LP Hartley wrote that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” and reading Frank Parson’s seminal Choosing a Vocation I was repeatedly struck by just how foreign the past was. For those of you who aren’t aware of it Choosing a Vocation by Frank Parson’s is frequently cited as one of the foundation stones of careers guidance. Published in 1909 is describes a set of activities that can be used by the new profession of vocational counsellor in order to help people “win the best success of which one is capable”. The aims of the book are lofty, arguing that vocational counselling can have an enormous social impact by helping people to find the things that they are best suited for. Round pegs into round holes and so on. If we don’t do this then the social cost is enormous leading to “inefficiency… employment expense, waste of training, and low grade service.” In other words, careers matters enough to set up a profession of people to ensure that others pay attention to it. Parsons had already started this work in Boston by the time the book was written and the book shows others how it can be done.
Reading it you can see huge areas of connections with current careers practice. The activities of the vocational bureau sketched out by Parsons are remarkably similar to the current activities of many careers services. Broadly he argues that in order to give good advice one must know the person and understand the labour market. Then you will be able to fit one into the other. However, he also goes further and talks about the role of reflection, experimentation and self-discovery in the movement of an individual towards a career
(I’m translating a little here from Parsons‘
language, but I think that you would find these concepts are key to his method). He discusses the use of psychometrics (“tests of association time, memory-time, will-time”), encourages careers practioners to build up “a comprehensive view of the field of opportunity” i.e. to become familiar with the needs of the labour market, going beyond this to say that “data in regard to pay, conditions of labor, chances of advancement” etc should also be collected. He also talks about the value of transferable skills and reflective ability talking about how his bureau pay particular attention to “develop analytic power…one of the corner-stones of mastery and achievement”. He even talks about the role of work related learning, work placements and work experience, encouraging his clients to read about a variety of roles, talk to existing workers and “try his hand” at different jobs.
So far, so uncontensious and of course, one must not forget, so innovative and so groundbreaking. When Parson’s says that his most fundamental question is of “uniting, so far as may be possible the abilities and enthusiasms of the developed man with the daily work he has to do” he sure encapsulates a key aspiration that we all feel. If through our actions we can make people happier, more fulfilled and more socially useful, we can surely sleep easy at night. However, there are also plenty of things that make you start with the strangeness of 1909. First and foremost is Parson’s twin enthusiasms for eugenics and phrenology. Ancestry is enormously important to his interview methodology. For example the following questions:
6. Nationality of father and mother
8. Business or occupation of father, brothers, uncles and other near relatives.
14. Ancestry – grandfathers, great-grandfathers, etc, nationality and residence
These overt questions are then supplemented by close examination of a variety of physical features that are presumably meant to throw light on suitability for various occupations. For example:
Figure, slim, medium, thick-set, fat, plump, angular, straight, or crooked, bent, round-shouldered, hollow chested, bow-legged, or otherwise defective
Face, color, outline, features, symmetry, expression
Similarly the shape of the head is very important in forming an opinion of a client, with phrases like “head well shaped on the whole, but curves not full above the temple” and “Head large, splendidly shaped” abounding in the case notes that are included with the book. Some of the scientific material in the books conclusion also make surprising reading for the modern reader. The point of setting out this detail is not to rubbish Parsons but rather to show something of the character of this writing. He was clearly eager to put vocational guidance onto a scientific footing and borrowed liberally from the scientific ideas of the time. He also tries to push these forwards, developing a range of psychometric questions that are interesting and at times similar to modern psychometrics. At others they are absurdly leading e.g. “Do you smile naturally and easily and feel the smile in your heart, or is your face ordinarily expressionless?” and at all times they are unvalidated. Nonetheless we must remember that this is frontier stuff and appreciate it for the way it moved the debate on.
Another area that we would perhaps balk at Parsons’ conception of the careers project would be in his imagined role for the guidance counsellor. His interviews are far more judgemental and directive in style than we are used to. For example
You have devoted your life so far too much to books and too little to doing useful work.
Your hand was moist and unpleasant when you shook hands.
The vocational counsellor is a gatekeeper as much as an advisor. Stopping some ambitions in their tracks and suggesting more realistic or appropriate alternatives. Generally the advice seems to ere to being conservative, frequently encouraging people to stick with what they know and to utilise the opportunities that they have. I’d guess that most of us would balk at this vision of guidance, preferring something that is empowering and enabling rather than limiting and confining. We also might balk at Parsons’ willingness to exceed his boundaries and give guidance on a wide variety of matters such as how to be a good cartoonist/lawyer/sign writer, whether you should smoke or not, what exercises to take and how to manage your digestion. However, again if we remember the historical context these seemingly wild moves are a little less bizarre. Counselling, nutrition and professional development were all just as much frontier worlds as vocational guidance and the boundaries between them were less clearly establ
ished. Nonetheless, reading Parsons’ is a sobering reminder that we should be careful to only offer guidance on things that we have some basic knowledge of.
A more challenging area is the connection that Parsons’ draws between career development and civic development. While he might not have described it this way himself, Parsons was engaged in a political project to change American society. Vocational guidance was to be a constraint on the market, providing a planned input to the way the labour market developed. A logical extension of this is to encourage those that you are guiding to engage with public life and to learn from this engagement. Parsons’ doesn’t really talk about changing the political status quo, just about managing it better and more humanely and about engaging those that it impacts on in its management.
For me this unwillingness to challenge what he describes as an extremely flawed system is a major limitation of Parsons’ work. In particular his apparent disinterest in class and social position makes it difficult to take some of the discussions seriously. It is difficult not to feel that many of the judgements about suitability that are made in the book are in fact based on class prejudice about who would be suitable for certain occupations. For me at least there is a need for careers practioners to recognise the systemic issues as well as the personal ones in formulating our methodology and analysis of the world. Parsons’ world view is both historically and politically divorced from mine and therefore his careers methodology is necessarily going to have only limited usefulness for me. On the other hand I find the connection between what we now call careers and citizenship an appealing one. If we are going to talk about careers within meaningful social, political and economic contexts with the users of our services, as well as with each other, then this connection is probably a useful one. Parsons knew this in 1909 and it is this fusion of careers and political and social activism that still makes reading him powerful.
Has anyone else read or reread Choosing a Vocation recently? I’d be interested in your thoughts.