selecting profession

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.


A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

16.1 (Winter 2016)


Generalist & Specialist in Contemporary Professions


More on the Topic of Selecting a Profession
John R. Harris

An addendum to Mark Wegierski’s “Networking vs. ‘Borderdwelling’”, this piece warns against identifying one’s profession too closely with one’s identity.

I wish I could offer specific answers to accompany Mr. Wegierski’s significant but very general observations. As an educator myself, I should like to be able to advise students usefully about courses of study that would produce profitable and enjoyable careers for them. As the father of a young man who is on track to receive a college degree in about a year and a half, I should like to be able to give my own son such advice. And as an aging professional who has always felt thoroughly out of place in a career chosen largely by default, when all other doors had shut tight, I should like to know where I went wrong—how I might have chosen my moves better.

Instead, I find that I can only offer further observations of the general sort. The sick bay is not necessarily the best place to seek advice about a cure; perhaps, at best, one may learn there what not to imbibe.

The single response to the Wegierski article that most motivated me to write an addendum is this: that today’s generalist must be tomorrow’s means of transmitting culture, or whatever survives of culture. The transmission, frankly, must begin this afternoon rather than tomorrow. We already see it happening in the vast and ever-spreading home-education movement. I would like to see home-schoolers a little more aware of the Western tradition in letters, ideas, and the arts than they usually are; but most, shortcomings notwithstanding, are already a superior alternative to the public-school option. Anyone who has ambitions of raising children, therefore, should recognize an obligation to learn broadly about the historical past and learn deeply about artistic explorations of imaginative worlds. Our children can be trained to install plumbing or hook up electronic cables quite lucratively—but they will remain barbarians who sire and rear other barbariana unless their “programming” includes something more. This obligation, it seems to me, is even binding upon the childless; for how many children have been effectively acculturated by the infuence of an aunt or uncle, or simply of a neighbor? Several of Mark Wegierski’s other recent publications in these pages have noted with regret the demise of Polish culture among Canadian immigrants who opted for the complete mainstreaming of their children over preserving a casual but persistent current of the Old World. One grandparent’s impact might have created a degree of Polish language fluency in the youngest generation.

My wife had a CD of Christmas music recorded by the Irish group Anúna playing in the background as we ate supper one night last month. I was struck very powerfully (almost to the point that I could hardly swallow) by the contrast with the “Jinglebell Rock” variety of “musac” that blares in every mall and grocery from early November to year’s end. The effect of such acculturation (or deculturation) is far more than the taste in music acquired. It must influence, I think, the very degree of depth and subtlety in one’s faith. Is the voice of our faith a bittersweet echo that dies away as we seek to chase it to the source… or is it a riot of “high fives” and candle-decked cake at a child’s birthday party? Should we wonder that Christianity, to many Americans who claim belief in it, appears today to mean a stupidly smiling embrace of any practice around us (animal sacrifice, polygamy, gay marriage, open marriage, open borders, sex changes, “healthy” highs) rather than a rigorous, ultimately mystical commitment to self-control, personal responsibility, and a penitential humility? In some obscure but not trivial way, the music we listen to impacts such habits of thought and such consequential choices.

A “generalist” education, then, is a solemn duty from a certain perspective.

Still, one has to make a living—and I know that Mr. Wegierski’s reflections were focused upon this practical end. I should not want practical considerations to distract us from the necessary end of retaining our higher purpose as beings in this world… but, while physical prosperity is not a moral obligation, it is highly desirable.

I will lay claim to my practical credentials immediately by confessing that I urged my son to develop his talents in baseball as far as he could and exploit them to the maximum possible. The funnel has narrowed around him, but he has also ridden it to depths that most of his boyhood friends will never see. An athletic skill is “money in the bank” in our society. Even if one does not eventually play professionally, professions related to the playing field are multiplying, from “sports medicine” to “sports law”. The evidence of having reached physically arduous goals while completing a college degree also often impresses employers; and the lessons in self-discipline are enduring, whether or not a prospective employer is bright enough to see their effect.

