“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog

(A)battoir Worker to (Z)oologist

When I was at school, there was a set of filing cabinets in the corner of the school library containing information about careers. It was arranged alphabetically. The first entry was “abattoir worker”, which we found an ongoing source of amusement. I think it went all the way through to “zoologist”.

What I liked about this was that it presented a “flat” view of possible careers. There wasn’t some notion that some careers were more important, prestigious, favoured compared to others. As pointed out in Judith Flanders’s fascinating recent book A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order (ISBN 978-1509881567), the fact that alphabetical order removes hierarchy from collections was seen as radical, uncomfortable, or just “wrong” when it was first introduced. Surely, an organisational system that ranks “angels” before “gods” much be deeply flawed?

Of course, we don’t have any such qualms about alphabetical order these days. But, I think that we also neglect the power of listing things things in this flat, neutral, arbitrary way. One thing that our school did very well was to present the whole gamut of careers as a set of possibilities, and that the role of careers advice was to help us to think about the career that suited our skills, aptitudes, and temperament.

It is easy to criticise this as naive. Surely, we should be warning people from a comprehensive school in the middle of a council estate that they would face certain challenges if they choose a career that is “inappropriate” for them socially. It it really right to encourage such people to think that they could be barristers or whatever? Surely, the social barriers are too great.

But, I think that this gave us the naive confidence to bluster through these barriers. Because we hadn’t been warned, we blundered—I’m sure somewhat naively—into a huge variety of careers. I think a certain naivety can give you confidence—if no one has told you that you will face barriers, you can blunder though those barriers.

Perhaps we should give alphabetical order more credit!

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