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Monday, December 12, 2011

Career Choices: Please don't make me be a dentist!

I attended a family occasion the other day. I saw people from one side of my family most of whom I hadn’t seen in some years. I was introduced by my first cousin to her grandson. I was told that he was graduating college and would soon be attending dental school.

I broke out laughing.

Behind him were his two younger brothers. I asked if they would be going to dental school as well. At this point his mother chimed in that she certainly hoped so.

Now I was just sad.

Now, rest assured that I have nothing against dentists or dental school. A fine career choice I am sure. I have left out some information here. The mother of this boy is a dentist. I also left out that his father is a dentist. I also left out that his grandfather is a dentist. And, I left out that he (and I) have other cousins who are dentists as well. My uncle was dentist. His son is a dentist. His sister married a dentist. Her son is a dentist.

All these dentists are perfectly fine human beings and they all seem to be living well. It is funny to come from a family of dentists but really, so what?

At some point in the party we were all attending, as the music blasted and people danced, I saw that the young man whom I had first been introduced to had sat down next to me. He said that his grandfather had told him that I was some kind of professor and he asked me what I taught. After some chit chat I asked him if he really wanted to be a dentist.

He said that he had worked hard in college, struggling through required science courses and that it would soon all be worth it.

I asked him if had ever considered any other profession. He said ‘No.” I asked him why not and he said that there had been a lot of pressure from his family to be a dentist. I asked why and he said they had had good experiences and it had worked for them and they thought it was a great life.

I asked if there was anything else he could imagine being. He replied that he really wanted to work with people and that he liked talking to people and as he went on I got the idea that it wasn’t the teeth part of people that he was referring to.

I told him that when I taught at Yale I devoted one class every term to the subject of what the kids in the class wanted to be when they grew up. I challenged them to be something other than what their parents wanted them to be. But for the most part, the children of doctors were going to be doctors and the children of lawyers were going to be lawyers.

We don’t realize as parents how much we talk with children about what they are going to be when they grow up and how much we limit their choices by talking about the limited things we actually know about or by inadvertently putting pressure on them to look at the world in a certain way.

When I suggested that this young man not make any choice right now except simply deciding to decide all this in a few years while trying some other stuff out, he was mostly concerned about how he would explain this to his parents.

Now, usually I am writing about schooling in this column and this one is no exception. Except for my weird one day class, students at Yale got no real career counseling. They only get role models (who are all professional academics) or they get pressure from their parents, or advice from their peers about what is a hot choice right now. Why aren’t we teaching our children how to think about making career choices, or life choices for that matter? Because we are too busy teaching them calculus or macro-economics.

Governments complain about the lack of skilled workers but they don’t try to help in any way except to push more math and science courses which are irrelevant and in no way help one understand one’s career options. Calculus is not a career choice.

Schools need to start helping kids figure out what they can do in life or else the advisors will all be parents who are limited in their world view.


Anonymous said...

I'm the kind of guy who encourages religious people to seriously challenge their beliefs, on the grounds that (1) if they still believe, their reasoning and faith will be deeper and stronger, and (2) if they change their mind, well, they believe something that makes more sense to them and that's OK.

So I agree with you wholeheartedly; the sin isn't becoming what your parents are, it's the failure to think for yourself and meaningfully engage in a wider world.

So what's the solution? At what age should we be targeting individuals with what amounts to better career counseling? Furthermore, how do we give kids (or adults!) an accurate sense of what they'll be doing in a given career before they actually enter it working full-time?

I'm not asking these questions rhetorically; I want to start the discussion so we can establish some answers and begin the process of actually changing the world.

Interested? :P

Anonymous said...

They talk quite a bit about careers at my son's junior high, although I think it might be done in a fairly abstract way. I definitely could have used a refresher course in college.

Miguel Guhlin (@mGuhlin) said...

What would be a good career choice for someone who is great at Calculus AND Writing?

That's the choice facing my daughter and to be honest, I bet nothing I've said--except don't be a teacher in today's public schools--has stuck.


cassandra said...

Roger, with this post I think you have hit at the essence of the problem with education today. We make no effort to understand who the kids are, what they're good at, and what they enjoy. We give each and every one the same education, with no concern about what we are educating them for.

I agree with shilber - what's the solution? I've been working with (and against) the schools for the past 20 years and I'm not sure where to start. Any ideas? (Besides blowing it all up and starting over.)