Why am I here? (Part Two)

The Thinker

Still thinking about this…

In Part One I outlined four triggers that have started me thinking about the purpose of guidance. In this post I want to share some of those thoughts. They are not complete thoughts by any means and are mostly in the form of questions.

How green is my guidance?

When Bill Law started making comments on Twitter that an awareness of climate change should be a key component of career guidance, I had an uncomfortable reaction. ‘How is this my job?’ I thought, ‘Surely, we should be responding to the client’s priorities rather than forcing them to think about global/societal issues if they don’t want to.’

I suspect a lot of careers advisers would respond the same way. Many of us have been brought up with a client-centred, non-directive approach (dare I say indoctrinated?). We have a voice in our heads which says, ‘We are not here to influence the client. The client knows best what they want. We are merely facilitators.‘ But is that entirely true? Has it ever been true?

The more I think about it, the more I realise that quite a bit of my job is getting clients to think about things they haven’t considered before. I introduce them to new ways of interpreting information and help them to recognise factors that they have not yet incorporated into their decision-making. Why should a factor as important as climate change be excluded from that?

Future choices

When we provide guidance to someone, we are helping them to think about the future. I have long believed that guidance is about helping people to make future life choices not just career choices, but maybe my horizons have been limited. Am I being sufficiently holistic, thinking about the global system in which these choices are being made and thinking far enough into the future? I will regularly encourage people to think about how their choices will impact on those close to them, but should I also be encouraging them to think about the impact on future generations? I will often prompt people to think about the long-term personal costs and benefits of various courses of action, but should I also be prompting them to think about the long-term global costs and benefits?

However, I can still here a little voice inside me saying, ‘Why is it down to me to push this green agenda?’

The hidden dangers of believing we are being non-directive

This is why I find Tony Watts’ typology such an interesting challenge. Many advisers with a counselling-influenced training would probably believe they are firmly within a non-directive (Liberal) ideology. Even the go-ahead coaching types are likely to be in the arena of individual change ideology (Progressive). But do both of these approaches just focus on the individual and assume that the social issues are nothing to do with them? Is there a danger that by ignoring the social aspects we inadvertently assume that we operate in a system that cannot be changed? If this is the case, do we sometimes slip unawares into the social control ideology? Do we spend too much time trying to help pegs (clients) who are trying fit themselves into existing holes without ever questioning the validity of these holes? The current labour market is based on principles of economic growth that have led to environmental damage and deep social injustice. Should we be helping clients to think about sustainability of employment in its fullest sense?

I’m increasingly thinking that we need to explore whether we can take an approach that consciously straddles all four sectors. I have major questions about how we could do this. How could we incorporate this into guidance practice without it looking like an artificial bolt-on just designed to push one particular political agenda?

I’m also interested in how we engage more with social change. I’ve become a bit obsessed with arbitrary selection criteria that introduce indirect discrimination amongst other things. But what can we do about it? I don’t hear much from the guidance professional bodies when it comes to engaging in public debate on such issues – perhaps because they are populated with people who have been brought up with a non-directive ideology.

Related post: Are you like a quilt?

Further reading


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  1. #1 by Vinny on 25 February 2010 - 14:42

    David – have you been thinking too hard?
    What worries me about all this, is the question “where do you draw the line?”
    I happen to think that society should be influenced to be more sustainable and greener. So should I start influencing my students to consider this with their jobs? And how much pressure should I put on them in this regard.

    To use a Reductio ad absurdum argument, what if I came to the conclusion, based on my beliefs, that one of societies major flaws (and one which would have a negative effect on future generations) is that of family breakdown caused by the traditional roles being eroded. (note to all – this is not a belief I actually hold) Should I then start to influence female students away from working and into having babies and becoming housewives?

    If I were to do this, then I’d probably face disciplinary action from my employer. The only real difference is that your “green” beliefs have popular support and my “family value” beliefs do not.

    So should we try and influence society? I think that answer is still yes, but only in a narrow field.

    Let’s look again at Tony Watts’ typology and his description of radical ideology:
    Radical: Guidance that encourages individuals to challenge the social and economic conditions that are CONSTRAINING THEIR CHOICE. This might move people beyond thinking about what they can do and get them thinking about why they and those like them can’t do other things.

    So this doesn’t encompass green issues, but does encompass the other bee in your bonnet issue of arbitrary selection criteria and also issues such as whether we need to provide more interactions within certain under represented communities, (so that people from council estates are more likely to become judges)

    So basically, when it comes to green issues, we could indicate to students that there is a societal change occurring and this could have an influence in their job opportunities, but we shouldn’t bring our moral attitudes to the session.
    The only exception to this rule is where inequality and discrimination occurs (due to the social environment or recruitment practices) when we can help influence our clients to think more broadly about how to remove external limits from their opportunities. We could also collectively lobby on these issues as a guidance community.

