The three optimistic professions
I often joke to my students that urban planning, public health and social work all share two traits: they are optimistic and they are low-paying relative to the amount of education they require. It is not easy to change how societies think about health and to even suggest they change how they construct their cities takes optimism and vision. Only a few people devote their lives’ work to building a paradise on earth. Lawyers certainly don’t believe in a utopian future, why else are there so many laws and regulations proscribing conduct and action? Neither do most Western religions, which rely on threats of damnation and promises of salvation to move persons to the accepted path of living. Even artists are ambivalent about the possibility of a golden age. For every poetic revelry on a potential paradise on earth, there are a hundred unique sad Tolstoyan portraits of unhappy families. Perhaps there are only three professions that generally strive to make a heaven on earth a reality, only three professions that truly believe humanity can be made perfect: social work, urban planning, and public health. It is not that these professions are without their disillusioned adherents, they burn through practitioners at a high rate, and all three share a certain amount of gloom about the probability of the potential advancement of humanity. But they also passionately believe that if society can be structured in certain ways, social and personal ills will vanish and mankind will enter a golden age.
Reading urban planning theory, it is striking how often they try to enlist you into their millennial vision of an urban utopia. This seems to have always been the case whether the writer Ebenezer Howard, Jane Jacobs, or Andres Duaney, its easy to think that if only their visions were carried out to the smallest detail, utopia would result. Note that the word utopia comes from Thomas Moore’s book on an ideal island state. Public health people and social workers have to carry this idea that humanity is improvable or else they would find their work far too depressing. This optimism is one reason why it is so great to work with people in these professions
If we could only figure out a way to increase their pay!