Good opportunism

There are good reasons to be wary of leaders when they invoke the “ancient Chinese wisdom” that in crisis lies opportunity. It often portends dramatic or controversial decisions that have not been sufficiently considered, but are now seemingly justified by the needs of the moment. A dead give-away that such thinking is at work is the gleam in the eye of the one so relishing the moment. Such opportunism is not always but often enough at odds with long-standing mission.

But today’s Inside HigherEd includes an opinion piece that exemplifies a different kind of opportunism.

In “Opportunity Knocks for Liberal Education,” Matthew Moen argues that those of us committed to the liberal arts tradition should not miss this particular historical moment to defend two essential strands of liberal education: critical thinking and the development of virtuous citizens. Moen writes:

The search for truth is right now the only antidote to the poison of disinformation in America. The creation of virtuous citizens is central to building a new, more inclusive democracy.

However it happened, in other words, liberal education now sits squarely in the middle of what so ails our nation and what is required to fix it. Truthfulness and citizenship are needed now more than ever. Opportunity knocks.

Matthew Moen, “Opportunity Knocks for Liberal Education,” Inside HigherEd (December 17, 2020).

Moen goes on to urge readers, following a well-trod argument, that it is incumbent on those within the academy to do a better job of communicating the value of the liberal arts to a skeptical public. But at this historical moment, Moen argues, we must move “from defense to offence.” It will be tough-going, but Moen believes that we are up to the task:

It will take faculty members and administrators speaking effectively and repeatedly to the public about liberal education — which doesn’t fit easily into anyone’s job description on campus. It will require deliberate outreach to a broad swath of Americans who have come to believe that colleges and universities are primarily places of political indoctrination. Our message needs to be that colleges and universities have always been and will always remain — no matter what else they may do — institutions where students and faculty search for truth in classrooms and labs, in courses as divergent as biology, philosophy and politics.

Matthew Moen, “Opportunity Knocks for Liberal Education,” Inside HigherEd (December 17, 2020).

According to Moen, the needed, “bare-bones” message must be something like: “Hey, America, liberal education teaches students to discern truth and be good citizens, and those are needed to help heal our nation.”

“Liberal education teaches students to discern truth and be good citizens, and those are needed to help heal our nation.”

Matthew Moen, “Opportunity Knocks for Liberal Education,” Inside HigherEd (December 17, 2020).

In recent pieces on this blog, Matt Sayers has explored the importance of critical thinking, the ability to engage in dialogue across real differences, and the need to understand our own history. His insights are great examples of the habits of mind inculcated by a truly liberal education.

It strikes me that vocation can be seen as a third strand of the liberal arts tradition that is likewise especially relevant now. At some NetVUE schools conversations about calling are explicitly theological while at others the language of purpose and meaning is more resonant (on the latter, see Carter Aikin’s piece called “Vocation without the V word” and Tom Perrin’s “Vocation for Atheists.”) But in both cases, faculty, student affairs and career service professionals, chaplains, coaches, and others are engaging in the longstanding tradition of the formation of students through attentive, holistic mentoring. (On the significant role that chaplains play in the life of a campus, see the recent essay by Rev. Brian Konkol). The crucial questions remain. In plain language: Who are we? What do we know? What do we most care about? What kind of world do we want to live in? And what can we do to help bring about that world?

Vocational discernment is not a “service” offered by campuses; ideally it is constitutive of the educational experience at NetVUE schools. As many writers on this blog have suggested, helping students grapple with their calling moves them out of the realm of thinking solely in terms of career or even individual achievement –done well, engaging students about vocation entails getting them to think about the larger world communities of which they are a part. This point is made forcefully by Darby Ray in the most recent episode of NetVUE’s podcast, “Annual Trash Day.”

Fortunately, such holistic mentoring can be done using online formats when necessary. In times of crisis, we should go “back to basics.”

This on-going crisis (not just the threats of COVID-19 but the “twinned pandemic” of systemic racism) does present an opportunity for us. Moen is right: we should keep doing well what we have always done but we need to do a better job of communicating what that is to the larger public.

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 and the editor of this blog, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. Click here to see other blog posts by Hannah.

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