Toni Morrison and the Call to Imagine

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.

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.

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Seeking the Irrelevant

By shifting from the individual to the whole, from the relevant to the irrelevant, from the “mine” to the “not mine”—by replacing the question “Who are you?” with the questions “Who are we?” and “Who can we be?”—we experienced a sense of community well beyond the walls of our classroom that relieved the isolation and the pressure for a few moments, which was profound.

I spent much of the past month reading essays by Marilynne Robinson with a small group of first-year undergraduate students. By way of the essays in When I Was a Child I Read Books, we talked about Moses, John Calvin, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson; we explored questions of character, virtue, beauty, community, and the soul; and we worked hard—very, very hard at times—just to understand Robinson’s prose let alone to care about or enjoy her bold attachment for such long-dead and seemingly irrelevant things.

And yet, as Robinson says of her own early reading life, which was filled with books on Carthage, Constantinople, and the Cromwell revolution, “relevance was precisely not an issue” (85). Robinson describes reading as a way to roam meditatively and unassumingly through far-away stories, histories, experiences, and ideas, regardless of whether or not they were, in Robinson’s terms, “mine” or “not mine.” In fact, reading and meditating on the irrelevant became a way for Robinson to decenter herself, to dissolve herself, and to roam freely and joyfully away from herself and toward what might be called the “cosmic.”  

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