Reimagining American Community



magine a small, rooted, Midwestern town. In this town as in all towns, folks die and the townspeople meet grief together in lamentation, prayer, and song. Their grief is common property, an anguish from which the community draws its strength and which gives it the courage to move ahead.  There are traditions of grieving in this town, and those traditions have been inherited and shaped by even older traditions brought by ancestors.

And then, one momentous day, a man from the University walks into town and hangs a shingle reading “Grief Counselor”. A new need is subtly imputed to people who, as individuals in community, have successfully grieved for generations. Professional dependence begins to be established. And, in the course of only some twenty years or so,  “The counselor’s new tool will cut through the social fabric, throwing aside kinship, care, neighborly obligations and community ways of coming together and going on.” A desert is created in an area of life where community once flourished. The new reality is that a neighbor thinks twice before stopping by the house of a recently bereaved friend for fear of interrupting a meeting with the grief counselor.

This is the parable I most often recite when I try to convey to anybody the notion of a “disabling profession”. Sound exaggerated?  Well, the burden of the 4th Annual Schumacher Lecture by John L. McKnight, “John Deere and the Bereavement Counselor”, was to claim that tale as the story of his own people in Sauk County, Wisconsin. McKnight was a frequent collaborator and “miner” in this vein of thought with the historian and social critic Ivan Illich who, in the late 1970s, designated the mid-twentieth century as “The Age of Disabling Professions”. In so designating this era, he hoped to “dispatch” the whole pathology in a way similar to the way an exorcist challenges the demon to give its name as a precursor to expelling it:

To be dispatched, an age needs a name that sticks…I choose this designation as it commits those who use it. It exposes the anti-social functions provided by the least challenged providers: educators, physicians, social workers and scientists. Simultaneously, it indicts the complacency of the citizens who have submitted themselves to the multi-faceted bondage as clients.1

The professions, having the characteristics of a monopoly, tend to rob people of their autonomy and liberty, these critics argue, because they practice “tyranny”, as that term was historically understood.

Here’s James Madison:  “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the sacred hand whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

And Illich scholar Sajay Samuel (in his essay, “Consoling Thoughts About Tyranny in the end of the Age of Experts”, paraphrases Montesquieu on the same simple point:  “Whenever the three powers are united in one body or agency, there the people will groan under the most dreadful oppression.”

Illich states:

The wandering physician became the medical doctor when he left the drugs to the pharmacist and kept for himself the power to prescribe them. At that moment, he acquired a new kind of authority by uniting three roles in one person: the sapiential authority to advise, instruct and direct, the moral authority to makes its acceptance not just useful but obligatory, and the charismatic authority that allows the physician to appeal to some supreme interest of his clients that not only outranks conscience but sometimes even the raison d’etat.2

In his early writings on this theme (The Right to Useful Unemployment), Illich wanted to make the case that looking at our market dependence, societal regimentation and the corresponding lack of autonomy through the lens and role of “disabling professionals” had much more explanatory power than the then-popular argument that put the defense establishment at the center of the critique of the industrial mode of production:  “The strategy demands nothing less than the unmasking of the professional ethos. The credibility of the professional expert, be he scientist, therapist or executive, is the Achilles’ heel of the industrial system”. In later writings and talks, however, he put less emphasis on this aspect of the argument and increased his emphasis on the understanding to be gained by looking at this dependence-producing aspect of modern life through the history of the Catholic priesthood.

Illich’s historical argument put forth that the grafting on of the “pastor” role to that of “priest” (an innovation of the great and influential scholar, Alcuin, during the reign of Charlemagne) was the advent of the disabling, modern-day, “social service professional.” I still pray and work in a Church where many people turn to the priest who may or may not be gifted in theology but was definitely forced to sit in theology classes under a professional for every question of Church history and theology. These folk may likewise feel that such simple devotions as the Rosary or Stations of the Cross are that much more powerful or authentic if led by a priest.

Illich and many of his fellow critics were saddened to see that the new “professions” (teaching, medicine, science and social workers, especially), though possessing useful skills, were quite possibly establishing an even greater stranglehold over the imaginations of their consumers than the Catholic priesthood ever established, so much so that even societal dropouts and un-pluggers quite often unconsciously adopt the methods of tyranny, even if they live “off the grid.”

My wife and I homeschooled our own children in the early years, and I wouldn’t change it for the world (I’m a fan, not a critic, of homeschooling). But who hasn’t met at least one homeschooling parent who has internalized and adopted the methods of the most tyrannical schoolmarm? Many people, instead of fleeing the excesses of formal school and the professional educator, actually bring those excesses into the home. The biblical parallel, and a continuance of the theme of demon-removal, would be the driving out of one demon but the replacement of that one with seven ‘more wicked than itself’, where ‘the final condition is worse than the first’, (Matt: 12:45).

As this piece intends to be an introduction to the argument regarding “disabling professions”, more than a thoroughgoing history of the treatment given to the idea by Illich and his peers, I can’t help but close with a literary and philosophical detour and recommend the writings of a neglected protean genius, John Cowper Powys, whom critic George Steiner called supreme in English fiction after Hardy, specifically his philosophical masterpiece, In Spite Of: A Philosophy for Everyman, (1953).

Powys notes that the “abysmal contempt of the initiated for the uninitiated is one of the most irritating things in human life, though it is a contempt which often takes the form of genial and condescending amiability. Only the deepest of philosophic humorists seem able to level out these accurst distinctions”.  Powys himself, in my opinion, is that “philosophic humorist”. If this explication of the  “Age of Disabling Professions” rings true to you, if you’ve ever been demeaned by an insufferably arrogant and tyrannical “professional” or “expert”, read his chapter “In Spite of Experts”. Powys rekindles your pride.


1.  Illich, Ivan, The Right to Useful Unemployment and Its Professional Enemies (1978), p.39

2. Illich, 51-52.

About the Author
Michael J. Sauter is married and the father of four teens as well as the stepfather to dwarf goats and chickens. He doesn’t speak to trees but he does speak a lot to Trappist monks at the nearby Abbey of the Genesee. He has an M.A. in Theology from St. Bernard’s Institute and serves as Director of Catholic Campus Ministry at SUNY Geneseo as well as Pastoral Administrator of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in upstate, NY.