Reading and Writing and the Study of Careers
In the Summer 1981 issue of the College Board Review, a high school English educator shares her success with introducing a novel approach to bringing career education into the classroom: literature
Literature might not be the first place we go when thinking about discussing careers with high schoolers. But the way June Klein Bienstock tells it in her essay from the Summer 1981 issue of the College Board Review, books and reading is a rich, untapped vein for talking to students about jobs—and what it takes to succeed post-high school.
Bienstock, then an educator at Bayside High School in New York, writes about the “singularly successful” introduction of career education into the English department of her school. This takes a few different forms, but the one she spends the most time on is a "Careers in Literature and Life" she introduced and, at the time of writing, was popular enough to necessitate three sections. “What better place can students learn about careers than from the people in novels, biographies, plays, poetry, essays, and short stories?” Bienstock writes. “And what better way to inculcate the love of reading and literary values than through the study of texts that incorporate ideas that involve students' basic interests?”
She admits at the outset that this seems counterintuitive to trends and thinking of the moment. Reading is on the ropes, for one, with scores down and adults adamant that students don’t like books. (Sound familiar?) Bienstock acknowledges the issue but writes that students “will read if we present them with material that appeals to them, and nothing appeals to them more than their own problems and aspirations.” And that feeds into the second “truth” she faces, that high schoolers don’t care about careers. Her reply: The problem isn’t lack of interest, it’s lack of understanding. “Most of them have minimal or distorted views of the world of work and their role in it,” she writes. “It is up to us in the field of career education to direct these largely inchoate yearnings into insightful self-analysis, to discover students' interests and abilities, to help them to understand career clusters and how these relate to them, to instill in them the necessity to train themselves for their goals.” (Also sounds familiar.)
Her “Careers in Literature” course addresses both issues holistically and head on—a fascinatingly creative solution to both challenges. Core to the class is a “bibliography of good literature on careers” she developed with her reference-librarian daughter. It’s included at the end of the article and includes author, title, and information about the careers in the books. And here we get a delightful peak into the strangeness of the early ‘80s.
The jobs found in the bibliography include usual suspects—teacher, businessman, lawyer, journalist, doctor, various types of scientist—as well as more outside-the-box vocations like athlete, entertainer, and politician. But then we get two instances of "study in failure" and four examples of "unfulfilled woman.” It’s doubtful either were ever seen as “careers,” and their inclusion is kind of mind-boggling. But it does make the list something worth talking about, even now 40-plus years later—maybe even as a tactic we should revisit in our current emphasis on career skills and education. At the very least, we’ll get more people reading. And that will be fulfilling.
What better place can students learn about careers, this writer asks, than from the people in novels, biographies, plays, poetry, essays, and short stories...
We read the ominous news daily—the plummeting SAT and reading scores, the monumental drop-out, truancy, and teenage unemployment rates. We blame everyone and everything—TV, the spiraling number of broken homes, uncaring politicians, parents and teachers. But I maintain there is hope. Many are doing yeoman service in the face of seemingly insoluble social problems, and there are programs in existence that do stem the tide and ameliorate the situation.
One of these is a syllabus which we have introduced into the English department of Bayside High School in New York, infusing career education into the traditional course of study. We have found it to be singularly successful. Based on the premise that all normal teenagers are receptive to self-improvement and self-knowledge and do have hope for the future, the course of study has been introduced as early as ninth grade and culminates in the twelfth.
In what way, you may ask, are high school freshmen concerned with careers? Actually most of them have minimal or distorted views of the world of work and their role in it. It is up to us in the field of career education to direct these largely inchoate yearnings into insightful self-analysis, to discover students' interests and abilities, to help them to understand career clusters and how these relate to them, to instill in them the necessity to train themselves for their goals. Finally, we must make our students realize that few satisfying and successful careers evolve without a tremendous amount of hard work.
Through values clarification we learn what kind of people our students are and what kind of lives they would like to lead. Sometimes, airing unsatisfactory values will enable students to see their fallacy and to improve their self-image and the impression they make on others.
When school staff members such as custodians, librarians, or college advisers, and outside speakers such as parents, friends, community people, or speakers from the Open Doors Speakers' Bureau who have "made it," share with youngsters of all grades their own handicaps and early disappointments, they bring the idea of achievement into the realm of possibility. My students will never forget, I am certain, the mother of one of their peers telling them of her metamorphosis from fat lady with a high school diploma to the thin, chic top executive with Weight Watchers International. Nor did she fail to mention that when she hires people today she looks for college graduates!
