One of the most dramatic features of the late modern period (which to historians means anything after about 1790) is that everything about where you will live and what kind of work you will do and who you are likely to meet and marry was no longer decided by the time you were born. As the myriad changes in the technology of production collectively constituting the Industrial Revolution produced in turn momentous shifts in geographical, political and familial organization, suddenly people no longer simply inherited their place on the planet and their place and role in a community from their parents. More than two centuries downstream, we take all this for granted, but of course in the grand sweep of human experience across millennia, it’s really pretty much a recent innovation.
The good news is that, to a significant extent, if you are born in the US or Canada, in Western Europe and in increasing portions of Eastern Europe, as well as in many other arenas of relative affluence and stability around the globe, you are largely free to choose your life: where you want to live, what kind of work you want to do, whether and whom you want to marry or whether to have a family at all. In short, you can decide who and what you want to be when you grow up. (This remains true in general despite all the ways access to various life paths and indeed to freedom of choice itself is filtered and limited by economic resources, ethnicity and social class in America as elsewhere, despite our denials. Social mobility and the liberty it offers is not by any means unqualified or universal, but it is real, and historically unprecedented.)
What does the biblical figure of Jonah have to teach us about calling? On the surface, not much. In fact, Jonah may be the great anti-hero of vocation. God calls Jonah – and he runs in the opposite direction.
What does the biblical figure of Jonah have to teach us about calling? On the surface, not much. In fact, Jonah may be the great anti-hero of vocation.
God calls Jonah–and he runs in the opposite direction. God asks him, a good and upright man, to “Go to great city of Nineveh and tell them to end their wicked ways.” Now, to a Jew, Nineveh lay in enemy territory; it was in the country of the Assyrians. Nineveh was the Paris, the Mexico City, the Shanghai of the ancient world, an “exceedingly large city,” a city of “a hundred and twenty thousand people–and many animals,” a city it takes “three days to walk across.”
Maybe Jonah thinks this calling is beneath his pay grade. Maybe he crosses borders with difficulty. Maybe his passport has expired. Maybe he’s just terrified. But he’s quite certain the God of Israel should not bother with the Ninevites and Assyrians, because they’re not part of the “chosen people.” They don’t worship the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel and Leah. So Jonah boards a ship heading across a different sea. He thinks he can outrun God’s call.
How will a student make informed and worthwhile decisions if they cannot be still deciding, confident in their freedom from external and internal forces of their lives that pressure a rush to judgment? We want them to be open to new ideas and new evidence. We want them to discover new knowledge, and to dissolve attachments to ignorance. We want them to be critical and creative participants in private and common life. That is why we are—or need to be—ready to stand up for the invaluable worth of “still deciding.”
At a campus event a couple years ago, I spoke with prospective students and parents about studying the humanities. I was struck by one father’s question. He understood why we would insist on connecting the liberal arts with career success but, he said, it also worried him. He was thinking of his daughter growing into a young adult, for whom he wanted excellent career preparation but also much more.
His question was: Could I assure him we offer more?
In line with so many other colleges like ours, we at Maryville College have turned to outcomes assessment and, perhaps especially, employment outcomes as a measure of our educational effectiveness. We want to make the decision to come here easy, and so we have Powerpoints and data points and talking points at the ready to answer the questions we hear people asking, like, what jobs can you get with a degree in the liberal arts? Once those questions are settled, we move on—we say to ourselves—to the deeper values that we truly treasure.
I had spent years thinking about the Great American Myths. I had taught classes and written books and articles on that subject. While I acknowledged the persistence of racism in American life, not once had I considered the notion of white supremacy as an idea that has been central to the American mythos. I understood that avowed white supremacists stalked the American landscape, but I had always viewed them as standing on the margins of American life. To suggest that white supremacy was a defining American myth struck me as preposterous.
The regional NetVUE gathering in November in Nashville was titled “Institutions Can Have Vocations, Too.” Organized by Richard Hughes and held at Lipscomb University, it was well attended and prompted rich discussions, but three threads emerged as especially salient to me: the usefulness of story in thinking about institutional vocation; tensions between institutional identity and diversity; and the significance of explicit vs. implicit stories and the stories that we do not tell.