The Conundrum of Careerism

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.


Caroline L.
Caroline L7 years ago

The truth hurts. But I've been lucky in many ways. Although I was not given the opportunity to further my education formally I have been given many opportunities to learn. And I love every minute of it.

Adrian Davis
Adrian Davis7 years ago

Thanks for the article!

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W8 years ago

Very sad.

amber m.
amber m8 years ago


Heather A.
Heather A8 years ago

i think seeing universities as "primarily job-training centers instead of places where the whole person is addressed and enriched" really depends on the courses and programs one takes. my boyfriend took a class on feminism and the change in him since has been nothing short of spectacular! friends of mine take courses related to environment and they've said they actually feel like they're doing something good for the world

Lauren Hale
Lauren Hale8 years ago

Good article!

Niki S.
Niki S8 years ago

I teach art at a middle school. A comment and a question: Teachers do challenge student's thinking. The less formal air of the art class room is ideal for talking about a large array of topics.
The question is why can students so confidently say they can be a sports star (with no honest feedback about their skills) but they cannot see themselves becoming a scientist, a writer, or an engineer?

(My guess is that students don't see these people around them and the path to sports stardom seems so clear.)

Roberto R.
Roberto R.8 years ago

But I soon found that even Blacks frown on those who study that subject. However I did not follow the heard and ventured out into the world suffering some but never the less had a respectable carrear in the job market. Today I am happily retired and still the BLACK STUDIES FREEK! Thas America to me.

Steve S.
Steve S8 years ago

Dietrich Bonhoffer remarked that the measure of a society is the type of world they leave to the next generation. The answer to nearly every social problem we have is curable with good education. Our primary purpose as a community, nation, world is seeing that folks have the opportunity to learn that which will enable learning without disproportionate individual expense.

Linda M.
Linda M8 years ago

thanks for the article