Your Career is Not Your Story

I used to say “we’ve stopped talking to each other,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it’s more accurate to say, “We’ve lost our common story,” or “We’re telling different stories.”

Look at the narrative which animates us in the body politic today. On the topic of COVID there are two competing stories. One in which the bad guys are the ones who refuse to participate in mitigation measures, and one in which the bad guys are the ones implementing draconian rules in violation of our liberties.

The (long but worth the read) Tablet article on this topic frames these two different stories as different fears, and although many stories can be told as fear of something, it’s probably more generally useful to simply look at who the heroes and villains are.

But this applies to so many things. The story that a new Voting Rights Act is absolutely necessary — lest Republicans drive red states back to the Dark Ages of Jim Crow or worse — sits right alongside the story that our elections are subject to a myriad of manipulations and fraud from power hungry elite and their minions.

The current story of “identity,” where a young girl or boy is simply seeking to establish their own outlook on life without the outdated and outmoded parochial interference from parents or other fuddy duddy traditionalists; sits right alongside a story of basic biology being ignored and young people being used as pawns in a shameless effort to gain political power and dismantle the traditional family and even a sense of objective reality.

There is no better illustration of competing stories, though, than the stories of our educational system. The twist with this one is that our school system suffers internally from a clash of different stories. And the challenge we have clogging up our newsfeeds and social media pages is between the factions which embrace one, but not both of them, namely: 1) that the system is a place where kids’ talents can be cultivated and honed to where those with certain gifts can find their way to fulfilling careers and be great leaders, thinkers, engineers, scientists, etc. I like to call this the “next generation of … ” story. Built within that story is the understanding that not everyone is going to go to college or pursue a “professional” career, but through the process of our modern innovative system they’ll get enough to do a job they could support themselves with. Though it’s important to note that the “next generation of garbage men, janitors, low-level factory workers, retail cashiers, etc, etc” doesn’t make the marketing material; it’s … understood well enough.

The other story of public education is the egalitarian one. The one in which everyone is given an equal shot at succeeding at life. Everyone goes through the same classes, and of course it’s all paid for, so everyone benefits from the same vision and care of the educators, and if there are inequitable outcomes (at least beyond certain margins) then the system has failed in some way.

Both of these stories are told within the current education bureaucracies and their accompanying zeitgeist completely simultaneously. The former story could be considered the more honest of the two, if a little idealistic and tilted toward the higher end of the success scale, and the latter could be said to be more aspirational, and tilted especially toward the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.

Put another way, the modern public school system is one of ambitious advancement and meritocracy and equality, fairness, and uniformity… at the same time. The visions are not compatible, and again these different paradigms fighting for dominance are doing so within the same basic system.

This dichotomy, or rather this incongruent and contradictory story is not lost on our youth. They know that these two worlds can’t exist in the same pace and the wear and tear of this game has been been showing for a while. First is the callous and shameless rat race for higher education spots. Everyone should be required to watch the College Admissions Scandal documentary, not for the “real crime” drama of it, but for an honest look at the rigged and frankly maddening game that is college admissions in general.

But putting the internal conflict, and all the politics which it feeds (and feeds on) aside for a minute, we’re still left with the question: which of these approaches make the most sense? Should we have a system (or if you’re looking at the micro level, a school) which seeks to let the brilliant excel and the not so brilliant get what they need to “get by”? Or should we insist on a system that “levels the playing field” so that everyone gets a shot at that “American Dream.”

It probably won’t surprise anyone to find your humble author’s response to this choice is approximately: “Neither, please.”

The options don’t necessarily represent a “false choice” on logical grounds, nor is it simply because the two stories aren’t in every way at all times and places mutually exclusive (it’s perfectly possible to try to have different emphases in different… communities, subjects, grades, etc.). No, the real challenge is that the choice betrays a false purpose. The assumption built in is that the abiding purpose of education is and should be to prepare kids for their careers. It’s not shocking that this would be a primary purpose of modern education, but this doesn’t change the fact that we should question whether (or not) that is wise.

The conflict (meritocracy vs. egalitarianism) stems from a problem of identifying students — defining who they are — by what they’ll eventually do. It puts a hierarchy of careers and professions (a necessary hierarchy in our workaday world) onto children, which is irrational on its face, given we probably should seek to minimize even how much we do this to each other as adults.

So just as an experiment, let’s pretend for a second that the obsession with profession, career, and job was shifted to something else, like the realm of virtue, character, pursuit of wisdom, or truth; then the contradictions in these two narratives go away, and the career paths of different kids — with their attendant strengths, talents, interests, proclivities — can be reconciled together into a more uniform educational regime.

After all, the future doctors, lawyers, garbagemen, sailors, farmers, and baristas benefit from having common understandings of how to treat their fellow human beings, to love each other and love their God in a common pursuit of a better world through improving ourselves as individuals.

This common pursuit not only resolves the merit-equity problem; it also offers a healthy, humane, and rational alternative to the other problems of identity — race, creed, gender, sexuality, etc — which seem to have become dominant in the current conversation on K-12 education.

That conversation, as it relates to topics such as CRT and gender equity issues — to use the two examples which are causing the most current consternation — is, after all, rather outdated and outmoded itself, as it forces everyone to be put into their boxes of caste or class in terms of race, or in terms of profession… or annual salary.

But that is, indeed, a discussion for another article. For today, let it rest with this:

If we are to treat each other as equal human participants in a divine nature, then we must endeavor to treat our children that way as well, not maneuver our educational paradigms on what their respective, potential, possible, future occupations might be.