Against Careerism, For College

Having just seen a new crop of students graduate from my university, and seeing them now off into the world—to jobs, internships, and further study—I find myself thinking about what college is for ...

Having just seen a new crop of students graduate from my university, and seeing them now off into the world—to jobs, internships, and further study—I find myself thinking about what college is for, what it results in, and the feelings that swirl around the event of graduation.

In the longest single section of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King, we follow the monologue of a onetime “wastoid” college student whose “transcript looked like collage art.” The climax of this meandering story arrives in two parts: First, a revelation occurs while our character is “just being an unmotivated lump” and “watching the CBS soap opera As the World Turns.” He realizes, at the commercial break when the network announces, “You’re watching As the World Turns,” that this is literally true, and it triggers a “dawning realization that all of the directionless drifting and laziness … was, in reality, not funny, not one bit funny, but rather frightening, in fact sad, or something else—something I could not name because it has no name.” His nihilism is punctured.

Shortly thereafter, our character is sitting in an advanced accounting class when “a substitute Jesuit” professor delivers an impromptu lecture about how accounting is nothing less than “a calling.” Toward the end of his impassioned discourse, the instructor states: “You have wondered, perhaps, why all real accountants wear hats? They are today’s cowboys. As will you be. Riding the American range. Riding herd on the unending torrent of financial data.” Our character leaves the class “in a strange kind of hyperaware daze, both disoriented and very clear”—and he goes on to change his ways, straightening up and becoming altogether dedicated to accountancy.

Despite the obvious humor and linguistic playfulness, it is surprisingly difficult to conclude if Wallace is lampooning the main character and his newfound calling or celebrating in earnest the singularity of purpose and clarity of vision that springs from the rote work of accounting. What is utterly clear, however, is that this character’s career choice did not occur as a result of careful curricular planning or through the aid of support staff on his campus. It was spontaneous, and rather late in the game—after years of “classes where everything was fuzzy and abstract and open to interpretation and then those interpretations were open to still more interpretations.” In other words, a haphazard, pinball approach to college nevertheless ends in a decisive swerve toward a life of civil service.

I was reminded of Wallace’s story recently, as I spent this past year serving on a workgroup with faculty from across my campus and our career services staff concerning faculty-student advising. Specifically, we were tasked with formalizing how we integrate professional internships into the curricula of our various departments, programs, and disciplines. On the whole our meetings were positive and productive, and I generally agree that academic departments ought to think carefully about how they prepare students for life beyond the college campus.

But a troubling assumption kept popping up during the meetings: the belief that our students need, from their first year in college, to be thinking actively about their eventual careers.

I wholeheartedly support the idea that college instructors should want to help their students discover meaningful work in and for the world. This is one of the things I love about teaching at a Jesuit institution: during our most intellectually far-flung class discussions I can demand that we bring our lessons down to earth, and the students don’t flinch—they get it, that’s what they’re here for. Part of our university’s mission is to live lives “with and for others,” and the students are, for the most part, on board with this idea. (Sheer coincidence, by the way, w/r/t Wallace’s “substitute Jesuit.”)

I take great pride in seeing my students off to excellent graduate programs and professional internships that then lead to jobs. One of the joys of mentoring students over the course of four years (a key role of being a tenure-track or tenured professor) is hearing from them again one, two, or five years after graduation, when they have had some time to reflect on their education after having found a meaningful path in life—whether this means continued academic study or a full-time job in a field related (or totally unrelated) to their major. I probably get two or three letters like this a year, and these notes of gratitude always make me happy to be part of the process of higher education—which, let’s admit it, can at times feel awkward, random, and ill-defined.

Yet I have to respectfully disagree with the fundamental notion that our students should be thinking about their careers from the day they set foot on campus. This seems entirely wrong for at least two reasons.

College is precisely the place where students should not be weighed down with job-forecasting despair.

