The language of “vocational discernment” is finding a foothold in higher ed these days, but occasionally some critics have asked whether this is just a fancy way of talking about “deciding what to do in life.” Institutions may have adopted new language, but aren’t they simply doing what they’ve always done—namely, helping students to choose a major and to embark on a career? Or does “vocational reflection and discernment” really point to a genuinely different way of helping students think about their future lives? I believe that it does, and that one way to understand this difference is to think about playing catch.
I don’t usually find myself turning to sports for metaphors, but I think this one works. For most sports, there are certain things that one can do alone: learning about the game, undergoing physical conditioning, and watching the techniques of the greats. In some cases, one can even practice a sport alone: go for a run, hit tennis balls against a wall, or throw softballs and baseballs into one of those “pitch-back” nets. But all athletes know that these experiences are not the same as Continue reading →
James Clark, writing on the blog of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, offers some thoughtful commentary on the role of God in discussions of vocation. The post includes a number of references to At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, the first collection published by the NetVUE Scholarly Resources Project.
We might differ in our views about the sources of our callings, and about the exact nature of a call. But can anyone deny that honesty ought to be an important part of living out one’s vocation?
It seems obvious enough, but someone apparently needs to tell that to the engineers at Volkswagen—especially given the recent “diesel dupe” scandal.
I’m convinced that this controversy has serious implications for vocation. Educators are uniquely poised to either support or subvert honest dealings between the environment, our social systems, and the economy. The recent scandal suggests that we can’t settle for a “just the facts” approach to education. We need to think more about professional formation with respect to the obligations that we have to one another — not to mention our obligations to the Earth that sustains us.
My interests in this story are both personal and professional. As the proud owner of a 2003 Jetta TDI (built years before the models in question), I have endured great suffering to keep this vehicle on the road. I had been looking forward to upgrading to a newer, shinier, cleaner-burning diesel Jetta, preferably one with working A/C (did I mention I live in Florida?), and one Continue reading →
A recent opinion piece by Mary Worthen in the New York Times suggests that American evangelicals continue to adapt in creative ways to the secularization of the American college campus. Her article, which focuses primarily on large, private institutions in which nondiscrimination policies have complicated life for some evangelical Christian ministries, offers a surprising discovery:
As mainstream culture becomes more diverse and moves further away from traditional Christian teachings on matters like sexuality, we might expect evangelical students on elite secular campuses to feel more embattled than ever. Yet that’s not what I found when I spoke to a range of students and recent graduates.
Contrary to conservatives’ warnings about the oppressive secularism of the modern university, these students have taken advantage of their campuses’ multicultural marketplace of ideas. They have created a network of organizations and journals that engage non-Christian ideologies head-on.
For example, student Andrew Schuman is reported to have described this kind of engagement as asking students “to think critically, question honestly, and link arms with anyone who searches for truth and authenticity.”
Given the interests that motivate this blog, it seems worth encouraging more conversation about the degree to which (and how) such students at these largely secular institutions are engaging questions of vocation, and whether these off-campus evangelical organizations and journals are providing them with an opportunity to do so. And it would be useful if readers of this blog could link to some examples.
As my colleague David Cunningham has already discussed, a comment made at the November 10 Presidential debate brought many things into question: “I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”
David mention the ongoing conversation about the factually incorrect part of the statement (who makes more money) and the grammatical error (less v. fewer). He also considered how this particular use of the word vocation continues to inform much public discourse:
“The last two decades have seen huge changes in the language of vocation, such that — in the world of higher education, at least — the phrase ‘vocational education’ is no longer so frequently used when referring to trade-school training for work such as welding, cooking, or diesel mechanics. But as this candidate’s comment suggests, that usage is still very common in the larger political and cultural realm.”
What I’d like to add to the discussion is this: Finding your life’s work isn’t just about finding the job in which you will make the most money. (Here, I bracket the fight to raise the minimum wage and the gendered struggle for equal pay for another conversation.) In addition, your vocation includes more than just your job. Discussion about vocation as a frame for working with students in higher education continue to circle back to this: We want to help students to discover their callings. Or their purpose, passion, goals for shaping a meaningful life. As David said, this is the language that has currency in many places where “vocation” still doesn’t quite translate in the way we might intend it to.
So what if welders don’t make as much money as philosophers? We need welders who are dedicated to their craft to help build a strong infrastructure in our communities. We also need philosophers skilled at the art of logic and critique, teachers with strategy and patience to manage a classroom of eight-year-olds, and entrepreneurs to create products and services that improve our health.
We need people whose goals include doing work that matters, doing it well, and contributing toward the well-being of our communities. And we need conversation about what all of that means.
What we don’t need is more people whose only goal is making as much money as possible!
At a recent debate among candidates for President, one participant (who, for the purposes of this blog, will remain nameless) made the following statement:
I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.
Said candidate has been criticized on many fronts. Philosophers actually make considerably more than welders, if a “philosopher” is someone who teaches philosophy. And of course, anyone with a bachelor’s degree (in philosophy or anything else) will earn considerably more over a lifetime than someone without one.
In addition, several commentators have wryly asked why the candidate’s own academic background had not taught him the difference between “less” and “fewer.”
(I suppose that I’ve partially identified him by using “him”; however, I’m also guessing that few readers will have imagined that Carly Fiorina made this swipe, since her own undergraduate philosophy major seems to have prepared her pretty well for her career.)
These quibbles aside, what particularly struck me about the above quotation is the use of the word vocational. The last two decades have seen huge changes in the language of vocation, such that — in the world of higher education, at least — the phrase “vocational education” is no longer so frequently used when referring to trade-school training for work such as welding, cooking, or diesel mechanics. But as this candidate’s comment suggests, that usage is still very common in the larger political and cultural realm.
This should serve as a reminder, to those of us deeply involved in the campus conversation about vocation, that our work may not always translate easily into the wider public context. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use the word vocation; it does mean, however, that we may want to be a bit more intentional and active as to how we define it, employ it, and explicate it.
The terminological problem also suggests that when we think about “alternative” language for vocational thinking (call and calling, lives of meaning and purpose, and so on), we might not want to think of this as merely optional. At this juncture in history — when the word vocational is still being used (and heard) as referring primarily to trade schools — we should generally seek to employ a wider range of vocabulary. This will help us to get the message out beyond our immediate contexts.
Why recommend this book review, and the books themselves, to those interested in “vocation matters”? Because some in higher education may shy away from even secularized versions of religious discernment and vocational language because of the connection they see between religion and violence, tout court.
Manji and the authors she reviews can offer helpful nuance and useful perspectives to deploy when the (often exaggerated) religion-violence linkage surfaces in a counseling situation or collegial conversation.