In the upper grades I ask students to research jobs that they would like to learn more about in the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook. We also visit many job sites. And we write thank-you letters to our hosts on trips and to outside speakers, and letters of application for jobs, as well as interviews with people who have interesting careers, and job logs obtained from viewing an individual at work. All of these activities improve writing skills in addition to social graces and employability.
Most important, though, is our study of careers through literature, utilizing only one text in the ninth grade, increasing the number to six in the half-year senior elective course called "Careers in Literature and Life." What better place can students learn about careers than from the people in novels, biographies, plays, poetry, essays, and short stories? And what better way to inculcate the love of reading and literary values than through the study of texts that incorporate ideas that involve students' basic interests?
From a poem by Emily Dickinson, "I'm Nobody! Who are You?," to an essay by James Baldwin on his early life, to a fictionalized autobiography of Jesse Stuart, The Thread that Runs So True (which describes his life as a teacher in the backwoods of Kentucky), to novels such as Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith, Lust for Life by Irving Stone, Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham, and Hardy's Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I have had excellent results in getting students to read books that can be found in high school English bookrooms everywhere. The main thrust is to focus on what is important in life and how to achieve it.
Some of the most heated and, I believe, rewarding discussions on values emerge from an essay on Wagner in which author Deems Taylor describes the misanthropic genius who despised and mistreated friend and foe alike, and whom Taylor excuses by the words: "But all of this is unimportant, since he was a genius." Also, in The Moon and Sixpence Maugham delineates the story of a man, modeled after Gauguin, who leaves wife and children to become an artist. "Does he have the right to do this?" The hero of Hardy's Jude the Obscure is forced to marry a girl he doesn't love and give up pursuit of an education because she says she is pregnant. "Should he have done this for her?" What a hornet's nest these questions stir.
And they read! I hear colleagues say students read only Cliff Notes these days. Since I give them questions which they must answer in writing for each reading assignment, which they cannot possibly answer unless they read the original, I know they read. I say they will read if we present them with material that appeals to them, and nothing appeals to them more than their own problems and aspirations. In addition, they know of the difficulties of their older siblings and friends in obtaining jobs in the tight market today, and this, too, makes them all the more aware of the need for preparation for the future.
Since necessity is the mother of invention, I have, with the assistance of my daughter, Ruth Bienstock Anolik, reference librarian at Holy Family College, Philadelphia, compiled a bibliography of good literature on careers that appears at the end of this article. This compilation was the result of my inability to find anything up to date of a comparable nature when assigning books to my students for book reports. At present we are expanding this list and are in the process of preparing a bibliography arranged alphabetically according to type of career in novels, biographies, and full-length plays, with a brief summary of each. This will help both students and teachers in high schools and junior colleges to read about people with jobs in many areas, from accounting to zoology.
I know that popularity is not always the hallmark of quality, but I must confess that word of mouth recommendation of the "Careers in Literature" course helped it grow from one section to three. And the feedback that I get from students taking it, as well as alumni who visit from time to time, is most gratifying. They do much to reenforce my conviction that students in the career program at Bayside High School are reading and writing and improving not only these skills but also the likelihood that their futures will be satisfying and meaningful.