First, the idea that there are or will be stable “careers” in the blooming 21st century seems questionable at best, and a pipedream at worst. We know better—don’t we?—than to think that there are secure, sure trajectories that will see individuals steadily up a promotional ladder through to success and retirement in the chaotic and high-stakes marketplace of the post-digital economy. I graduated from college in 2000, and worked several very different full-time jobs before (and even as) I settled into graduate studies and, eventually, a teaching career. And I still have thoughts about what it would mean to “retool” myself, should my university suddenly tank or should I get fed up with the committee work and onerous demands on my life at home. (E.g., I began writing this piece at midnight, when I should have been sleeping, but was woken up by a feeling of vague unease after one of the meetings with my workgroup.) Speaking more broadly, in our frantic moment of way-past-bedtime capitalism, entire industries can evaporate overnight or get subsumed by vast parent companies that themselves are no less tenuously positioned. In either case, there is no career training that can prepare one to roll with such likely transitions. The fact is, if we can train our students to be one thing, it’s to be flexible.

And this leads to the second reason I am skeptical of careerism on campus. College is precisely the place where students should not be weighed down with job-forecasting despair for a few years of their lives. Of course we should help our seniors and/or graduate students transition into their next stages of life, with gainful employment, but those first three years of college should be protected for learning, for questioning, for reflection. Higher education is not vocational training, but something almost ruthlessly opposed to it. College—at least the liberal arts model of it—is about pausing to reflect on how we got to where we are now, and contemplating where we might want to go from here. And if that’s not putting it audaciously enough, try this: it is about taking the space and time to think the unthinkable. And paradoxically, this might result in more flexible, better equipped individuals when it comes to actually getting into the hard work of living—earning an income, making a home (conceived broadly), paying taxes, being a good citizen, etc.

So I cannot support the idea that our freshman should immediately be confronted with interactive databases of career options, or be asked to delineate as-if paths to post-graduation success. This is disingenuous, blind to our historical moment, and at odds with the rich traditions and broadening functions of higher education.

I like seeing my students land great jobs after graduation, and helping them do so. I write many letters of recommendation each year, and dutifully fill out cryptically worded reference forms. I help students craft cover letters and non-academic résumés. I take this work seriously. But I am against the careerism that seems to be increasingly insinuating itself into college life. A student’s experience should be about exploring the hitherto unknown; it should be about letting ideas and theories play in the mind and play out in the lab; it should be about redefining oneself, continuously—not with a clear end goal, but alert to history, sensitive to the present, and attentive to the future.

David Foster Wallace. Photograph by Steve Rhodes / Wikimedia Commons

David Foster Wallace. Photograph by Steve Rhodes / Wikimedia Commons

David Foster Wallace’s character from The Pale King may in fact be an elaborate caricature, a mere drawn-out sendup of a late-20th-century wastoid struck by an epiphany that sends him into an as-if meaningful career. What is interesting, though, is the double-jointed placement of his character’s change: it arrives first in the indolent zone of the dorm room; and second in the lecture hall, upon the words of an ardent instructor. Even if we accept Wallace’s ironic tone, it is worth rallying around these parts of the college experience that cannot be plotted along the lines of any career placement rubric. The time to pause and reflect, and the effects of an inspiring professor: these things when combined can result in a potent alchemy indeed.

But “alchemy” makes it sound cryptic, and hard to pin down. It is! College is something that should slip through the fingers of assessment directors and helicopter parents. I haven’t done the sociological research to prove this in any way, but my strong hunch—based on 15 years of college teaching and innumerable anecdotes along the way—is that truly well-rounded higher education, as opposed to the careerist model, better equips students for life beyond college. But this means supporting disciplines without easily identifiable career paths. It means letting students wander, and stumble into things from time to time. It ultimately means taking college seriously, not for what it delivers but for what it is in the process: a time that flies in the face of corporatization. As much as current models try to make it otherwise, students make terrible “customers,” and professors are neither mid-level managers nor highly efficient supervisors. And this is a good thing.

To say that higher education provides an incalculable experience is not just to employ a poetic metaphor. It’s to state the truth, which is that what happens in college will never fit easily into a clearly laid out template showing an easy path from first year to a career track post-graduation. This does not mean that colleges should not help students with post-graduation plans, but that such energy could probably be focused more effectively (if also more intensely) on the final months of college, rather than imagined to be necessary from orientation day onward.

Let college be college. Then, one’s working life after college might be not just a career, but might also be a lifeicon

Featured image: Roping gray wolf, via Wikimedia