Another example of the advantages involved in “balancing on three legs rather than two” is foreign language acquisition. Practically any professional is better served in today’s ever more complicated economic environment if he or she speaks Spanish or Chinese or Russian as well as English. The politic decisons responsible for this condition may be reprehensible… but they have created a new reality, and in that reality our children must live. I myself, unfortunately, chose to specialize in “dead” languages rather than, say, select a Russian major that could have proved very prosperous during the Cold War. In fact, now that the road not taken is only a distant memory, I find myself wishing that I had jointly majored in Mathematics. I am not particularly gifted in that direction, so I should probably have made a very satisfactory high school teacher in the subject. (Math teachers are notorious for not being able to explain to the rest of us what is crystal-clear to them.) Then I might have sweetened my application with an ability to pick up the odd Latin or English course and also have landed—who knows?–an assistant coach’s gig on the baseball team. Such multi-functional employees are hard to find and harder to replace; but the journey begins in selecting a specialty that in and of itself occupies a small pool. Most math majors seek highly remunerative positions in industry or research: a teacher’s life and salary hold nothing to tempt them. English majors, on the other hand, have no genuine professional option besides teaching, so their segment of the education field is always glutted; and the new recruit, having won out through his excellence, furthermore often struggles with the nervous jealousies of senior staff on account of being, perhaps, just a little too good. The Latin major is even worse; for all high schools and colleges have English programs, but almost none has a Latin program that justifies a full-time position. Unlike math courses, too, upon whose utility students are vaguely sold, Latin classes are roundly hated by most students when required—and they must be required if they are to draw enough enrollment to fuel the creation of a position.

The unpardonable rambles of the previous paragraph have snared somewhere in their coils, I hope, the important point that the specialty must be “scouted out”. Talk to seasoned veterans who have practiced it. Soberly, honestly take the measure of its assets and liabilities. Do not accept at face value the “professional” nudging of institutional counselors. Their job is to have you sign up for more courses at their school or college, not to arrange your future happiness. Those who are attached to particular departments, especially, will most certainly not counsel you away from their backwater and adding your warm body to their statistics. The grass will always be greener right where you are, according to them: they won’t let you sneak a peek over the hedge.

Similarly, much counsel of the free and well-meaning variety—one may even deploy the phrase, “prevailing wisdom”—has it that you should “follow your passion”, as I have heard Rush Limbaugh (for instance) say of his career in broadcasting. Obviously, if you love to do something and would do it for pleasure even if unpaid for your efforts, you will probably do it with great application and thoroughness. Such “passion”, however (pace Rush), does not necessarily bring success or happiness. On occasion, it can bring bitter disillusionment and profound misery. For every happy-go-lucky Gulley Jimson, there must be a hundred wasting Van Goghs (and Jimson was Joyce Cary’s fictional creation). I personally wanted nothing so much as to be a writer, ever since I was a small child. I think I may be said to have applied myself to that end with as much “passion” as anyone imaginable. I was writing two-hundred-page novels (very, very bad ones) at the age of thirteen. I flatter myself that I have become a thoroughly competent writer… probably far too competent. I peek at the titles and brief descriptions of the bestsellers that pop up on my Kindle and marvel at all the grammatical solecisms and cartoonish, cliché claptrap. Then I post a piece on this website… and WordPress’s Yoast software warns me that a scan of my prose rates its level of difficulty far above the average person’s comfort zone.

As a creator, you can tell yourself all the livelong day that the dumbed-down mainstream is simply too degenerate to “get” what you’re trying to do. It still doesn’t pay any bills. And if you try to dumb down, as well, in order to reach those sluggish bottom-feeders in their cool penumbra, then you will a) fail miserably because the imposture will leave signs all over the place, or b) succeed wonderfully and hate yourself for a vile traitor. You would have been better off majoring in math, then writing your little nuggets for yourself and your circle fit though few over weekends and during summer breaks.

So… no, don’t go with your passion. Mistrust passion, here as in other instances. If you do succeed in grinding out a modest income doing that which defines you in large measure as a unique human being, you make yourself susceptible to abusive employers, who will quickly recognize that your services may be had almost for the asking. Do something for which you have a certain aptitude and at which, therefore, you can expect to enjoy a degree of success; but leave that something at the office, and develop your prowess in flamenco guitar-playing during hours of glorious leisure.

At the moment, that is all I have to add about the subject. With luck, you may find further and better advice after leaving the hospital’s terminal ward.

John Harris is founder and president of The Center for Literate Values.  His most recent book is Climbing Backward Out of Caves: A Case for Religious Faith Based on Common Sense.