Printer Friendly

Choosing a Vocation at 100: time, change, and context.

  Publication of Choosing a Vocation in 1909 has earned Frank Parsons
  (1854-1908) the distinction of being the founder of the vocational
  guidance movement in 20th century America. Such designations, often
  deserving, risk taking events, people, and the movements they endorse
  out of context, thus reducing their meaning and impact. In this
  article, the author locates Parsons and the vocational guidance
  movement in the context of American history. Doing so elucidates a
  deeper meaning of the origins of modern vocational guidance.

The new millennium has brought to the counseling profession a surge of interest in social justice themes. Ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and age, as these issues relate to political and economic power, have become common topics in counseling theory and practice. A social justice agenda is not new to the counseling profession, yet what may be new to many is that one of the earliest social justice agendas in 20th century America was originally found in the vocational guidance movement.

One hundred years ago, in 1909, the slim blue volume Choosing a Vocation was published (posthumously) by Frank Parsons. The book is legend and has earned Parsons a place of distinction as the founder of vocational guidance in America. The decision by Mark Pope and Mark Savickas to devote a special section of The Career Development Quarterly to this anniversary is a welcome one. The 100th Anniversary of Vocational Guidance offers a number of opportunities. It provides a chance to recognize those who put vision into reality and animated the vocational guidance movement, it allows for consideration of the larger social factors that provided the soil from which the movement grew, and it offers perspectives on where the profession might be headed.

All too often anniversaries and other celebratory events get funneled into a narrowly defined set of actors and dates that are devoid of a larger context. It is an error in historical analysis that is referred to as internalist history; that is, history focused solely on developments within a field that fails to acknowledge the larger social, political, and economic contexts in which events and individual actions unfold (Leahey, 1986). Avoiding this error of interpretation calls for an approach that Stocking (1965) has labeled historicism--an understanding of the past in its own context and for its own sake. Such an approach requires historians to immerse themselves in the context of the times they are studying.

What people do is imbedded in context, and it is this dynamic and fluid model that makes historical narrative meaningful. The notion of multiple determinants and estimates of their relative impact on historical construction led historian of psychology Laurel Furumoto to christen this "the new history," a signifier denoting that historic research should strive to be more contextual and less internal (Furumoto, 1989).

And it is with this in mind that I explore the admixture of people, places, and events that gave rise to the publication of Choosing a Vocation (Parsons, 1909) and by extension, the vocational guidance movement in America.

A New America

Frank Parsons (1854-1908) was a man of many interests and occupations. At the time of his death in 1908, he had worked as an engineer, teacher, administrator, vocational counselor, social critic, writer, and lawyer. Well educated and socially minded, Parsons was an advocate for the rights and needs of those whom he believed were exploited by industrial monopolies. He was a product of his time, and there was much about his time that he did not like. On the heels of the Civil War, America was rebuilding and expanding west. The railroad made expansion possible, and it stirred in Parsons a distrust and disdain for big business that motivated and informed his work and writings throughout his adult life (H. V. Davis, 1969). His modest tome on vocational choice was but one of a flood of books, articles, and treatises on the state of a nation that seemed to be beset by many woes. Parsons not only pointed out the ills, he also took action to overcome them.

Parsons and his nurturing of vocational guidance emerged and grew alongside the rise of an industrial economy and urban order that was unlike anything ever seen or known before, It is difficult to imagine the magnitude of change that took place in America at the beginning of the 20th century. Consider that in 1900, automobiles, airplanes, electricity, and indoor plumbing were new to most people.

The explosion in technology was matched by the explosion of urban centers. America was being defined by burgeoning industrial cities such as Chicago, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. These city centers drew people from all over the world in search of a better, more prosperous life. Changes in demographics, culture, and capital were believed to be signs of progress, an advance that depended on human labor and machinery. Mass production appeared as a major achievement of human ingenuity and technological sophistication. However, mass production was useless unless it was efficient. Progress, precision, and efficiency quickly became the central tenants of the new social order that was the progressive movement. Those identified as progressives expressed faith in science and technology, tempered by an equal measure of public concern for others. Progressives, such as Parsons, wanted the government to ensure that societal institutions responded to the needs of all its members. The changing social order provided much fodder for the progressive cause, and followers lobbied for things such as women's suffrage and government regulation of industry (Baker, 2002).

