Our culture of careerism

A recent Spectator article written by Anthony Seldon claims that British universities have some work to do if they want to be the best option for the majority of sixth-form students. Seldon argues this is because most students see education simply as a means to employment, and university tutors—what with their penchant for high-flown discussion of abstract concepts rather than the real-world applications of their subjects—don’t produce the kind of well-rounded graduates that are suited to a life of employment.

Seldon’s approach to solving the disparity between what students want and what students get is to change universities. Change the whole culture of higher education so that it better suits the salary-obsessed mentality of today’s sixth-formers. It’s true that higher education is seen as a tool for securing a “decent job” – as a philosophy student I’m regularly asked why I’d bother with a degree that doesn’t plant me firmly at the beginning of a lucrative career path.
And here’s the answer that I give: I really like philosophy.

You see, from as early as those class discussions in primary school about what we aspire to be when we grow up, we’re taught that our ambitions ought to be concerned with our careers. And the career you end up with is all too often how your success in life is measured. This isn’t necessarily to say that your achievements are judged in monetary terms, though.

Today’s society romanticizes the individual who pursues a career that they have a real passion for but that doesn’t pay much. The struggling musician, actor, or comedian even is a shining example of someone with their priorities sorted. They aren’t valuing a steady income above their passions and we all tip our hats to them for it.

But it’s still the career we’re judging them for. The middle-aged insurance salesman who plays the bass in a band with some high school friends every Thursday night—perhaps practicing then because that’s when his wife is out at bingo—is not such a enticing role model.

Perhaps, you might say, he hasn’t given his all. He hasn’t put everything he possibly could into playing the bass. If his priorities were truly in order then he’d play tiny unknown gig after tiny unknown gig until his band finally got its Big Break, and the only reason he’d have anything to do with an insurance broker would be to take out a policy on his fretting hand.

But this betrays a bizarre perception that also being your career makes your hobby or your passion more valuable. What is the intrinsic value of careerism exactly? I have no plans to pursue a career in academic philosophy, but I also have no plans to stop reading or writing about it. Is the worth of my interest so diminished by its lack of financial benefits?

I love my degree and the high-flown debates about abstract concepts. I read a six-page paper on whether two distinct objects can exist in the same place at the same time last year (spoilers: they totally can!) and I bloody loved it. Having read it, it won’t prepare me for the workplace, but I’m glad I did it.

Not everyone’s ambitions take the form of future careers and that’s fine. Kids shouldn’t be taught that they ought to.

I think Seldon is right about what most sixth-form students want, but I’m not sure he’s questioned whether they want it for the right reasons.

Perhaps there’s an argument that anything that costs £9,000 per year for three years can only be justified by the promise of future financial compensation.

But bear this in mind: I’m paying nothing back until I’m earning £21,000. If Seldon and his sixth-form students are right about my career prospects, the joke’s on them, because I’m indulging my interest in philosophy for free!

One comment

  1. 1 Oct ’13 at 6:53 pm

    Isidore of Seville

    I agree wholeheartedly with this article. Universities in England have gone from being centres of academic research and teaching to being glorified sixth form colleges. A lot of students don’t even *like* the courses they’re studying, they’re simply taking it because it’s perceived as obligatory in order to get a decent job. I don’t blame them for wanting to improve their chances in life – it’s the fault of the government and employers who keep pushing this lie about how you *need* to have a degree, no matter how unrelated to your profession.

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