Careers in Fiction
- Akins, Zoe, Morning Glory (play-actress)
- Allee, Great Tradition (biologist)
- Ashton-Warner, Sylvia, Spinster (teacher)
- Auchincloss, Louis, The Rector of Justin (teacher)
- Brecht, Bertolt, Galileo (scientist)
- Cahan, Abraham, The Rise of David Levinsky (garment industry)
- Cather, Willa, Song of the Lark (opera singer), Lucy Gayheart (musician), The Professor's House (teacher)
- Cronin, A. J., The Citadel (doctor), The Keys of the Kingdom (priest)
- Dreiser, Theodore, The Financier, The Titan, The Stoic (trilogy on a big businessman), The "Genius" (artist), An American Tragedy (a study in failure)
- Edmonds, Walter, Chad Hanna (circus)
- Flaubert, Gustave, Madame Bovary (an unfulfilled woman)
- Galsworthy, John, Strife (big businessman and labor leader), Justice, The Silver Box (legal profession)
- Godden, Rumer, Black Narcissus (nuns)
- Gould, Lois, Necessary Objects (department store)
- Green, Gerald, The Last Angry Man (doctor)
- Harsanyi, Z., The Star-Gazer (Galileo/astronomy)
- Hilton, James, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (teacher)
- Hobart, Alice Tisdale, The Peacock Sheds His Tail (diplomacy)
- Hobson. Laura Z., Gentleman's Agreement (newspaperman)
- Howard, Sidney, Yellow Jack (doctors)
- Howells, W. D., The Rise of Silas Lapham (businessman)
- Hughes, Thomas, Tom Brown's School Days (teacher)
- Hunter, Evan, The Blackboard Jungle (teachers)
- Ibsen, Henrik, Brand (minister), Enemy of the People (doctor), Hedda Gabler (unfulfilled woman)
- Janney, Russel, The Miracle of the Bells (press agent)
- Jenkins, Dan, Semi-Tough (football player)
- Jewett, Sarah Orne, A Country Doctor (woman doctor)
- Kaufman, George S., Merton of the Movies (Hollywood), Beggar on Horseback (big business and art), Once in a Lifetime (Hollywood), Of Thee I Sing (politics), June Moon (Tin Pan Alley), Stage Door (actresses)
- Kelley, Edith, Weeds (teacher)
- Kingsley, Sidney, Detective Story, Men in White (doctors)
- Kipling, Rudyard, Captains Courageous (fishermen)
- Lavery, Emmet, The Magnificent Yankee (O. W. Holmes, Jr.. and wife)
- Lederer, William J., and Burdick, Eugene, The Ugly American (diplomacy)
- Lee, Harper, To Kill a Mockingbird (lawyer)
- Lewis, Sinclair, Arrowsmith (doctor), Main Street (unfulfilled woman), Ann Vickers (social worker), Bethel Merriday (actress), Gideon Planish (college president), Elmer Gantry (minister and evangelist)
- MacArthur, Charles, and Hecht, Ben, The Front Page (newspapermen)
- Malamud, Bernard, The Assistant (storekeeper)
- McGraw, Eloise J., Sawdust in His Shoes (circus)
- McMurtry, Larry, AII My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers (writer)
- Maugham, W. S., Of Human Bondage (art student who becomes a doctor)
- Odets, Clifford, Golden Boy (violinist becomes boxer), Paradise Lost (depression and unemployment)
- O'Connor, Edwin, The Last Hurrah (politician)
- O'Hara, Mary, My Friend Flicka, Green Grass of Wyoming (ranchers)
- O'Neill, Eugene, A Touch of the Poet (a study in failure), Long Day's Journey Into Night (writer/actors), Beyond the Horizon (farming/sailing)
- Patton, F. G., Good Morning, Miss Dove (teacher)
- Potok, Chaim, My Name ls Asher Lev (artist)
- Priestley, J. B., The Good Companions (entertainers)
- Rand, Ayn, The Fountainhead (architect)
- Rattigan, Terence, The Browning Version (teacher)
- Rice, Elmer, Counsellor at Law (lawyer)
- Roiphe, Anne, Up the Sandbox! (unfulfilled woman)
- Rolland, Romain, Jean Christophe (composer)
- Schulberg, Budd, What Makes Sammy Run? (movie producer)
- Simenon, Georges, The Little Saint (artist)
- Snow, C. P., The Search (scientist)
- Spark, Muriel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (teacher)
- Stone, Irving, Lust for Life (Yan Gogh), The Agony and the Ecstasy (Michelangelo), Love is Eternal (Lincoln)
- Tarkington, Booth, Alice Adams, The Turmoil (young people searching for careers)
- Thurber, James, The Male Animal (college professor)
- Updike, John, Rabbit, Run (study in failure; high school star athlete)
- Vidal, Gore, The Best Man (politicians)
- Warren, Robert Penn, All the King's Men (politician)
- Washington, Booker T., Up from Slavery (educator)
- West, Nathanael, Miss Lonelyhearts (newspaper columnist)
- Williams, Emlyn, The Corn is Green (teacher)
- Wilson, Sloan, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (advertising agency)
- Weidman, Jerome, I Can Get It For You Wholesale (garment industry)