Occasionally, in the middle of class, I’m visited by a horrible thought: what if a shooter burst through the door? There I am, up in front of the room, a prime target, and there my students are, tucked away behind laptops or bent over notebooks. Could there be a more vulnerable moment? What would I do? What could I do? Fear, panic, rage, and helplessness swamp me all at once. Like many universities, mine has installed special barricading devices for classroom doors that can be used in case of emergencies. But these devices only work if you have time to use them. Like most faculty members, I’ve had training in spotting and reporting at-risk students. And, like many of us, I’ve had active shooter training, which, to be honest, doesn’t feel much more comforting than the tornado drills in elementary school where we knelt in the halls and covered our heads, or the old A-Bomb drills that had students kneel beneath their desks. The same horrible thought comes to me sometimes during large public events as well as small, routine outings like a meal in a restaurant, a trip to the mall, sitting in church.
How do we think about mass shootings vocationally? I do not know. But we need to. Our vocations and our lives are imperiled by them. As professors and teachers and, really anyone in any workplace, place of worship, or public venue, we are always under this looming cloud. What’s more, it’s in the back of our students’ minds, and it will be in their futures. Vocational studies must equip students to flourish in a world wherein lives and their purposes are randomly, senselessly, and suddenly, snuffed out. “Dying ain’t in people’s plans, is it?” A teenage character, reflecting on the death of a kid his own age, says in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Increasingly, it is in ours. Seen this way, the reality of our vulnerability to mass shootings fits Wadell and Pinches‘ definition of a called life: “a fundamental way of thinking about ourselves and about our place in the world.”
It’s not my intention to discuss the many proposed measures to stop or reduce mass shootings, nor the complex and contested mixture of motives and circumstances that lead people to commit such crimes. My question is a simple one: can vocational studies offer any help? Can the question of mass shootings be profitably framed in terms of vocation, purpose, meaning? I think it can.
The first and most fundamental area that can be addressed by vocational studies is the troubling question of why our culture is producing more and more individuals who plan and commit these crimes. While it’s certainly true that mass shootings account for a small number of the annual gun-related deaths in America, the acceleration in frequency of mass shootings is impossible to ignore. Truly happy, flourishing people aren’t likely to commit such crimes. In an age when many non-academics perceive our work to be hopelessly out of touch with “real life,” vocational studies might offer a particularly promising way to bring accumulated wisdom on living with purpose, meaning, and justice to a culture increasingly producing people who commit isolated, random, purposeless acts of public violence.
People seem more desperate than ever for meaning and purpose, and yet more confused as to what genuine meaning and purpose are or where they can be found. Nowhere is this more evident than a mass shooting. Because of the carefully researched, plotted, and premeditated nature of many mass shootings, they in fact have an eerie quality of anti-vocation about them. This feeling is increased when they are accompanied by manifestos declaring the motives and purpose behind the crime. Mass shootings are enactments of the ultimate utterance of anti-vocation, that made by the character of Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Evil be thou my good.”
Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels
Detail from watercolor illustration to Milton’s Paradise Lost by William Blake, 1808; public domain.
Many of stated motives for shootings, such as hate, racism, and extremist ideologies, are in fact topics of discussion addressed in vocational literature, as are the technologies that expose people to them. And one suggestion more directly related to conversations in vocational studies comes from a 2015 L.A. Times article that claimed that “a chronic and widespread gap between Americans’ expectations for themselves and their actual achievement, Americans’ adulation of fame” drives mass shootings. Craving fame, disillusionment, failing to obtain a cultural standard of achievement, all of which are exacerbated by media and social media, are also discussions to which vocational studies could further meaningfully contribute.
Much vocational literature discusses the importance of communal and civic engagement in individual and collective vocations, but perhaps it’s time to start thinking more about the civic responsibilities of vocational studies itself. Should organizations like NetVUE start thinking about vocation beyond the academy? Start to develop partnerships with cities and their civic structures, business, places of worship, other civic institutes to bring the discussion of vocation and purpose-seeking to a broader range of people? In Higher Education and Civic Engagement: International Perspectives, Elizabeth Hollander asks:
How can institutions of higher education promote powerful real-world problem solving? One focus is on developing a team of ‘bridge builders’ or ‘world spanners’—personnel who can transcend the boundaries of the campus and the community and help construct powerful experiences for both the student and the community.Elizabeth Hollander, Higher Education and Civic Engagement (xix).
Perhaps this could serve as a model for vocational studies “to help construct powerful experiences” of purpose-seeking for communities and citizens. One of the most powerful and important experiences vocational studies can offer is simply inviting people into discussions of vocation. Vocation is centripetal. To discuss the meaning and purpose of life is inherently interesting.
And what about vocation before the academy? There are certainly many organizations that help at-risk youth and guide them into more constructive purposes, like sports, music, or art. Perhaps they might serve as models or partners. A gradual, prolonged infusion of a sense of vocation and purpose into our culture from a wide variety of avenues to people of all ages and stations seems like work for those most conversant with the study of vocation and all that it entails. It is work that is urgently needed.
Yet all this feels like grasping at straws. And perhaps some of these things are already happening. I’m sure they are. If nothing else, we can begin, as some in the NetVUE community already have, to talk about vocation, mass shootings, and the civic responsibility of vocational studies.
For further reading: On the role of mass shootings in the worldview of current students, see “The Massacre Generation.” For John Barton’s report from Pepperdine in November 2018 after a nearby shooting, see “Vocation in a Time of Crisis.” On Emma González, who survived the Parkland shooting, see “Stories that Inspire Courage and Hope.”
Jason Stevens is an Associate Professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, MI. He is interested in the role of the imagination, particularly the poetic imagination, in places of political violence and distressed social conditions, and is currently at work on a book about Seamus Heaney, poetry, and purpose. Click here to see other posts by Jason at Vocation Matters.