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The Contrarian: The Sons Of Martha

Latest posts by Mel Fisher (see all)

In traditional times, there were three Learned Professions.

They were self-governing, that is, the Profession itself decided who was qualified to practice that Profession, and if something went wrong, they decided whether one of their own should lose his Professional status, or at least be disciplined or downgraded.

Their role was to look after people. They were Doctor, looking after the person’s physical presence, Lawyer, looking after his relationship with other people, and Engineer, looking after his relationship with the world around him. If a medical procedure goes wrong, the profession investigates the doctor; if a legal procedure goes wrong, the profession investigates the lawyer, and if say a bridge fall down or an engine blows up, the profession investigates the engineer.

We are all fallible humans, and there are always investigations going on, but not usually publicized. Times have changed, now everybody is a ‘professional’, even the Manager of Cabbage and the Manager of Lettuce at a supermarket are ‘professionals’, but these are still the self-governing ‘Learned Professions’.

Organizations are commonly split into two functions, ‘Operating’ and ‘Engineering’. Operating people deliver the function for which the organization exists, while Engineering people provide the infrastructure they need. This split is easily seen in such as a university or hospital, where academics or medical people deliver the service and a crew led by an Engineer looks after construction and maintenance of the real property, along with utility needs.

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This line gets a bit blurred in some cases such as a highly automated manufacturing plant, but is still a useful way of looking at things. When I am out plowing my field, I am Operating, when I am fixing my tractor, I am Engineering. The Engineering Profession, at least in Canada, has adopted Rudyard Kipling’s idea that Engineers, and the technicians, tradesmen, and labour who work for them are “Sons of Martha”.

Kipling’s poem of that name is part of our tradition; it is the Engineer’s poem, rooted in the biblical story of Martha and Mary. In this story, Jesus and his entourage stop at the inn of two sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha rushes around, preparing a place for them to sleep and food for them, while Mary soothes and entertains the tired travellers.

Martha complains when Mary gets all the praise for their successful stay, and Jesus admonishes her, saying that Mary’s work is of paramount value, as she is dealing with the customers. So in Kipling’s analysis, in any organization the Engineers, and the technicians, builders, tradesmen, who support them are “The Sons of Martha”, forever consigned to work in the shadow of ‘The Sons of Mary’, the people who deliver the service or product that is the reason for the organizations existence.

Professor, son of Mary; janitor, son of Martha. Of course to be consistent with the current trend to do away with terms like ‘son’ or ‘man’ (so our neighbouring province will have to be renamed ‘Personitoba’), this will need to be changed, perhaps it could be ‘descendant’ or even ‘disciple’ of Martha, but that kind of destroys the poetic aspect.

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