These concerns were partly a product of the poor social conditions experienced by many immigrants. Those who migrated to America's urban centers were often poor and uneducated. Immigrants from other nations did not know the language or the culture. Exploitation was always a concern, but the new city inhabitants were more often focused on other immediate needs such as employment, food, and shelter. The most susceptible members of this already vulnerable group were children. America, a young nation itself, took a significant interest in its youngest citizens.

The Promise of Youth

If people could travel back in time, they would see that many children suffered great injury and injustice in early 20th century America. To be a poor child in the city was a tremendous disadvantage that offered multiple hazards. Factory work could easily lead to injury and death, schools seldom noticed or cared if children dropped out (which many did by sixth grade), and there were few, if any, checks and balances on the physical, sexual, or emotional abuse of children and adolescents. Add overcrowding, stress, and severe poverty to this picture and there are enough risk factors to create all manner of social problems. Such conditions were seen by many as symptomatic of a larger ill--an early and slow ascent into a vicious cycle of poverty, moral decay, and social decline. Organizations such as the YMCA and the YWCA were evangelical responses to these ills, and they did much in the late 19th century to provide a strong measure of Christian charity to the needs of young adults (Savickas & Baker, 2005). As the 20th century began, the vision of industrial excess served as a siren call to those identified with the child-saving movement: a national commitment to protect children from the ravages of poverty, exploitation, and neglect (Davidson & Benjamin, 1987; Levine & Levine, 1992). The impulse toward child saving rallied many individuals and institutions to the protection and defense of children. The new applied psychology fit well with the progressive era theme of social efficiency. The scientific study of mental life encouraged greater understanding of adaptation to everyday life. Psychologists such as Lightner Witmer, E. Wallace Wallin, G. Stanley Hall, Augusta Bruner, William Healy, Maude Merrill, Lewis Terman, and Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley investigated various aspects of the childhood experience, each contributing to the child-saving movement and helping to create a body of knowledge that helped to shape social science policy in the early decades of the 20th century. Children's aid societies flourished, juvenile courts were created, child labor laws were enacted, educational reforms were instituted, and the vocational guidance movement was born (Baker, 2002).

What many wanted most was a chance for children to receive an adequate education, one that would last beyond the primary grades. Children leaving school to drift aimlessly was seen as a waste of human potential and an inefficient use of human resources. The concern over leaving school was embedded within a larger concern about the role of pubic education in American society, a debate that gave rise to a variety of visions for the future of the nation and its youth. Many viewed public education as a failure. They called for public education to complement the world outside of the classroom: to provide tools for coping with the new urban life. For immigrant children, the system struggled to provide thoughtful alternatives, and for Native American and African American children, the system was and would remain limited, segregated, and largely indifferent.

Alternatives were quickly offered. Booker T. Washington advocated for national programs of industrial education for African American children, and philanthropic reformers such as Jane Addams established settlement homes in major American cities (Benjamin & Baker, 2003).

Settlement homes were a vital feature of the progressive landscape at the start of the 20th century (Carson, 1990). Responding to the plight of poor inner-city families, socially minded students, professors, clergy, and artists took up residence in working-class neighborhoods and immersed themselves in the life of the community. These social progressives were committed to enhancing the efficiency of individual adjustment to the new industrial and social order. The settlement home provided a place for neighborhood residents to learn English, complete high school, learn about the arts, and organize efforts to lobby local government for needed services. Of particular importance in the history of vocational psychology was the founding of the Civic Service House in Boston.

