Professional foul: there is more to life than mammon

TES column 6 February 2015

‘Professional’, used as a descriptive term, has undergone a transformation.  Today it means ‘unequivocally good’. Governors are expected to work ‘professionally’ to encourage school improvement.  Top-of-the-range tools and products are ‘professional quality’ and we aspire to undertaking tasks ‘like a pro’.

How different to the word’s use little more than a century ago.  Then, a ‘professionally done’ job was one redolent of mercantile cheeseparing.   Somerset Maugham, in a novel of the 1930s, describes a woman disinherited by her family because she ‘married a solicitor’.  In sport, unpaid ‘gentlemen’ embodied loftier ideals than wage-dependent ‘players’.  And, the ‘professional classes’ were, at best, somewhere in the middle of the social strata.

Today, all that endures of this old sense is ‘professional foul’, a term suggesting a cyclical act with base motives.

It might not be playground argot, but the inversion of ‘professional’ is every bit as complete as ‘sick’, ‘bad’ and ‘wicked’.

The causes of this change are complex – and by no means all bad.  In public life, however, there is good reason for resisting the elision of ‘professionalism’ and ‘competence’.

The vast majority of school governors undertake their work unpaid.  The same is true of parish councillors, scout leaders, sports coaches and club administrators – twelve million of us who regularly volunteer in Britain at least monthly.  This freely-given labour is an enabling, civilising force whose contribution to the tapestry of national life is immense.

All of us ‘volunteers’ should aspire to undertake what we do to the highest standards.  We should be systematic about the quality of our work and seek out ways to improve what we deliver.  But let us resist having our ‘professionalism’ praised, and not just for accuracies’ sake.

The transformation of the meaning of ‘professional’ has come during a period when financial value and intrinsic worth have become synonymous.  Good ideas alone are insufficient – they must be ‘monetised’.  Footballers are better known for the numbers they achieve in the transfer market than those on the backs of their shirts.  And ‘artistic records’ are set in auction rooms, not painters’ studios.

Unless we rebuild the notion that community service creates value far greater than that measurable by accountants, we risk raising a generation who won’t roll up their sleeves unless the meter is running.

But how to make this change?  I suggest three steps.

Let’s stop apologising ‘for not being professionals’ – something that I have heard governors and others doing thousands of times.  Exacting standards are not dependent on remuneration.

Let’s celebrate what we do – the pursuit of a well-done job as its own reward.  Enthusiasm for young people’s education and welfare motivates us to spend time in schools.  If we can’t feel good about that ourselves we can’t expect others to pat us on the back.

And, we should insist that schools celebrate voluntary, as much as salaried, leadership: inspirational speakers addressing pupils should number as many who work because they care, as because they are paid.

One final thought.  Why don’t English teachers incorporate the inversion of ‘professional’ into explorations the endless elasticity of our language?  It might encourage young people to consider both the value of community service and the complex journeys undertaken by some of their own favourite exclamations.


The illustration is a detail from Evelyn De Morgans‘s The Worship Of Mammon (1909)