If I have a calling, it would be either reading or cooking. Reading came early, a natural escape for an introverted kid. Comic books opened the door, but science fiction and fantasy swallowed me up. Yet until high school, I can’t recall a single thing I had to read for a class, though I read hundreds and hundreds of books. My academic performance flirted with failure more than success, because all I did was read stuff that had nothing to do with school. Luckily, since a lot was science fiction I was peripherally nudged into passing math, and all the reading gave me enough language skill to get through the others.
Cooking came a little later, in college, as I was reading academically for classes, and writing papers and all that, but still mostly swimming in novels we didn’t cover in British Lit Through the 1600s, or Literary Theory: Post Deconstructuralism. At first, with 5 roommates, I realized I’d rather cook something than clean the damn kitchen, so a bargain was made: I’d cook, and they would pretend to clean up. But I learned I rather liked the cooking, and eventually I no longer had 5 slobs for roommates. (And I even met a girl who liked my cooking enough that we eventually married.)
I found neither of those callings in school itself. And now spending 20 years in education, I can say from firsthand experience that I know very few kids who might say it was school that did it for them either. And if teaching in schools for 20 years constitutes a calling, it wasn’t school that got me here either. (It was the comic books.)
Not many students actually have early ‘callings’. The ones I’ve known — pilots, writers, fishermen, photographers, doctors, lawyers, parents, mechanics, farmers, travelers, actors, dancers, soldiers, even dentists — found it somewhere other than school. The few who may have found their calling in a classroom are now teachers, but even they were more likely inspired by a teacher than school itself. For many, school certainly nurtured their calling or helped it grow or carved a deeper path or made it happen, but few that I can recall actually discovered it through classwork.
Students sense this; adults forget it.
And it begs the question: Why should so few people find their callings in school? It would be one thing if this was just ‘not everyone’. But it’s really ‘nobody’.
I regularly ask students if they like their school, and almost all say ‘yes’. Ask them if they like school, without the possessive pronoun, and the ‘yeses’ plummet. Kids like their teachers and their friends. They like the sports, the social life, the plays and clubs. It’s here where kids discover their calling as students. The difference between ‘your school’ and just ‘school’, even if the two are the same, comes down to the actual classes and subjects. And it’s in the classes where we seem deliberate about not helping young people find the work they can care about deeply.
As a teacher, I understand all too well that not every student will be enthusiastic about my class. I know too that my job is to give students skills that they can later use; not help them find their passion but lay the foundation so they will succeed wherever.
But that really isn’t the issue, because even though every class is about mastering a skill, every class still has to have content. And little of the content connects to passions. Little of the content connects to an adult’s life at all, much less the life an adult might care about.
The world offers a near infinite variety of things to do and care for. School offers very few. And while that sheer number may be the reason school attempts to avoid being specific about anything, it’s almost pathological in the effort.
Teachers try. Oh, we do try, but it’s an exhausting battle against an entire system deliberately designed to avoid being specific about anything at all. There’s not a Standardized test in the world that connects to a calling. That’s no accident.
And if school’s purpose is to lay the foundation, why is it that the only real path I might predict for any of my students, particularly through their classwork, is general college academics? That’s the only consistent forecast I can make for any student, and pretty much the only one that I can tie my own material to.
Of all the possible futures my students have available, all the possible careers and callings, college is the only one school seems designed for.
Not cooking. Not parenting. Not acting. Not soldiering.
Not building. Not playing. Not painting or singing. Not fishing or fixing, farming or healing.
Not selling or buying either. Rarely even programming.
We have made it essential that most professional careers require a college degree, yet provide absolutely no guidance or experiences whatsoever towards a student discovering what they might actually care most about.
The question then becomes: can we?
The answer is ‘of course we can.’