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This was a difficult article to write, partly because of the exceptionally high level of feedback from the rest of the Herbarium team, but mostly because it tried so hard to turn itself into a small book. I’ve confined myself to a single but telling aspect of the dialogue that the times demand. With the apparent mothballing of the Statutory Regulation process, the ongoing demise of the educational system created to serve it, and the meltdown of the herb trade in the wake of the THMPD, herbalists in the UK must pause to consider who and what we are, and where we’re going. Are the ‘professional’ herbalists of the last two centuries about to die out, and should we really mind? What sort of herbalists might replace them, and with what ethos? How would they learn their craft?

Stephen Church

In the early 1990s when I was working for NIMH and exploring what might have been a more inspiring model for professional development than is manifested these days, I spent some time with Crosby Chacksfield, an extraordinarily able educator who, amongst many useful things provided me with these two definitions: –

  • Competence: the ability to function satisfactorily in familiar circumstances.
  • Proficiency: the ability to function satisfactorily in both familiar and unfamiliar circumstances.

Let’s flesh this out a bit. Competence is about applying established solutions to pre-defined problems. Competence can therefore be measured, so it is easy to document, easy to teach, and easy to assess. Competence is based on vertical thinking. Competence is also the territory of risk management, evidence-based processes and centralised control.

Proficiency, by contrast, is about having abilities both more profound and broad-based – acumen, skill, flair, and audacity – to work in unknown territory and still be able to move towards a positive outcome. Lateral thinking is required. Proficiency is hard to measure, teach or assess, although it can be exemplified, recognised, and ultimately approved (or, of course, disapproved when it doesn’t go well). Proficiency used to be the territory of the professional – individuals sufficiently highly educated, conditioned and motivated in their chosen field (teaching, law, medicine, etc) that they could be trusted to act according to the best of their ability with a high degree of autonomy. There was a framework of competencies, of course, but also clearly plenty of headroom for individual talent and experimentation.

In a way, my discussions 20 years ago might seem to have very little relevance now, as proficiency (and professionalism) have been thrust aside in favour of an almost fetish-like demand for competence. Why has this happened? My own guess at the reason is two-fold. It’s partly because we now live in a world where human organisation is based on central control, and you can only control what can be measured and assessed. At the same time, the computer/interweb environment is the modern way to administer these control systems – and computers cope brilliantly with the yes/no environment of competencies, but very poorly with the ‘it depends’ environment of proficiencies.  Which chicken came before which egg is hard to know, but one can easily see how much of the modern world of occupational and social order (or disorder!) is defined by competency-based systems, and how badly it has all gone wrong: it has caused the dumbing down of just about everything, and has contributed to the creation of pyramidal, over-bureaucratised systems that are now creaking under their own weight.  On a more parochial level, one observes that workers in those fields that touch closely on herbal medicine – teachers, midwives, nurses, even doctors themselves, have had their status insidiously eroded by a process of de-professionalisation as proficiency has been sacrificed on the altar of competence. One also notices how much the demand for ever more detailed definition and evidence of competency has been done in the name of safety, and yet this process has manifestly failed to make the world a safer place.

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