I recently bought myself a highly readable self-help book called How to find fulfilling work by Roman Krznaric (Macmillan, 2012). It’s never too late, I thought! But what attracted me to it in the first place was a passage I came across about Frank Parsons. Be honest, what do you know about our Frank? Probably, like me, you remember him from your training in careers. Frank Parsons, author of Choosing a Vocation published in 1909, the father of vocational guidance in America. The exponent of ‘trait-and-factor’ or matching theory. We were told how he applied ‘true reasoning’ to reach his conclusions about suitable vocational choices for his clients. Of course, we accepted that he was practising vocational guidance in an era when professionals dispensed wisdom from on high rather than helping individuals to manage their own careers; but I had no idea how dodgy Frank’s reasoning was!
Krznaric tells us that Parsons developed a personality test with 116 items which as well as questions about people’s ambitions and strengths and weaknesses also asked about how often they bathed and whether they slept with the window open! Parsons was also influenced by the now discredited science of phrenology with its racist undertones. In his book, Parsons writes:
“I carefully observe the shape of the applicant’s head. If the applicant’s head is largely developed behind the ears, with big neck, low forehead and small upper head, he is probably of the animal type and should be dealt with on that basis.”
A young man with a “narrow head not very well balanced” was advised against becoming a lawyer!
The point Krznaric is trying to make is that even though personality tests have become more sophisticated, they still have their flaws and limitations. Tests have their uses but careers advisers who over-rely on them may be indulging in practices as dubious as those of Frank Parsons.
I’m a little worried too that the DfE’s fixation on building character may turn out to be just as questionable a ‘science’!