‘The Magicians,’ Elite Universities, And The Career Counseling Problem

I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians when it first came out, perhaps because I’m not much of a Narnian, but I picked it up recently, and found it so sad and emotionally precise that I kept having to take breaks from it to avoid becoming overwhelmed. But aside from the novel’s general sense of malaise and melancholy, I thought it did a very effective job of tweaking the ambitions of students at elite colleges, and at satirizing a broken career counseling process.

The description of how students prepare for life after Brakebills is a pretty good summary of the range of desirable post-graduate options for students at liberal arts schools who aren’t in specific professional career tracks — the sciences, graduate school, government, the arts:

Lots of students were already actively networking with established magical organizations. Surendra lectured anybody who would listen about a consortium of wizards—whom he hadn’t actually heard from yet, but he was pretty sure they’d basically guaranteed him an internship—who spent their time t suborbital altitudes keeping a weather eye out for stray asteroids and oversize solar flares and other potential planetary-scale disasters. Plenty of students went in for academic research. Alice was looking at a post-graduate program in Glasgow, though the idea of being separated didn’t particularly appeal to either of them, nor did the idea of Quentin’s aimlessly tagging along with her to Scotland. It was considered chic to go undercover, to infiltrate governments and think tanks and NGOs, even the military, in order to get oneself into a position to influence real-world affairs magically from behind the cenes. People devoted years of their lives to it. And there were even more exotic paths. A few magicians—Illusionists in particular—undertook massive art projects, manipulating ht enorthern lights and things like that, decades-long enchantments that might only ever have an audience of one.

Of course, we’re hearing about all of these things, which sound fascinating to me, from someone who has precisely no interest in doing any of them. Quentin’s bouts of boredom and dissatisfaction are one of the reasons I had trouble relating to him. But they’re also a result of the fact that Brakebills, like a lot of colleges (particularly the elite, East Coast liberal arts ones Brakebills is modeled on), don’t seem to have much in the way of a career counseling program, in part because I think they assume students will find there own way. And there’s no question that a lot of people are self-directed, and manage to find their way to something interesting to do without intervention or advice. But for those who don’t, my experience is that recruitment by consulting firms, investment banks, and Teach for America basically fill the gap for folks who are still casting about for something to do.

The Magicians wields a sharp stick in the direction of that pipeline from colleges to consulting in particular. In the world of the novel, consulting’s where you go when you get burned out. When Janet tells Quentin and Alice the story of Emily Greenstreet, the student who had an affair with a professor, attempted some inadvisable cosmetic magic, and inspired her admirer to burn himself up into a niffin in his attempts to save her, it’s clear that consulting is where you go when you wash out of magic. She tells them “I heard she does something businessy in Manhattan. They set her up with an easy corporate job, I don’t know, management consulting or something. We own part of some big firm. Lots of magic to cover up the fact that she doesn’t do anything. She just sits in an office and surfs the Web all day. I think part of her just didn’t survive what happened, you know?” And after the showdown in Ember’s Tomb, Quentin ends up at exactly the same firm where “he was affable enough, if a little mopey. He seemed smart. Or at least he looked smart.”

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going into consulting if that’s what you want to do. I have friends who are running around the country preserving mining jobs and bringing down health care costs, and that’s awesome, important work. But it’s worth pointing out that there’s something odd about the fact that we treat college as if once you’re in, you’ve got everything figured out, particularly if you get into some place like the Ivy League. And worth interrogating what the defaults turn out to be for folks who don’t have their whole futures planned.