Doctors, lawyers, teachers. From business to health care, professionals are everywhere in America, but their contributions to the nation’s development are often relegated to the backdrop of history. In The Creative Society (on sale now), Johns Hopkins professor Louis Galambos looks at modern American history through the eyes of its emerging ranks of professional experts. Beginning with the end of the 19th century and leading up to the early 21st, Galambos examines the pivotal role that the creative class played in confronting and resolving many of the challenges America has faced over the past century.
We chatted with Lou to talk about his inspiration for the book; how the creative class succeeded and sometimes failed; and finally, why we shouldn’t worry so much about America’s future.
Why write a history of the U.S. from the perspective of the creative class?
The creative class of professional experts controls the destiny of the United States. We live in an age of increasing specialization, expertise, and dependence on the ideas and actions of an educated professional class—a class trained, we hope, to help us solve our society’s problems.
Their numbers have grown—my estimate is that as many as 45 million Americans are professionals. Since the 1890s, they have gradually increased their power, wealth, and status in America. This is true in science, in teaching, in the military, in all levels of our federal, state, and local governments, in business, and in every corner of our vast system of higher education. Our politics have become a new form of professional discourse. High-tech industries shaped by modern science drive our economy and shape our social context in new ways. Our powerful modern weapons—or rather weapon systems—are produced by experts working in enormous, complex organizations. The weapons are used by professionally dominated military services, which turn to universities for the research that will keep them on the front edge of technology in national security. In short, the creative class has always played an instrumental role in shaping the course of our nation’s history, and it’s time we look at their contributions from the ground-up.
What were the creative class’s greatest contributions?
The creative class has given us longer and healthier lives, a remarkable abundance of goods and services, and the ability to shape our future—individually and as a society—in new ways. The age of the Renaissance man or woman is behind us. You want and need expertise, and this is true in nearly all areas of society—from medicine to business to higher education.
For example, the universities and colleges that train our professionals have become vital avenues for social and economic mobility. They generate the new knowledge that our society needs to remain competitive in a rapidly changing world. In the business world, managers and executives deploy thousands of professionals to perform functions that no longer lend themselves to amateur solutions. We also need and use professionals in every branch of government. The list can go on and on, and though at times we worry about the performance of our creative class, we cannot do without them and we know it.
What are the failures of the creative class?
Professionals, like the rest of us, make mistakes. Sometimes very big mistakes—as was the case recently with the “risk managers” in America’s largest public and private financial institutions. Nevertheless, we still employ “risk managers” with the hope that their future performance will be much, much better than their failures in the recent past. When professionals think their expertise enables them to ignore common ethical standards—to wit, Enron and the lawyers involved in the Watergate scandal—they are a sorry disappointment both to their profession and to the rest of our society.
What’s especially interesting about the Occupy Wall Street movement is the fact that many of its members are professionals. What has happened to America’s creative class in recent years to cause such discontentment? In your opinion, what can be done?
Like the movements of the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s, the OWS movement includes professionals and many young people who will soon be headed toward professional careers. They are deeply concerned about the role our financial institutions have played in causing the Great Recession of 2008 to the present (we are still not out of that downturn, as the unemployment figures indicate). They have reason to be concerned about the distribution of income, wealth, and power in America. Like the New Left, the OWS has a very wide band of concerns and little focus on specific measures that might move the society ahead. Like the New Left, the OWS will probably dwindle down without shaking the foundations of American political economy. In the case of the New Left, however, the movement did advance the opposition to the futile, wasteful Vietnam War and the support for a new approach to civil rights for minorities. One hopes the OWS will encourage Americans to take steps that will give us an economy less skewed toward the top 1% of the top 1%—and thus a more stable economy in the future.
You include a considerable amount of your own family’s history against the backdrop of the rise of professionals in America. What was most surprising for you to learn while researching your family’s archives?
I included some of the history of my own family for two reasons. First, I did so because I think many students and other readers will be encouraged to look back upon, ponder, and maybe even learn something new about the many ways history has shaped them and their families. It will also help them understand how they and their families have helped to shape America, even though they have not been famous or infamous. Second, I wanted to give my readers a good sense of the various ways millions of Americans have taken advantage of education in an effort to improve their own fortunes and those of their children. This is an important, maybe the single most important, American story.
In researching my own family, I discovered from my birth certificate that my father was a self-proclaimed “mining engineer.” He had only finished the third year of high school and was a welder, but he now had his eyes focused on a bright new future in the same profession as the President of the United States, Herbert Hoover. This too was a distinctly American story of professionalization by proclamation.
Should we be worried about the nation’s future?
The economy has been in the midst of the Great Recession. We are worried about that and about our educational system: After all, the Chinese are training more engineers than we are! The Creative Society should help readers see that we have been challenged before and each time dealt with adversity in ways that kept America moving ahead. We recovered from the depression of the 1890s, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the difficult times of the 1980s and the years following the implosion of the Dot.Com Bubble. Our economy and democracy has also met the challenges of two World Wars and a long Cold War. We have learned from our mistakes and continued to improve our educational system, to open access to power, wealth, and status to women and minorities in an impressive manner. The society is still flexible and capable of creative change.
Of course, there are many ways we can improve our performance. We need to continue to improve our system of urban education—promoting competition through charter schools. We need to have more restraint about America’s overseas involvement and the tremendous expenditures we are making in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. We need to keep our attention focused on the fundamental values that are essential to the American form of democracy and to our role in the world.