Book Review: College Organization and Professional Development: Integrating Moral Reasoning and Reflective Practice

St. John, E. P. (2009) College organization and professional development: Integrating moral reasoning and reflective practice. New York: Routledge.

In College Organization and Professional Development: Integrating Moral Reasoning and Reflective Practice, Edward P. St. John makes a provocative argument for integrating the reflective tools of educators into the professional development managed professionals. St. John views the professional work environment as beset by a fundamental moral problem: the distance between our beliefs and our actions. He sees professionals as uniquely suited to address the major moral issues of our age due to their extended time in training sequences and professional stature in large human service organizations. By integrating moral reasoning into professional educational and development, organizations could become staffed by people who are equipped to deal with the precarious moral condition of our age. This text addresses specifically addresses issues that face educational professionals who work at the front lines of educational access and opportunity.

Incorporating reflection is necessary because the there are few easy answers in the “post-progressive” era. For St. John, our condition is one in which the possibility of a “progressively better state of affairs [evolving] is likely false” (St. John, 172). For St. John, post-progressivism is a by-product of modernity where the costs of progress are growing increasingly high. Material progress comes with increasingly high environmental costs and growing affluence is coinciding with increasingly high disparities in wealth. Resistance to taxation has hampered the government’s ability to address many of the aforementioned challenges. Accordingly, St. John seeks to give us intelligent responses to the growing costs of modernity since it is unlikely that there will be any simple solutions. Since eliminating problems outright is a fait possibility, St. John argues that we will fail or succeed based on the extent to which managed professionals can integrate moral reasoning into their practice.

St. John grounds his theory of moral reasoning in the language of communicative action since the fundamental problem that besets educational professionals is the distance between beliefs and actions. For professionals this means returning to the non-commercial and service values that professionals have traditionally been associated with and increasing our awareness of moral problems created in the course of being a practicing professional. St. John begins the text with a broad overview of the history of many “ideal type” professions such as education, medicine, and law. St. John seeks to help professionals incorporate critical or spiritual reflection in their work but leaves the specific moral tradition up to the reader.

St. John succeeds in problematizing many commonly held assumptions about professions. While developing a fully articulated argument, he shows that conventional practice can lead to the perpetuation of injustice. Relying on traditional dimensions of professional success such as expertise and authority can actually represent a missed opportunity to work for social justice. The major challenge for professionals working for social justice is to arrive at “post-conventional” practice. St. John is deeply indebted to Kohlberg’s model development theory throughout his text. Like Kholberg, St. John sees individual professionals’ moral development continuing on an arc proceeding from Pre-conventional(emphasis on rules and regulations) to Conventional(applying rules consistent with ethical codes) to Post-conventional (using existing methods to address major moral challenges). Much of St. John’s work is to adapt this theory for professionals in a way that accounts for the diversity of moral traditions and challenges that professionals encounter. His primary focus is to get away from mere obedience moral codes and move toward building a situation-based moral reasoning with specific reflective exercises.

St. John’s post-convectional, post-progressive views are most clearly articulated in chapter 8. In this chapter, he introduces the idea of “Critical Social Challenges” or situations where conventional thinking leads to injustice because taken-for-grated assumptions may be in conflict with certain moral aims. Thus applying the rules in a pre-conventional way actually contributes to injustice. For instance, traditional merit scholarships have lead to increases in educational disparity since assumptions about academic merit do not account for lack of opportunity faced by various marginalized groups. For St. John, Critical Social Challenges always lurk where convectional thinking is extant. To rectify pre-conventional and conventional reasoning, discursive space must be offered to educational professionals so they may reflect on how to address inequality. To illustrate the value of discursive space, he offers three case studies involving college professionals who want to address inequality by increasing access to under represented groups.

St. John assumes a certain degree of collegiality and the existence of tenure in his reflective and discursive exercises. The well curated cases he uses to illustrate how his methodology include plausible conversations between professionals and how these could be reflected upon in order to arrive at a superior moral course of action. However, not all organizations with managed professionals have a collegium which circumscribes the applicability of these case studies. While St. John rightfully described asymmetry of power between professionals and non-professionals, scant attention is paid to intraorganzational power dynamics. The organizations he describes are, to an extent, apolitical and appear to be staffed by agreeable and well-meaning professionals. Overall, these cases would be improved if they addressed how reflective practice might look in more typical environment with numerous asymmetries in power. This is especially important as the institution of tenure is eroding and more of the instructional activities at colleges are carried out by adjuncts. For a text so thoroughly indebted to Marxist critical theory, an omission of power is a curious but not fatal omission.

While the text is ostensibly about moral reasoning the book is relatively light on any philosophical groundwork for the need for moral reasoning. Thus St. John offers us a text about how to go about reasoning morally in a professional context but few clues as to what the correct moral position would look like. While there is a extended discussion about the foundations of western moral reasoning, the exact picture of social justice is underdeveloped. Is the reader to believe that all people have moral beliefs and if we could just act on them the world will be a better place? The text makes clear that the lack of access to human services such as heath care and education is deeply troubling for the author but there are few clues as to why this is troubling. The text is rich with moral strategies for professionals can work for a more just world but reliance on conventional ideas about equality would make his argument more articulate.

College Organizational and Professional Development is a highly novel look at the state of our professions. St. John draws richly from philosophy, religion, and the social sciences to create a comprehensive critique of the current state of educational practice. St. John shows that few professions are reaching their capacity to ameliorate inequality and demonstrates how frequent reflection can raise the overall quality of the human services. Overall, St. John tells young professionals and educators alike that conventional rule following may lead to practices that are inherently unjust. By reflection and post-conventional reasoning that we can escape the confines of conventionality. While many of the examples are drawn from other professional spheres, St. John believes that improving professional development can promote social justice due to the wide array of areas that professionals work in. The long training sequences of professionals present an opportunity to inculcate a more robust moral foundation. Putting the educational bias aside, the text is relevant to many other professions. While philosophical and intellectually sophisticated, the books diagrams and exercises neatly summarize complicated and multi-dimensional arguments about moral development. Given how deeply personal and idiosyncratic reflection is, the many case studies and dialogues experiences are helpful in allowing the text to relate to a wide audience. On balance, St. John has shown the world how important it is that we close the link between professional aims and outcomes. As he presents it, professional action has a particularly robust moral dimension and this text offers a particularly compelling way to realize our professional charter. Ultimately St. John writes as a service to all of us who entered professional life to promote equality and justice but seek assistance in realizing our charter.

Book review written by:

Pamela Petrease Felder, PhD, Associate Professor, UMES, ORLD Ph.D. Program

Timothy Shanahan, M.S.ED, Independent Researcher


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