    • #2 by David Winter on 25 February 2010 - 18:07

      Thanks for the response Vinny – I always think too hard. It’s a hobby.

      If you look at my Twitter conversation with Bill Law in Part One you’ll see that I raised a similar concern about where you draw the line (comment 8). Should we be pushing any agenda? Why do we have the right to choose what agenda to push?

      However, the more I think about it, the more it seems that we are pushing an agenda whilst claiming not to. As a profession don’t we tend to assume that the most important factor in career choice is individual preference or self-fulfilment? Maybe it’s just me but when someone says ‘My family thinks I should pursue this career,’ I have an internal reaction which says ‘But it’s about what you want.’ I’ve been brought up with a western, liberal, individualistic, consumerist world-view. I have absorbed the subliminal messages which tell me that everyone has the right to choose their own destiny.

      But often, when I deal with Asian students I come across a different set of priorities. It’s forcing me to engage with the idea that self-actualisation may not be the highest motivation and that fulfilling relationship responsibilities can lead to a greater sense of reward for some people. (It still doesn’t ‘feel right’ to me yet, if I’m honest, but I can put the feeling aside.)

      I suppose what I wanted to provoke with this pair of posts are some questions about our assumptions. By mentioning Asian students just now I’ve hinted at something I mentioned in a previous post about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We tend to assume, like Maslow, that self-actualisation needs are a higher, more refined motivation for our actions than relationship needs. But that might not be true for everyone.

      In the new formulation of the Hierarchy, Maslow puts Transcendence needs above Self-actualisation. That’s where the green agenda comes in, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be just that. I was just using that as an example. I suppose I was trying to ask a question about how often we get clients to think about transcendent needs. Issues that go beyond being financially comfortable or personally fulfilled. Issues that go beyond commitment to a family or cultural heritage. Issues that address wider concerns of humanity.

      It seems funny to me that if someone comes to us and they are just focused on earning money, we are quite happy to challenge them to think about wider factors of personal satisfaction. However, when someone comes to us and they are focused on personal satisfaction, how happy are we to challenge them to think about even wider factors of global and temporal significance?

  2. #3 by Tristram Hooley on 3 March 2010 - 16:59

    For me, impartiality is a very difficult idea to believe in. It can be a convenient fiction that we can use to keep governments, bosses etc out of our hair, but do we really believes that we are impartial? That we have no agenda? Careers work seems to me to have quite a strong agenda, we talk about realising people’s potential, helping people to develop skills etc etc. These are all agendas that we pursue in a variety of ways. We (may) use non-directive and client centred tools and techniques to bring about change and development, but the very idea of bringing about change has an ideological basis and is therefore not impartial.

    What is more the idea of impartiality is morally questionable. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be a gas chamber operator or a hangman? If all we provide is information about salary levels we are neglecting a morality that is important to us as human beings and citizens (and I would argue as responsible professionals). Hiding behind a professional role to absolve us of culpability in the moral choices that we empower people to make is very dubious.

    At the root of our interactions with clients is a relationship between two people. We help people to work through choices, to consider implications and to learn. Lecturing at people and telling them what to do isn’t a very effective strategy. We need to understand where they are coming from and work with them to move them on. However where we move them on to has moral and political implications. We cannot, do not, and should not try to pretend that we have no agenda or that we have no culpability in the decisions that our clients make.

    • #4 by David Winter on 3 March 2010 - 19:38

      I agree that we are likely to be kidding ourselves if we pretend that we have no agenda at all. But for me that raises a question. If we acknowledge that we do have some sort of agenda and can’t be truly non-directive, then all we are doing is swapping a hidden agenda for an explicit agenda. How, then, do we choose what agenda to pursue? Don’t we leave ourselves open to our whims or the whims of our funders or politicians to set the agenda? What is an acceptable agenda to have?

      There aren’t jobs available for gas chamber operators or hangmen so the point is moot. But if there were, and they were sanctioned by the society we lived in, would that change the situation? Or instead, what about people who want to join the Army? Or even investment bankers and corporate raiders? Or fossil fuel extractors? Politicians? Where do we draw the line?

      Yes, we need to understand where our clients are coming from and work with them to move them on, but how far should we go in exposing them to moral and transcendent issues? If we don’t do it for everyone, we might be in danger of doing it only for the people whose values we disagree with.

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