Early in her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama shares questions that she had asked herself in a journal she kept throughout her twenties. After working hard and dutifully climbing an educational and professional ladder through Princeton and into a leadership role at a highly regarded Chicago law firm, she realized: “I hated being a lawyer. I wasn’t suited to the work. I felt empty doing it, even if I was plenty good at it.”
At the same time, she was newly in love with a man whose personality became a powerful presence in her life:
“I was deeply, delightfully in love with a guy whose forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing mine. … I wasn’t going to get out of its path – I was too committed to Barack by then, too in love – but I did need to quickly anchor myself on two feet.”
Enter the journaled reflections of a twenty-something Michelle Robinson:
“One, I feel very confused about where I want my life to go. What kind of person do I want to be? How do I want to contribute to the world? Two, I am getting very serious in my relationship with Barack and I feel that I need to get a better handle on myself.”
As my colleague David Cunningham has already discussed, a comment made at the November 10 Presidential debate brought many things into question: “I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”
David mention the ongoing conversation about the factually incorrect part of the statement (who makes more money) and the grammatical error (less v. fewer). He also considered how this particular use of the word vocation continues to inform much public discourse:
“The last two decades have seen huge changes in the language of vocation, such that — in the world of higher education, at least — the phrase ‘vocational education’ is no longer so frequently used when referring to trade-school training for work such as welding, cooking, or diesel mechanics. But as this candidate’s comment suggests, that usage is still very common in the larger political and cultural realm.”
What I’d like to add to the discussion is this: Finding your life’s work isn’t just about finding the job in which you will make the most money. (Here, I bracket the fight to raise the minimum wage and the gendered struggle for equal pay for another conversation.) In addition, your vocation includes more than just your job. Discussion about vocation as a frame for working with students in higher education continue to circle back to this: We want to help students to discover their callings. Or their purpose, passion, goals for shaping a meaningful life. As David said, this is the language that has currency in many places where “vocation” still doesn’t quite translate in the way we might intend it to.
So what if welders don’t make as much money as philosophers? We need welders who are dedicated to their craft to help build a strong infrastructure in our communities. We also need philosophers skilled at the art of logic and critique, teachers with strategy and patience to manage a classroom of eight-year-olds, and entrepreneurs to create products and services that improve our health.
We need people whose goals include doing work that matters, doing it well, and contributing toward the well-being of our communities. And we need conversation about what all of that means.
What we don’t need is more people whose only goal is making as much money as possible!
In leading faculty and staff workshops on vocation at the NetVUE campuses of Illinois College and Carthage College, I have used this short video to spark conversation. Although the video definitely broadens the scope of vocation beyond specifically theological callings, it does make explicit references to God and to Jesus (it was produced by the Fund for Theological Education). This is always a delicate balance. Continue reading →
“Malcolm, you ought to be thinking about a career. Have you been giving it thought?” …
“Well, yes, sir, I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.” Lansing certainly had no Negro lawyers – or doctors either – in those days, to hold up an image I might have aspired to. …
Mr. Ostrowski looked surprised, I remember, and leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head. He kind of half-smiled and said, “Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a n—-. A lawyer – that’s no realistic goal for a n—-.” …
It was then that I began to change – inside.
~ The Autobiography of Malcolm X
The exchange between young Malcolm and his teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, encapsulates the tremendous influence of social and political systems on our daily and mundane interactions with each other. What a young person thinks that she or he can become is overwhelmingly shaped by Continue reading →