“Give a man a fish and he can feed his family for a day, teach a man to fish and he can feed his family for a lifetime.”
So the parable goes, it’s a parable often articulated around education in general and more specifically around careers education. It tends to rear its head when someone wants to argue against a short term, placement based, results driven model of careers education and argue for a more expansive view of careers education. The outcome of careers education shouldn’t be clients getting jobs but being able to keep on getting jobs even when they move away from the support your service provides. It’s about lifelong skills for career management/ employability etc.
This is good as far as it goes, I want to say it is definitely better to help people gain skills for life over just taking the next step and receiving a “positive outcome”. I also feel it is significantly harder to achieve and in my own practice I feel a long way off any sense of actually delivering the ideal. That said I feel there is a massive and significant shortcoming because their is a big question that is not asked in this narrative. Let us return to the river bank…
Ever asked yourself why is the man in the situation that he needs to be fishing to feed his family (I appreciate whoever came up with the parable didn’t ask this and I am breaking the bounds of the parable)? The parable at least implies whoever comes and teaches him to fish is in a better lot than him, how is this so? Isn’t the man entirely dependent on the supply of fish? What if they dry up? I don’t fish myself, I buy my fish from a supermarket, why can’t he do the same? Is just having a meal of fish everyday for his family enough, shouldn’t we want more for him? How do you feel or think of the man? Do you assume he is of a different nationality than you (African)? How do you feel about him being a man and what his position might say about gender?
The question I want to raise is that the man’s situation is one embedded in a network of relationships of power. What part could careers education play in helping him realise this and act in a way that enabled him to re-position himself inside these networks and potentially with the help of others challenge and reform these networks? Power is a crucial perspective on how we understand ourselves and the world around us and not just that we are acted on by powerful entities but that in turn we ourselves have the potential to act especially by pooling our resources with others.
I am not raising these issues because I am particularly political and want careers work to be more so but because I see power and the political as vital parts of how we properly understand ourselves and the world of work.
I would see four main ways that power interacts with how we support clients, I feel it is an important thing for practitioners to do to consider how they want to make use of these different power structures.
- Deploying power – This is using our power for someone else. Classic examples of this are placement support (sourcing opportunities, checking applications etc.) and testing based forms of guidance. These activities involve us using our power for the good of someone else. These change someone’s circumstances but neither increase their power nor change the networks of power they are situated inside. This often appears to be the best way of achieving institutional targets as it gives us the best control but in the long term can be detrimental to the individual and society in general as the client has simply becoming dependent on a service which they may no longer be able to access.
- Drawing on power – This involves drawing on latent power someone has to change their circumstances but probably not their situation in the networks of power they are part of. This sees the individual as a battery powered torch that is switched off. Here we help and support a client towards achieving a task for themselves. The capacity to act and behave differently is developed and they become independent of our support. Classic examples are guidance/ career counselling/ coaching appointments and reflective assignments on a module. It should be noted that often the implicit question here is “what can you do to take responsibility for your future?” Wider networks of power are not considered.
- Resisting power – Resisting power involves some form of discussion about oppression. Oppression is about using resources to benefit myself over others, which can include making use of more resources than I need. Resisting power is about uncovering how these power networks affect me and moving towards acting differently inside them. For me a properly critical understanding of the world of work and human identity will aim to unearth how oppression happens and help people to resist these practices in their own lives. This may involve considering the environmental impact of my career, how corporate structures encourage competition over collaboration, how minorities are sidelined by various structures. Resisting power is about uncovering these power relationship and asking “how can I make sure I am not part of this?” It is about challenging people to live more generous lives. Often this starts with uncovering and exposing power structures. Work with students would involve in any given setting asking them moral and political questions about themselves and the world of work (rather than just developmental ones). This may appear a challenge to the traditional Rogerian perspective many careers workers take as it considers that individuals may experience a false consciousness, being unable to see the political nature of reality and how inequalities and oppression exists. But I feel from an educational point view we provoke and bring forward new perspectives as much as we aim to work with clients existing perspectives.
- Challenging power – In G. A. Cohen’s seminal essay Why not socialism? he argues that often the reason that generosity does not exist is not that the individual in unwilling to be generous but unable to be generous due to structures that are in place. You can dispute how willing to be generous people naturally are but the point still holds that we are limited by power structures to be generous to others in many ways. Noticing the plight of homeless people around my town there is only so much I can do to be generous to them, I can not completely change their situation. Sometimes resources are kept away from others in a way that point 3 (above) can not correct. At this point we may need to collectivise action to overcome some forms of oppression. This is clearly moving into the realms of the explicitly political but the world of work is political by nature and so a truly critical careers education will embrace this form of criticality. As the work of Rie Thompson has articulated their is a legitimate question for communities to ask of “how does this affect us” and “what do we want together.” I feel there is a place in helping individuals see how they are connected to other individuals and what they can achieve together for the greater good.
Now you may not agree with the above narrative, I am obviosuly giving away some of my political views and not everyone will agree with these. I feel though there is a primary question that is vital for us to be asking as a careers community. Why is that man fishing on the river bank? What are the forces that have led him to where he is? How can helping him to understand his position benefit him and society at large? I feel what the fisherman parable provokes is a call for a wider focus for the range of learning outcomes related to careers education.