Choosing a Vocation

FOR some years serious students of pedagogy have complained that in the two most important decisions of a man’s life, choosing a wife and choosing a vocation, young men are often led by mere chance. They drift into marriage; they drift into a job. This ought not to be. As for marriage, that can wait. But serious students of pedagogy have been much concerned about the matter of vocation; they have grieved about it; they have set out to remedy it. They have instituted courses of vocational training; they have created vocational advisers.

Meeting with some encouragement in the colleges, they have extended the system downward to the high schools. It is a poor high school nowadays that does not boast a vocational adviser. They have extended the system downward to the grades, down almost to the kindergarten. ‘The child,’ I quote from any recent book on pedagogy, ‘should in his earliest years be urged to choose his future vocation in life and should commence definite preparation for that vocation. The choice cannot be made too early.’ Children in the kindergarten and in the lower grades are taken about by their teacher to view men engaged in various occupations and are asked to make choice of their life’s work. Says the teacher: ‘Children, here is a carpenter. He wears pretty blue overalls and he has a shiny saw and a hammer and he builds houses. How many of you would like to be carpenters when you grow up?’ Then all the boys who decide that they want to be carpenters when they grow up learn in school how many feet of lumber it will take to build a workbench and how much twenty-four pounds of nails at five cents a pound will cost. And the fathers and mothers come to visit the school and go away rejoicing that education is now so practical and that their sons are being so well fitted for a life work. And we read in the books written by those serious students of pedagogy that the boys go on through the years still yearning to be carpenters and still figuring with boards and nails and writing paragraphs about building houses, and finally they leave school all ready to become carpenters. You understand, of course, that at the same time their friends, who years ago made their vocational choices, are being likewise educated, each along the line of his own vocational needs. And the beauty of the whole scheme is that absolutely no education at all is wasted.

How does it actually work out? Well, William, a young man in whom I have for years taken a particular interest, has for some months past been concerned about his future calling. William, in accord with the best pedagogic principles, chose his vocation early in life. Up to last year, in common with many of his friends and, I think, most of his contemporaries, he cherished the hope of becoming a fireman. The life of adventure appeals to youth. And William was only ten. Suddenly, last winter, he changed his mind. As he was only ten, perhaps that was to have been expected. Serious students of pedagogy, however, fail to recognize such a possibility. One day last winter William announced to his family that he had given up the hope of becoming a fireman and had decided instead to become a cartoonist. I have the feeling that a visit to the movies preceded this important decision. I know that next day he laboriously copied a newspaper cartoon entitled ‘Have you talent?’ and sent it off to a correspondence school in the Middle West. I know that by return mail he received a personal letter from the president of the school congratulating him upon his work, assuring him that it revealed a talent amounting almost to genius, and urging him to take advantage of a special offer and enroll at once for the course. I know, too, that he wished to leave school and embark at once upon his career, and that his family had real difficulty in persuading him to delay for a few years. That was in January. Perhaps his family were unwise to dampen his ardor. For when I talked with him in July he had already lost his first enthusiasm for cartooning. But he had a new idea in his head. He still planned, he told me, to become a cartoonist at some time in the future and make big money (See the prospectus), but he had a scheme for making even bigger money. He was now intending to be a cartoonist on week days and a church organist on Sundays, thus combining two well-paying professions which he felt would dovetail together nicely.

In September, William announced that he had made another and a final choice. And I am in part, though unwittingly, responsible for that choice. But how could I have known? How could I have foreseen the consequences of lending William that old dog-eared ‘Nick Carter’? It was a good yarn. I needed someone to enjoy it with me. The book told of the wonderful doings of the brave lads and the one lovely girl, Roxy, who were students at Nick Carter’s famous detective school. How William did enjoy that book! Goodbye, cartoons! Good-bye, church organ! This was the life for him! Were there any detective schools nowadays? Together we searched the magazines. Finally we came upon an advertisement of the Omaha Detective School. William wrote at once for a prospectus. Some day I shall be proud of him. He looks forward to adventurous years. He feels that he is peculiarly fitted for the life of a detective. He has a flair for the work. He told me that he had already had some experience in detecting (the details are vague) and that last year in school he wrote a detective story which was very good. I think he feels that these merits should entitle him to enter the school with advanced standing and enable him to embark upon his professional career at an even earlier age than did the incomparable Roxy. She was about sixteen, I believe, when she foiled the bank robbers and retrieved the emerald necklace. It certainly sounds like a brilliant future, but I know William, and I know William’s family, and I doubt if he ever receives a degree from the Omaha Detective School.

In a few years more, William will enter high school. As a freshman, he will pursue a course called ‘Civics.’ I have read the textbook; I should call the course ‘Vocational Opportunities.’ Under duress, he will commit to memory statements concerning the advantages and the disadvantages, mostly pecuniary, of different occupations. Many of these statements are, I feel, erroneous. I have the feeling that William will know already, from his careful study of catalogues and prospectuses, quite as much along many vocational lines as did the author of the textbook. William will learn how many bricklayers there were in the United States at the time of the last census, and what their average earnings were. He will again be prompted to chart his future.

Later on, William will go to Dartmouth, because that is his father’s college. And he will decide not to become a lawyer, because that is his father’s profession. As regards other vocations he will, I think, by the time he reaches college, be open-minded. In his freshman year at Dartmouth he will pursue an orientation course provided for college freshmen, and vocational opportunities will again be presented to him. Frankly, I don’t believe the course will influence him much. Unless he has a more definite bent than I think he has, he will drift along for a year or two preparing for life in general and for no particular way of making a living.

And then, I think, I hope, something will happen to William. In his second or third year, or perhaps not until his senior year, William will, through the grace of God, meet some professor, perhaps some young instructor. He may not be a brilliant specialist or a technically efficient pedagogue, but he will be a man on fire with his subject. And, somehow, a spark will pass from teacher to pupil, and William, if the Lord is good to him, will have found his calling. And as he goes on in pursuit of that calling, I know that he will have a broader outlook on life, and a more sympathetic understanding of the other man’s problem, because of the very fact that he failed to make permanent choice of his life’s work at the age of ten.