Parsons and Vocational Guidance

The Civic Service House opened in 1901. Funded by Pauline Agassiz Shaw, a philanthropist with a strong commitment to children, the Civic Service House served the educational needs of immigrant adults. One goal of the Civic Service House was to provide a semblance of a college education to the working poor of the neighborhood (Brewer, 1942). Enter Parsons. A frequent guest of the Civic Service House, Parsons lectured to students on the importance of vocational choice. He was very much interested in how people made the choice of a life's work, viewing vocational choice as a form of individual and social efficiency, a part of the progressive ideal. His lectures on the subject were popular and well attended. One outcome was that students would often request personal meetings with him to discuss their vocational futures, so much so that in January 1908, he opened the Vocational Bureau at the Civic Service House under the motto "Light, Information, Inspiration, and Cooperation" (Brewer, 1942; H. V. Davis, 1969, p. 40; Watts, 1994).

Parsons's (1909) own words reflect the spirit of the times and the themes that would come to be associated with vocational psychology and guidance:
  The wise selection of the business, profession, trade, or occupation
  to which one's life is to be devoted and the development of full
  efficiency in the chosen field are matters of the deepest moment to
  young men and to the public. These vital problems should be solved in
  a careful, scientific way, with due regard to each person's
  aptitudes, abilities, ambitions, resources, and limitations, and the
  relations of these elements to the conditions of success than if he
  drifts into an industry for which he is not fitted. An occupation out
  of harmony with the worker's aptitudes and capacities means
  inefficiency, unenthusiastic and perhaps distasteful labor, and low
  pay; while an occupation in harmony with the nature of the man means
  enthusiasm, love of work, and high economic values, superior product,
  efficient service, and good pay. (p. 3)

Parsons's emphasis on matching self and job traits retained popular appeal and has become an anchor in the process of vocational choice (Niles, 2001). The idea of person-environment matching was certainly not unique to Parsons. It was an idea that was central to the still fresh theory of evolution that Charles Darwin proposed in 1859. Concepts such as natural selection, adaptation to the environment, and survival of the fittest were well known to Parsons, who had studied the biological evolution of Darwin and the social evolution of Spencer when he was an undergraduate at Cornell (H. V. Davis, 1969). These were concepts that also served as important foundations for the new and emerging applied psychology in America (Savickas & Baker, 2005).

Parsons died prematurely in 1908 at the age of 56. Those around him were loyal and appreciative. Colleague and friend Ralph Albertson saw to it that Choosing a Vocation was published, and writing in an introductory note in the book, he observed the following:
  That Professor Parsons would have carried the plan to greater
  completeness had he lived, there is no doubt; but the work that he
  did do is of such value that it is believed many will be grateful to
  get such information about it as can be given in this volume.
  (Parsons, 1909, p. xiii)

The book is a compendium of sorts and includes writings by Parsons taken from other sources. It is clearly laid out and offers concrete suggestions about the process of vocational choice. Leafing through the pages of the book gives one the impression of an easily accessible how-to book for those interested in vocational counseling. It was clearly new territory.

The book begins with an assessment of industry. Reviewing the chapter is instructive because it is easy to see the very limited tools and techniques available at that time for the identification of individual differences. Much use is made of the interview process, a process that required considerable time and energy from the counselor and the counseled. The next chapter discusses the world of work, primarily information about the division of labor in industry. It includes a special section on industries open to women. Clearly, professional opportunities were considered the province and privilege of White men. Reading about it with today's eyes can instill sadness and anger, but one must accept that it was the reality of that time. Such glimpses into the cultural past remind one that perspective is a quality needed to bring to most issues faced today.

The third part of the book is a melange of selections that discuss such things as the vocational bureau, self-help tips, and case studies. Much like the abrupt end of Parsons's life, the section lacks closure and cohesion.

The Places of Guidance

Vocational guidance became much more institutionalized after Parsons's death. In 1917, the Boston Vocation Bureau was transferred to the Division of Education at Harvard. It was here that educators and psychologists framed some of the earliest debates about the nature of guidance and counseling, debates that continue to this day.

