Throughout my time as a college educator, the purpose of higher education has become more and more tied to career preparation. This is not news to anyone. The shift to career preparation has been explained, re-explained, and debated by many of us for the last decade with few surprises along the way, save for the occasional fresh takes like Dan Barrett’s recovery of what he calls “The Day the Purpose of College Changed.”
In many ways, the attention and resources being given to career services align with best practices and offer holistic care for students as learners and as people. Colleges and universities must take career preparation seriously not only to recruit and retain students and thus survive this era of uncertainty but also to support students’ intellectual, social, mental, and economic wellness. Career preparation is, in my mind, a matter of justice in higher education today. It is also, however, too often narrowly designed and practiced.
Many institutions offer (and market) curricular and co-curricular programming to prepare students with the necessary knowledge and skills—both the hard skills of the applied arts and the soft skills of the liberal arts—to contribute to the diverse professional contexts that they will enter after graduation. Students are prepared to understand, engage, and contribute to the world as it is. Perhaps it is less clear, or less clearly stated, however, that robust career preparation requires the intentional and focused cultivation of the imagination—the ability to dream, speculate, and create the world not as it is but as it might and should be.
Preparation and imagination are often made into foils of each other. To be prepared, especially for work, is understood to be a sign of maturity, ability, or dependability. To imagine is understood, at least in the mainstream, to be a sign of distraction, eccentricity, frivolity, impracticality, or immaturity. It is vital, however, that we understand and practice imagination not as a counter to mature preparation for work and service but rather as an essential aspect of what it means to be prepared to live, work, and serve well in the contemporary world. We must take seriously both the calling to prepare and the business of preparing students to use curiosity, speculation, and creativity to imagine new possibilities for the world and to make wise assessments about the ethics and justice of pursuing those possibilities.
For Nobel laureate and novelist Toni Morrison, the practice of justice in the world is directly tied to the practice of imagination. In 1993, the Nobel-awarding committee described Morrison’s fiction as a “visionary force”—through which she imagines and asks her readers to imagine—that “gives life” to “American reality.”
This play of the imaginative and the real drives Morrison’s masterpiece, Beloved. The surreal ghost story is based on the true account of Margaret Garner, an enslaved Black woman who escaped bondage with her family and—in the upside down world of slavery—killed her daughter to save her from reenslavement. Morrison discovered Garner in an 1856 article, “A Visit to the Slave Mother Who Killed Her Child,” and then thought about the woman for years, mulling over the few facts of the case that she knew but famously refusing to look further into the real Margaret Garner. “I did a lot of research about everything else in the book—Cincinnati, and abolitionists, and the Underground Railroad,” said Morrison for a 1987 New York Times review of the book, “but I refused to find out anything else about Margaret Garner. I really wanted to invent her life.”
Instead, by way of informed invention, Morrison brought Garner back to life, reconstituting her as the fictional character Sethe and her toddler daughter, who was nearly unacknowledged in any of the archival coverage of the killing or subsequent trial, as the title character Beloved. By imagining these characters, Morrison could write them as full, complex, and thus real women filled with love, fear, wretchedness, and joy who are more truthful than the facts discoverable in the biased historical record of antebellum America. “Morrison’s fiction empowers the image of Margaret Garner,” according to Cecilia M. Smith, with “a voice” and “image” that gives readers the “thinking, feeling woman” who was unseen and unheard by journalists, lawyers, and even advocates during her lifetime. As Morrison has said elsewhere, it is the act of adding to the “real”—writing “the actual and the possible”—that allows her to find and voice forgotten and unsayable truths about the world: “Only imagination can help me.”
In Beloved, and in all her fiction, Morrison imagines freely and spontaneously as well as ethically and responsibly to create art, to tell a good story, to make whole a people that history had forgotten, and thus to invigorate the world with justice. Word by word in books like Beloved, Morrison “enlarged the American imagination,” as Dwight Garner wrote following the novelist’s death in 2019, but she also enlarged the way we live in and move through the real world of American life. By opening up what we imagine about ourselves and about others, Morrison equips us and calls us to live more beautiful and more just lives.
And Morrison is not alone, clearly. Others like Emily Dickinson, Zora Neale Hurston, Martin Luther King Jr., Alice Walker, Gloria Anzaldúa, Walter Brueggeman, Marilynne Robinson and many more call us also to imagine what is possible for ourselves and our world. When we dream, when we care for and foster our imaginations as individuals and in community, when we hold the possible alongside the actual, then we have the power to reimagine and remake the world together.
The creative, intellectual, social, and moral work of imagining is not counter to the career preparation that leads higher education today but rather a vital part of what it means to be ready to live, work, lead, and serve in the world. Let us invest in robust educational resources and practices that not only prepare students to understand, engage, and contribute to the world as it is but also invite them to dream and create the world as it might and should be.
For other posts on vocation and imagination, see Jason D. Stevens’s “When Hope and History Rhyme”: Some Thoughts on Imagination and Vocation and Joanne E. Myers’s From Career Paths to Communications Circuits: Vocation and Book History.
Kerry Hasler-Brooks is an associate professor of English at Messiah University, where she also serves as chair of the Language, Literature and Writing Department and the Gender Concerns Committee. Her essay “Antiracism as Vocational Practice: Reading with Alice Walker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Edwidge Danticat” appears in Cultivating Vocation in Literary Studies, and her current project on imagination as part of vocational preparation is supported by a NetVUE Grant for Reframing the Institutional Saga. For other posts by Kerry, click here.