental eye of values as well as facts, where will we as society get such vision? If we are not training the next generation of ecological experts to be professionals, can we do without such ecological professionals? I think that in the years ahead we cannot do well without them; we need their vision and leadership and we can ill afford to be guided by technical experts lacking in ethical professionalism. Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart, as Max Weber put it grimly.

Now, if we can educate and produce a new generation of ecological professionals what are they supposed to do? The essence of being a professional, I would argue, is really not the application of specialized knowledge to particular problems, so much as it is the practice of a kind of civic and moral education for the society as a whole.

And what is it that professionals educate society about? It is to develop in all of us as democratic citizens an expanded sense of moral and civic imagination. And in the case of ecology, natural imagination.

Physicians don’t simply apply technical skill to cure a physiological problem. They shape our understanding of our own body and our own health. Similarly I contend that all professionals have this role of nurturing an expanded moral imagination and civic capacity. That’s why it’s a false opposition (alas often posed) to pit expertise against democracy; professional leadership against grassroots, participation, and empowerment. Of course, technocratic elites often impede and undermine democratic governance, but Leopoldian professionals would not, they would nurture and educate and civilize it.

  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.
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