There were those who saw vocational guidance as an educational function and those who saw it as a province of the new applied psychology. This was embodied in Harvard faculty members such as John Brewer of education and Hugo Munsterberg of psychology. Brewer (1942) argued that guidance was a part of the educational experience, a process by which the student is an active agent in seeking out experiences that help determine the appropriate choice of an occupation. Psychologists, such as Munsterberg, viewed guidance as an activity well suited to the new applied psychology. Munsterberg (1910), director of the psychological laboratory at Harvard and early progenitor of applied psychology, was familiar with and supportive of Parsons's work but offered a warning:
  We now realize that questions as to the mental capacities and
  functions and powers of an individual can no longer be trusted to
  impressionistic replies. If we are to have reliable answers, we must
  make use of the available resources of the psychological laboratory.
  These resources emancipate us from the illusions and emotions of the
  self-observer. The well arranged experiment measures the mental
  states with the same exactness with which the chemical or physical
  examination of the physician studies the organism of the individual.
  (p. 401)

Munsterberg was joined by colleagues such as Harry Hollingworth and Leta Hollingworth, psychologists who had advocated for the scientific study of vocational guidance. Like Munsterberg, they were wary of pseudoscientific means of assessing individual traits and made this clear in their 1916 publication of Vocational Psychology: Its Problems and Methods (H. L. Hollingworth, 1916). Designed to debunk such character reading techniques as physiognomy, the book promoted the benefits the new science of psychology could lend to the assessment of individual abilities. Leta Hollingworth, an early advocate for the psychological study of women and women's issues, added a chapter on the vocational aptitudes of women. The purpose of the chapter was
  to inquire whether there are any innate and essential sex differences
  in tastes and abilities, which would afford a scientific basis for
  the apparently arbitrary and Traditional assumption that the
  vocational future of all girls must naturally fall in the domestic
  sphere, and consequently presents no problem, while the future of
  boys is entirely problematical and may lie in any of a score of
  different callings, according to personal fitness. (L. S.
  Hollingworth, 1916, p. 223)

Reflective of much of her work on gender differences and mental abilities, she concluded that "so far as is at present known, women are as competent in mental capacity as men are, to undertake any and all human vocations" (L. S. Hollingworth, 1916, p. 244).

While psychologists were busy with the study of individual difference in mental abilities, educators continued to develop a national program of vocational guidance. Although Parsons was well regarded for developing a system of vocational guidance, his was an individual method. In public education, a movement was underway to promote group guidance. In 1907, Jesse B. Davis, became principal of the Grand Rapids High School in Michigan. J. B. Davis attempted to expose students to vocational planning through English composition. He reasoned that having high school students explore their vocational interests, ambitions, and character would empower them to make informed choices about their place in the flux of the new social order (J. B. Davis, 1914). Soon his ideas about vocational and moral development were translated into a complete program of guidance (Brewer, 1942).

Coming of Age

Between 1890 and 1920, vocational guidance came of age in American culture and established itself as a permanent fixture of the 20th-century landscape. The efforts of individuals and institutions, as those discussed in this special section, were witness to and participants in the formation of national organizations concerned with vocational guidance. In 1906, the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education was formed largely through the efforts of progressive labor leaders and settlement home advocates, many with ties to the Civic Service House and its vocational bureau. The National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education provided an organized means of lobbying the federal government for changes in public schooling that would accommodate industrial education and vocational guidance (Stephens, 1970). In 1913, the National Vocational Guidance Association was founded and provided a clear identity for those associated with vocational guidance. With powerful political support and an impressive set of advocates, vocational guidance found its way into most educational systems in America by 1920.


What a difference 100 years makes. The publication of Parsons's Choosing a Vocation in 1909 made it convenient for us to hang our hat on a person and date to mark the beginning of the vocational guidance movement in America. Fair enough. The book, however, was and is about much more. It is a snapshot of America in transition and provides a message about how that change was responded to and coped with. It tells of the competing forces that remain to tug at individuals today. Like any good story, it has its heroes and its villains, it is set in a time and place, and it offers a message that all can hear and use.

