The right time to make an enlightened career choice?

Young people today go through various stages of their educational formation at which they, or someone on either behalf, make choices that will have a clear effect on the trajectory of their careers. At school they decide which subjects to take or keep taking – they lose mathematics, they lose a whole array of potential choices. They choose a university, they choose a course. And before they have any real experience of life they have often painted themselves into a corner of life from which they can no longer escape.

This has become so complex that ever more detailed advice needs to be given at an ever earlier age – as was done by the Russell Group of UK universities in a guide to post-16 subject choices:

‘It is really important that students do not disadvantage themselves by choosing a combination of subjects at A-level which will not equip them with the appropriate skills and knowledge for their university course or which may not demonstrate effectively their aptitude for a particular subject.’

Do we force specialisation on students too early, and do we help them to make intelligent choices? One contribution to this debate was made recently by the Chief Executive of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, who in a debate in Trinity College Dublin on enlightenment values suggested the following:

‘It is hardly in line with principles of the Enlightenment to force students into narrower and narrower subject choice options and deny them a broad first year experience with a focus on developing critical thinking and analytical skills.’

It is an interesting comment, but it is set against a backdrop of trends not in keeping with the ideal; and in particular, the trend to shorten higher education programmes – which in turn makes it much more difficult to have a liberal arts approach to the early stages of higher education – and the trend of turning secondary schools into the ante-chamber of higher education, rather than a forum for intellectual formation in its own right, using its own principles.

There is of course no single correct answer to the question in the title. But there are some wrong answers. Fording specialisation on young people at too early an age is one of them; not least because if we do so, the choices will often not be made by them, but for them. And that is wrong.

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8 Comments on “The right time to make an enlightened career choice?”

  1. Greg Foley Says:

    Tom Boland made no sense and reveals a lack of experience of actually teaching. The idea that by studying a ‘broad’ course one might encourage ‘critical thinking’ makes no sense to me. In fact, if a course is too broad, students tend to acquire surface knowledge and become more prone to rote learning. The best way to become a critical thinker is to immerse oneself in a well-defined discipline.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Hi Greg, I beg to disagree with your view on the immersion in a ‘well-defined discipline’ as the ‘best way’ to become a critical thinker and I am certainly not alone in asserting that breath and depth of knowledge are not mutually exclusive, you only need to take a look at the mission statements of American universities like Yale or Berkeley to find similar views.

      Personally, I believe that the Enlightenment project is still an important part of what is best in the Western cultural tradition, its ‘grand narratives’ should not be immune from a certain degree of revision, however the crucial ideas of reason, justice, and equality still have a role to play in framing the contemporary political and intellectual discourse. One only needs to consider the dream of a ‘universal library’ as it developed from the Encyclopédie project in eighteenth century France, via H.G. Well’s idea for a “World Brain,” Vannevar Bush and the Memex (a machine predating the modern personal computer), to the most recent Google Books Library Project to appreciate the relevance of the Enlightenment project.

      There is no doubt that the history of higher education is intertwined with the philosophical principles of the Enlightenment, becoming oblivious to such a tradition in the hasty pursuit of creating the perfect ‘work-ready’ graduate would be like suffering from a form of academic dementia. Not a prospect I relish.

      • Greg Foley Says:

        Hi Anna

        Here’s where I’m coming from…

        I’ve taught for many years on a multidisciplinary programme (Biotechnology) in Ferdinand’s old institution, DCU. In that time I’ve had the chance to see how students deal with a very broad curriculum. I find there is a small number of excellent students who master both the biology and the chemical engineering aspects of the course but the majority tend to favour one ‘side’ of the course – usually the biology. The result is that they rely hugely on rote learning to get through the engineering content. (At this time of year I’m typically inundated with questions like “do we have to memorize the formulas?”)

        My view is that when people are immersed in a discipline and they gradually acquire the basic knowledge and skills of that discipline, they acquire the ability and the confidence to become critical thinkers – in that discipline. To extend that critical thinking ability into other realms requires further study to gain the requisite discipline-specific knowledge and skill. (With experience, the learning process should get easier and more efficient.)

        I suppose my basic point is that while the concept of ‘broad’ courses’ has a certain appeal, it takes a lot of time to combine breadth with depth – more time than the 3 or 4 years of undergraduate education. And I think that expecting youngsters to master different disciplines in parallel is too much.

      • Sadly all your examples in para 2 are interesting but to a certain degree failures, certainly by degree of employment/use.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Are the choices you list somewhat tracked anyway. And aren’t you dealing with a relatively small number of schools. Or to put it another way. If we take the Russell Group, they draw their intake from schools that have designed their teaching to the end of entry to those uni’s.
    The true issue is that the choice is false, for even if a poor student takes exactly the same turns as a wealthy one, the poor student will have a vastly lessened ability to sustain entry into a profession.

  3. Jane Kidd Says:

    Surely the solution is to create and maintain many, many turning and get-out points throughout the academic and post-academic career, as minds change as they mature and life happens. And teach notorious “dead-end” subjects such as maths or languages in new ways to sustain the broad curriculum as long as possible

  4. Niall Says:

    Unless they are doing a vocational or professional degree many/most students don’t make a career choice – enlightened or otherwise – until a few years after they graduate.

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