Paul Griffin on the religious heart of all vocations

If, as the old Greek said, young men are unfit to hear moral philosophy, they are certainly unfit to make career choices. Yet there is a whole structure of Careers Advice for the young in and around our education system, asking them what they want to do in life, and pointing them in the direction of their skills and wishes. We jocularly ask children what they want to be when they grow up, and laugh when they say they want to be airline pilots or zoo keepers; but when they are fifteen we take their answers seriously, as if by then they will have formulated a philosophy of life and know where they are going.

It does occasionally happen. Doctors, for example, often know what they want quite early; but most boys and girls tell us they want to be accountants or lawyers not so much because they realize what they are saying as because their parents, and adult society in general, have reared them in that sort of atmosphere. Otherwise, good heavens! they might want to become policemen, or soldiers, or, worst of all, priests.

There are good people in Careers Advice; but being part of society and probably parents themselves, they work on prevailing parental standards, or concentrate on examining what are called aptitudes. This helps to prevent the impractical from becoming engineers or architects, and the less able from aspiring to be dons. However, we must all have experienced cases where the kindly indicated choice has in practice proved the very opposite of what a twenty-year-old finds appropriate, so that a young engineer suddenly becomes a lawyer, or a budding lawyer finds himself manufacturing paper weights. Each of us matures at a different speed, but there is a time, generally somewhere in our twenties, when contact with the big world gives us a new impetus towards some definite and not merely hedonistic way of life. In a world which changes faster than ever before, there may be other times later on when a change in direction seems indicated. At such times we find to everyone’s puzzlement and exasperation a forty-year-old sitting Biology exams and applying for a job with the Nature Conservancy. The ordained Church largely depends upon this sort of entrant, and does not complain about that.

All of which is only to say that it takes time of varying lengths to work out what we are here for and where we ought to be going. I suppose a school that is a religious foundation explicitly acknowledges the need to give this vital problem priority. Such a priority must surely exist in any dedicated teacher’s mind, though it is too easily submerged by other, more immediate problems. Also, teachers vary from out-and-out secularists to gentle drifters to single-issue fanatics to religious nutters. Employment laws make it harder and harder to appoint staff on the grounds of their beliefs or their behaviour. Many parents are uninterested in conventional religion, are absent, mentally deranged, or fighting quite a different battle, though the overwhelming majority want the best for their children – a comforting thought for a hard-pressed head.

Amid all this, teenagers are advised about their careers, either from within their schools or from outside. Unless they are among the small minority who have disproved what the old Greek said, they can only be advised on the basis of other people’s opinions; where they disagree with them, they may well do so on some equally unsound basis – parental quirks, teenage fashion, perhaps just a television programme. ‘I don’t want to go into a bank; I want to go and live with chimpanzees / do underwater diving / design mobile games / go on the stage.’ Fine! By all means let them try, but do not overload them with money and other advantages to that end. They need to feel responsible for their own lives.

The point is that the sooner a child tackles the eternal questions, the sooner he is likely to reach the point of contemplating what he will think of himself on his deathbed; and the more helpful and successful our careers service, our educational system and our society is going to be. Whatever one’s religious views in the usual sense, in the long run everything has to be founded on religion, if only in the very widest sense of the word: what is most important of all to a person.

The current fashion for telling pupils in Religious Education periods about the principles on which others base their lives is not therefore necessarily useless, but it can only be a small part of the task of orientation a school must set before it. It does not provide an excuse for employing mere academic instruction machines. Surely the majority of teachers want to be more than that.

It seems to me to follow that the prime object of a school is to help children to find a religious basis for their lives. Religion is not a convenient way of controlling bad behaviour, nor a hobby for weekends, one habit-forming interest among many, but the mainspring of our lives. I wonder how many teachers, heads, and educationalists, would accept that and say it in public. To judge from our present state, not very many. Perhaps they would be prosecuted if they did.