The examination of vocational guidance's past provides historical understanding and a more informed and enriched appreciation of the present. Historical analysis reveals the trials, tribulations, and achievements that are the products of the enormous things asked of and hoped for that vocational guidance can achieve. Looking back is always easier than projecting forward. It seems fair to say that in the span of 100 years, vocational guidance theory, research, and practice have contributed to a corpus of knowledge that is real, tangible, and capable of improving the quality of life of all people. Grounded in the concept of fit between individual and environment, vocational guidance has the opportunity in the new global economy to benefit from its rich interdisciplinary tradition and concern for social justice, and in doing so, fulfill the dream and vision of its progenitors and pioneers.


Baker, D. B. (2002). Child saving and the emergence of vocational psychology. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 60, 374-381.

Benjamin, L. T., & Baker, D. B. (2003). From seance to science: A history of the profession of psychology in America. San Francisco: Wadsworth.

Brewer, J. M. (1942). History of vocational guidance: Origins and early development. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Carson, M. J. (1990). Settlement folk: Social thought and the American settlement movement, 1885-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of the species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray.

Davidson, E., & Benjamin, L. T., Jr. (1987). A history of the child study movement in America. In J. A. Glover & R. R. Ronning (Eds.), Historical foundations of educational psychology (pp. 187-208). New York: Plenum Press.

Davis, H. V. (1969). Frank Parsons: Prophet, innovator, counselor. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Davis, J. B. (1914). Vocational and moral guidance. Boston: Ginn.

Furumoto, L. (1989). The new history of psychology. In I. S. Cohen (Ed.), G. Stanley Hall lecture series (Vol. 9, pp. 5-34). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Hollingworth, H. L. (1916). Vocational psychology: Its problems and methods, New York: Appleton.

Hollingworth, L. S. (1916). The vocational aptitudes of women. In H. L. Hollingworth, Vocational psychology: Its problems and methods (pp. 222-244). New York: Appleton.

Leahey, T. H. (1986). History without the past. Contemporary Psychology, 31, 648-650.

Levine, M., & Levine, A. (1992). Helping children: A social history. New York: Oxford University Press.

Munsterberg, H. (1910). Finding a life work. McClures, 34, 398-403.

Niles, S. G. (2001). Introduction. The Career Development Quarterly, 50, 56.

Parsons, F. (1909). Choosing a vocation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Savickas, M. L., & Baker, D. B. (2005). The history of vocational psychology: Antecedents, origin, and early development. In W. B. Walsh & M. L. Savickas (Eds.), Handbook of vocational psychology (3rd ed., pp. 15-50). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Stephens, W. R. (1970). Social reform, and the origins of vocational guidance. Washington, DC: Monograph of the National Vocational Guidance Association.

Stocking, G. W., Jr. (1965). On the limits of 'presentism' and 'historicism' in the historiography of the behavioral sciences. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 1, 211-218.

Watts, G. A. (1994). Frank Parsons: Promoter of a progressive era. Journal of Career Development, 20, 265-286.

David B. Baker, Archives of the History of American Psychology, University of Akron. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to David B. Baker, Archives of the History of American Psychology, University of Akron, Polsky Building LL-10A, Akron, OH 44325-4302 (e-mail:
COPYRIGHT 2009 National Career Development Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Articles
Author:Baker, David B.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2009
Previous Article:Pioneers of the vocational guidance movement: a centennial celebration.
Next Article:Frank findings: Frank Parsons and the Parson family.

Related Articles
Vocation crisis artificial says bishop.
Meaning and passion: vocational ministry focuses on finding life's work in the church and world.
Frank Parsons's enablers: Pauline Agassiz Shaw, Meyer Bloomfield, and Ralph Albertson.
Women's ordination.
VISION Second Annual Survey on Trends in Catholic Religious Vocations. Attracts Record Number of Inquirers Interested in Catholic Religious Vocations.
Pioneers of the vocational guidance movement: a centennial celebration.
The Boston Vocation Bureau's first counseling staff.
Hugo Munsterberg and the Origins of vocational guidance.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters