The problem with “you can do anything you want!”

In this week’s Chronicle, Scott Carlson wonders about the value of telling graduates that “they can do anything with their degree.” He relays the story of “Mike,” a college graduate he met who now works at a local grocery store and who remains unsure about his future. Mike is committed to environmentalism and sustainability, loves reading and  appreciates how his liberal arts education challenged him to think about “deep questions.”

But Mike now feels lost, and questions the preparation offered by his alma mater:

“That college is supposed to be ‘the best four years of your life’ weighed on me,” he says. “It’s like a country club there. The lawn is mowed every day. There’s no trash. That’s evidence of how far it is from reality.”

Photo by Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Carlson diagnoses Mike as suffering from “the paradox of choice.” Readers of At This Time and In This Place will remember Bill Cavanaugh’s treatment of this issue in his smartly titled essay, “Actually, You Can’t Be Anything You Want (And it’s a Good Thing, Too).” (For a short bit from this piece, see Bill’s post from 2013 on Vocation and Freedom). More recently, John Barton took up this issue, writing that reflections upon calling “must align with healthy acknowledgements of limitation, unpredictable variables, emerging self-knowledge, communal engagement, and guiding ‘callers.'”

It’s perhaps too sanguine to wonder what might have happened if Mike (and his brother, who has similar concerns) had been able to experience more robust programming and careful, holistic mentoring focused on vocation and the development of a sense of meaning and purpose. Would Mike have become one of the successful “purposeful graduates” described by Tim Clydesdale in his study of early programs in vocational reflection?

Carlson mentions some examples of institutions which have taken up the challenge of incorporating technical training with the liberal arts. Such programs can be very helpful, but they sometimes lack solid theoretical grounding and attention to best practices.

For example, the significance of good mentoring and opportunities for reflection should not be underestimated. Internships, informational interviews with alums “in the field,” and practical training are all worthy ventures. But all this exposure to the “real world” wouldn’t have helped Mike without the guidance of a caring mentor, nudging him to think about (and further reflect upon) his beliefs and commitments, as well as what he was learning about himself through those practical experiences. To borrow from one of Kant’s formulations, vocational reflection without actual experience is empty, and experience without considered reflection is blind.

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