Privilege and Lies: Some Problematic Myths about Vocation

What myths about work and vocation do we convey when we talk with our students?

What lies might groups with different forms of privilege come to believe about themselves? When those lies are about their abilities and the horizons of possibility for their futures, how do they affect their sense of calling? These questions were posed by Christine Jeske of Wheaton College to a packed room of higher-ed professionals during a session held at the recent NetVUE gathering in Louisville. Trained as an anthropologist, Christine has previously worked on attitudes toward and myths about work in the South African context, where there is a stark disparity between rich and poor. But what myths about work do we convey here in the U.S. when we talk with students on vocation? And what are the unintended consequences of those problematic narratives? How can we tell a different narrative, one that more accurately represents the world in which our students will live? 

Christine turned her anthropologist’s gaze toward the contemporary discourse on vocation and has identified three common narratives and the unintended messages they convey. With each, she suggested alternative narratives that are both more truthful and more empowering. 

The first is the idea that vocational discernment is an exciting journey of self-discovery. The emphasis here is on the individual. For example, Frederick Buechner’s construction of calling becomes the admonition to “figure out your deep gladness and go get it.” But this puts all the responsibility on the individual and does not sufficiently take into account different people’s sense of agency, which in large part derives from their socio-economic circumstances. People receive varying messages and opportunities that shape what they can do and what is possible.

We need to remind students that “No one is an island.”

As an alternative, we can remind our students that “no one is an island.” We can use language that fosters empowerment, celebrates overcoming and encourages students to develop support structures comprised of people who know them well (and understand their dreams and the reality of their circumstances). Here, Christine mentioned the work of D.L. Blustein, author of The Psychology of Working, who argues that we must foster a “critical consciousness” when working with students; we must recognize that society has not treated everyone equally. It does not serve them well to offer false hope. 

David Blustein on the psychology of working (March 2018 interview)

The second problematic narrative over-emphasizes the importance of attitude and misconstrues how much a “positive attitude” can alter one’s circumstances. “Keep smiling,” “try harder,” “make friends with your employer,” runs this advice. The unintended consequence is that we equate being successful with being a good worker, and the Protestant work ethic further enmeshes such messages with notions of the faithful, diligent worker. The right attitude can make “drudgery divine,” borrowing a phrase from the poet George Herbert. Such advice is an ineffective salve in the face of truly oppressive working conditions. 

Some say attitude is everything. Is it?

For those who mentor students and help them think about the future, the alternative is to acknowledge oppression. How? Christine offered practical “action” steps: First, acknowledge the need for accountability systems for employers. Second, we must train students in dignified quitting and other coping mechanisms for bad jobs, jobs that are truly unjust. 

A third narrative embedded in the discourse on vocation is the idea that one should “go fix the world”— indeed this is the other half of Frederick Buechner’s oft-quoted depiction of calling. Unfortunately, it equates morality with “doing good work,” often the jobs that pay the least (including unpaid internships). It also has the unintended consequence of valorizing over-service, as people work unhealthfully in high-pressure jobs. We have been taught to think that our value is tied to our job. 

But what if we changed the narrative? What if we imagined ourselves as belonging in a community of “mutual transformation,” Christine suggested as an alternative, and went on to advise that we should teach students to recognize what they have received. “Ask them: ‘Who provided for you? Who made you what you are?’ We need to notice and combat the shame of receiving.”

We need to teach students to recognize what they have received, by asking them Who provided for you? Who made you what you are? We need to notice and combat the shame of receiving.

Christine Jeske (Wheaton College)

How can we set them up so that they don’t feel like a failure?

Christine laid down a difficult yet important challenge: “Be an anthropologist at your institution,” she adjured the packed room of administrators, program directors, student affairs professionals and faculty. Start by asking “What are we saying? What is being assumed?” This kind of self-scrutiny should become part of the regular assessment of our vocation programs and materials. No doubt such questions may yield difficult conversations but it will be well worth our time and energy.

For more on Christine’s reflections about work, check out her blog posts at The Green Room, part of the Theology of Work project.

Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015). Currently the Online Community Coordinator, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. 

2 thoughts on “Privilege and Lies: Some Problematic Myths about Vocation”

  1. Wonderful and helpful essay! Thank you, Hannah, for extending Christine’s reach to those outside the conference. I will be pondering how to become a better member of various communities of transformation to which I belong.

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