Gifted!: Repaying Education With Good Work and Care

When my oldest son was in elementary school, he would quite innocently announce that he was in the “gifted and talented” program at his school. His mom and I would wince. Would others take his proclamation to be the self-deserving swagger of a 10-year-old white kid? He is now on the college admissions circuit. Have we parents, teachers, coaches, and pastors enabled him to see and resist wielding his white, male privilege? And, if so, could he nonetheless hold onto his 10-year-old self-understanding that he (and you and I) are, indeed, gifted and talented—quite literally the recipients of gifts and the stewards of talents that we did not earn but that we are called to develop and use for the flourishing of whole communities?

My recent posts have circled around this notion of giftedness and being gifted. I’ve suggested that the circulation of gifts is a more helpful way to describe being educated for vocation than what often passes for purpose and meaning within higher education. This is largely because education, in both private and public settings, has been made into an investment seeking return and a product to be purchased. To consider education as gift, above and beyond what one might pay for it, changes the way that we reflect on and carry out the work for which education prepares us. I want to bring some of these musing together here and consider how understanding students as gifted and education as a gift economy can lead to restorative and regenerative work. 

I teach at a private Lutheran college at which 10-12 percent of students (and fewer faculty members) identity as Lutheran. Our leading religious student demographic is Catholic, but if current trends continue, students who identify as “nones” (as in, “none of the above” or “no religious affiliation”) will soon become the largest group. Given this reality—shared by all church-related institutions to different degrees—it is absolutely imperative that educators translate the traditional theological language of being called by God to love and serve God’s world for those students. Translations typically focus on the Caller and the beneficiaries of the calling, which often end up being synonymous. It follows that undergraduate students are asked to look to the needs of others and respond from their own sense of “giftedness.” The scare quotes around that last word, however, indicate that this framework works whether we think of our capabilities and talents as gifted to us or actually consider them as something that we earn and possess and then decide to bestow on others. In the latter case, gratitude need not characterize and motivate how and why we give to others. Our vocations might be done out of obligation, resentfulness, or pride, or to receive recognition, status, or pay.

The problem with this particular secular account of vocation is both theological and ecological. In traditional, theological accounts of vocation, the One who calls and those to whom one is called are different. Indeed, in Lutheran and other Christian traditions, that difference makes all the difference. Precisely because God’s gift of grace (translation: ultimate acceptance and sense of belonging) cannot be earned or repaid, one must direct one’s gratitude and service not to the giver of gifts but to the neighbor in need. In Martin Luther’s stark terms: “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.”

When, alternatively, the world’s deep hunger becomes the source of one’s vocation, it is easy to associate one’s calling with something that one unilaterally does to/for others. This association not only offers a potential recipe for paternalism and white savior syndrome but also overlooks the receptive and humbling process of hearing, discerning, receiving, and then responding to a calling. (See my earlier musing here.) Also, when one focuses on external need alone, it becomes easy to confuse a calling with an opportunity. Given the myriad ways to get paid, there is in fact “need” for just about anything and everything one might do. If someone is willing to pay us, then the market, at least, “needs” it. We thus easily mistake being offered a job with receiving a vocation. The latter sometimes becomes ideological justification for the former.

Such justification has an ecological impact as well. We know in these twilight hours of consumer capitalism, we earn money by extracting resources (water, soil, human community and cooperation, ancient sunlight in the form of carbon) from the earth, privatizing them (thus making these resources scarce), selling them, and then further degrading the commons with our unusable and un-decomposable waste. Indeed, an economy predicated on endless growth only keeps “growing” by “opening up new markets,” which essentially means privatizing and selling things that used to be shared and free. Bottled water is the obvious example, but so are the songs, stories, scientific discoveries, and “services” (that is, human care for one another) that we used to give and receive for free. Within the commodity system, we make and save more money when we buy and discard more quickly—thus the “planned obsolescence” of most modern electronics and machines” which are cheaper to replace than to fix. In other words, much of the commodity/monetary economy runs counter to the gift economy called Earth.

Theologically, to work in ways that undercut the beauty and livingness of God’s creation amounts to, according to Wendell Berry, “flinging God’s gifts into his face”—the “most horrid blasphemy.” Ecologically, it is unsustainable and exploitative, whether those being exploited are human or non-human creatures, or the living earth itself.  And really, while some will want to name God as the capital-G Giver of every good gift (see James 1:17), when ecologists speak of topsoil, water cycles, and interdependent ecosystems, I find the theological and ecological descriptions a hair’s width apart and easily translatable (in both directions). Ecological and economics writer Charles Eisenstein describes gift economies as sacred and their renewal as spiritual work:

To obey the law of return [where all “waste” is returned for others’ use] is to honor the spirit of the gift because we receive what has been given to us, and from that gift, we give in turn. Gifts are meant to be passed on. Either we hold onto them for a while and then give them forward, or we use them, digest them, integrate them, and pass them on in altered form.

Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift & Society in the Age of Transition
St. Isidore Catholic Worker Farm (photo credit: Alex Sell, Augustana College student)

This past spring, students in my “Jesus & Discipleship” class got the opportunity to discuss and participate in such a gift economy when they went on an overnight trip to St. Isidore Catholic Worker Farm in Cuba City, Wisconsin. We joined members of that community in conversation, play, and regenerative farm work, including spreading “humanure” on newly planted trees. The community lives simply, but their lives are rich with a wealth that freely circulates between soil, trees, cows, chickens, asparagus, workers, and guests. Many of the students described the experience as a moment of profound calling—of the gift of being welcomed into community and then summoned to re-gift something of their own lives out of gratitude, freedom, and joy.

In his poem “Work, Gratitude, Prayer,” Wendell Berry equates even prayer to work done carefully and kindly, aware of gifts that surround on all sides:

Be thankful and repay

Growth with good work and care.

Work done in gratitude,

Kindly, and well, is prayer.

You did not make yourself,

Yet you must keep yourself

By use of other lives.

No gratitude atones

For bad use or too much.

Wendell Berry, “Work, Gratitude, Prayer,” from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997

By “growth,” Berry certainly doesn’t mean the endless growth of an economy that expands by taking without returning. He’s probably thinking of the fruiting trees and multiplying chickens on his own Kentucky farm. Yet I think the poem also fittingly characterizes the intellectual and moral growth of students in their college years. They can think of college as something that, because they pay for it, must guarantee a return on investment. Or they can cultivate gratitude for the many lives that got them there and sustain them still, and then recirculate those gifts for the flourishing of All. How might we—with our own gratitude and joy—educate them into the latter?

Jason Mahn is professor of religion and director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College, Rock Island, IL. His essay “The Conflict in Our Callings: The Anguish (and Joy) of Willing Several Things” appeared in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (Oxford 2017). He has recently authored Neighbor Love through Fearful Days: Finding Meaning and Purpose in a Time of Crisis (Fortress 2021) and co-edited So That All May Flourish: The Aims of Lutheran Higher Education (Fortress 2023). For other posts by Jason, click here.

Leave a Reply