You know what they say: If you want to be president of the United States, you better decide by the time you’re five so that henceforth you will not make a single mistake. No adolescent failures-to-inhale. No flirtations with radical organizations even if they offer peace on earth. No wise-Latina-ing or attending parties where someone in the room might at some point have been vaguely associated with a ‘terrorist organization,’ which could mean anything from the Red Brigade to the National Education Association. (However, apparently, if you’re a Republican, it’s okay to dodge military service – I guess that makes future war-mongering seem less self-interested.) In other words, to be president is to have lived blamelessly.
The above, of course, is an exaggeration – after all, we did elect a president named Hussein and George W. Bush proved that you can get away with just about any sort of youthful indiscretion as long as you ‘repent,’ get Religion, and live error-free from then on. (Okay, I digress but I like to take the opportunity to call out these contradictions whenever possible.)
One problem with careerism – despite the fact that most career-focused college trajectories are far less draconian than a pursuit of the presidency – is that it constricts the kind of intellectual exploration that used to be the hallmark of education. Universities become primarily job-training centers instead of places where the whole person is addressed and enriched. Historically, the college experience was a luxury akin to finishing school with exams; ‘educated’ was synonymous with culture and class. Only slowly did a college education begin to be identified as a basic qualifier in a potential employee.
Back in my day – not that distant – a degree meant a pretty much-guaranteed job. My BA in Humanities enlivened with absolutely no experience nevertheless got me immediate offers of everything from advertising copywriter to social worker. I’d graduated from college – nothing else on my resume mattered. In fact, in graduate school I was hired to be a ‘floor supervisor’ at a garment factory simply because I was a ‘college girl’ and, oh! what a disaster it was. If you want to be roundly, and justly, loathed, take such a job away from someone who knows the process and deserves the position and proceed, because you have no clue what you’re doing, to rob those hardworking women, who are paid by the piece, of dollars on the hour.
Now a college degree guarantees virtually nothing but the chance to contend for a dwindling number of positions. Getting a jumpstart on the competition by using college as a skill-set developer is mightily tempting.
Nobody, especially in this economy, can argue with the fact that many college graduates leave those sequestered halls burdened by debt. According to a recent survey, the cost of college tuition is rising faster than inflation. No wonder a practical approach to one’s studies is tempting, if not downright necessary. After all, the perception is that acquaintance with the history and art of the Sung Dynasty might be inspiring but it won’t buy baby that new pair of shoes.
Much has been written about the value arts and humanities add to the study of everything from management to microbiology. These disciplines stimulate different ways of thinking, encourage creativity and innovation, and promote the perspective that knowing the world comprises far more than accumulating facts and honing marketable skills.
When a student, or an institution, focuses too narrowly on career preparation, something is gained for sure, but much is lost. More troubling than the lack of breadth that exposure to arts, language, music engenders, more disturbing than the questions left unasked and history left unexamined, is that careerism ultimately redefines the primary role of the citizen: from the responsibility to be engaged and informed to the obligation to consume.
In the program in which I teach, I urge my students, including those in management who are bound to the career path by necessity, to open themselves up to studies that challenge, surprise, even provoke them. I encourage them to shake up their assumptions, take on alien points of view, and generally expand their hearts and minds. The problem with careerism, I tell them, is that it demotes education to being simply the means to an end: love learning for itself.
However, the worst thing about careerism might be not its stifling of exploration but its devaluation of mistakes. We went through a national I’m-never-wrong phase and look where that got us. The willingness to try the untested, to fail and subsequently learn from error is, for individual as well as countries, the beginning and the essence of success.
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