The Change a Difference Makes

Do you remember the Sesame Street tune, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things does not belong…”? There would be some collection of objects displayed on the television screen—say a variety of fruits and a glass of milk—and children would intuit the unnamed category. This is how we learn; we make meaning by understanding difference. When we move from grouping foods or shapes to thinking about human beings, however, the phrase “one of these things does not belong” becomes problematic. Why do our brains see people who are different from us as if they don’t belong?

[Click here for the history and variations of this song from Sesame Street].

What if we were asked instead to examine a range of wildly different objects, and discern what binds them together, or imagine how they might be utilized creatively so that their cumulative capacities could accomplish something grand?

None of these things is quite like the other

Yet each of these things surely does belong

Can you figure out how they might work together

By the time I finish my song?

Continue reading

Please steal this assignment.

As I discussed in a previous post, while we rarely use the word “vocation” among our students at Blackburn, vocation nevertheless stands as a General Education Program Student Learning Outcome. Each semester, I teach two courses that fit within this outcome, and I love it. I constantly tinker with the content of these classes to try to find one more reading, one more tool, or one more high impact moment to reach students and help them more deeply engage in the mystery of their personal calling. In this post, I want to share my very best assignment, the one that has proven to prompt the most growth for the most students the most quickly. I share it here for two reasons. First, I encourage you to steal it and use it with your students if you think it could work for you as well as it has for me. Second, I want to explain it as an exercise in stating some of the reasons I believe it has been so effective.  Continue reading

“Learning to Do it Well:” Life, Love and Work in Middlemarch

Middlemarch was published serially over twelve months from 1871-1872

George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch was published nearly 150 years ago, in 8 installments from December 1871 to December 1872. Victorian readers would have had plenty of time to speculate on the characters’ decisions and lives as they awaited the next chapters to be published.  Waiting, you see, was part of serialized reading.

Taking a year to read a novel is an elusive experience for contemporary life centered on binge watching serial television or listening to episodic podcasts.  Immersion has its place, certainly, in a world that is fragmented and demanding, but reading over a period of time affords insight and transformation that compressed immersion does not.

“What is the quality of your waiting?” I once heard a spiritual leader ask.  Academic calendars don’t encourage waiting but our vocational discernment clocks, which should be set for a longer, more deliberate reflection, can. The quality of our waiting can allow us to respond with purpose.

Middlemarch is a novel about vocation—some might even argue, the novel about vocation. It portrays life slowly unfolding before us. Many have seen the novel as a guide to deliberating a professional path, to navigating adulthood, to choosing a marriage partner, to surviving small-town life. More broadly, a recent BBC poll ranked Middlemarch as the greatest British novelContinue reading

Advising for Vocation: Ten Touchstones

In March 2018, Hannah Schell discussed the great promise and deep challenges of incorporating vocational exploration into the fabric of academic advising. In this current post, I will pick up where she left off. Many of our NetVUE member institutions have seen the potential for vocational reflection in student advising that Schell discusses. Many, too, are exploring effective frameworks for sustaining programs which do this consistently and effectively. Lots of us are trying to figure out how to do this well. Here I want to address both the promises and the challenges of incorporating vocation into student advising by offering a list of touchstones. Continue reading

Personal Branding

“Branders” hold themselves accountable to the vision of their projected self.

GenZ and Millennials spend a fair amount of energy cultivating a personal brand. It is sculpted out of consumer choices, Instagram photos, Facebook profiles, clubs, causes, stickers, Spotify Wrapped reports and more. Some of these elements seem cosmetic—what they post on social media or paste on the back of their laptops. Others clearly represent their personality, passions and commitments. Cumulatively, however, they are more than a digital avatar or aspirational identity. They suggest vocation.

Through their personal brand, individuals consider the implications of their choices. The process is not driven primarily by what makes them seem cool or popular; instead, it reflects their values and becomes the source of their power. Purchases have become less about status, for instance, and more about messaging. That’s why Nike sales spiked after it ran the ad with Colin Kaepernick and the motto, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Continue reading

The Massacre Generation

The annual “Mindset” list is an attempt to capture the milieu of the incoming class, offered to faculty and staff as a tool for understanding the new students arriving on campus. The class of 2022, we are told in this year’s list, have always been able to refer to Wikipedia and have lived in a world where same-sex marriage is legal somewhere. The world they know does not include Enron but has always included a vehicle known as a Prius and a television show called Survivor. Most of the 60 factoids on the list are light-hearted, referring to popular culture and some to political events.

But there, at number 4, is an item one could easily miss if breezing through the list. Nestled between the observation about Wikipedia and an image of people appearing to “talk to themselves” in public, is this statement: “They have grown up afraid that a shooting could happen at their school, too.”

A vigil in Parkland, Fla., after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

The class of 2022 has lived in a world where mass shootings are recurring events. They have lived with a fear that it could happen to them at any time. Continue reading

Back to the Future III: Does the Future Belong to Smart Machines?

In this series of posts, I have been exploring how the future figures into vocational discernment. So far, my explorations have been more philosophical in nature as I have pondered the “prolepsis of vocation” and the importance of Aristotle’s notion of “Becoming.” In this post, I briefly consider how technology will increasingly affect such ponderings.

According to a growing number of analysts, we are on the verge of a technological tsunami that will change the world in ways comparable to what happened during the Industrial Revolution. As late as 1850, more than 90 percent of the humans on earth were still rural peasant farmers, but within a few turbulent decades those realities were overturned. Technological developments such as machine tools, the steam engine, railroads, and the telegraph (and the factories, sociopolitical systems, and capitalist financiers who enabled it all) thrust our traditional agricultural world toward industrial urbanized modernity.

Now more than half of the planet’s population lives in cities and everyone experiences global conditions that would have been unimaginable in 1850. In effect, the Industrial Revolution mobilized a blend of modern forces that changed the world: It changed where we live, what we do, how we interact with each other, how we think and relate to the cosmos, how we plan, dream, and educate our young. We can debate whether to interpret the revolution more in terms of progress or alienation, but it is impossible to deny its significance. [For more on the global implications of some of these developments, see Bren Tooley’s essay, “Vocation in A Global Frame.” – ed.]

And if the analysts are correct, a new and even more dramatic revolution is about to crest.

Reports out of Oxford University and the Bank of England project that, in the next few decades, nearly 50 percent of U.S. jobs will be replaced by “smart machines” displacing up to 80 million American workers. They also assert that the impact will be felt across a wide spectrum of professions especially as smart machines are increasingly able to perform non-routine cognitive tasks. Books like Jerry Kaplan’s Humans Need Not Apply (Yale, 2015) and Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books, 2016) analyze the employment threats from different angles, and Yuval Noah Harari’s provocative book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Harper, 2018) explores the broader philosophical and historical implications. (Harari’s thesis could be a topic for future post).

In terms of employment, this Automation Revolution is already creating new opportunities and jobs as the Industrial Revolution did previously. Some optimists think that the emerging transformations will produce positive results that outpace the challenges so that we will actually witness a huge leap forward in human progress and global improvement. They consider the fearful alarms to be Luddite hysteria stirred up by late-modern Chicken Littles.

But a growing consensus is not so optimistic. At the very least, despite remarkable advancements during the last few centuries, we must appreciate the global disruptions and chaos generated by the Industrial Revolution. It seems likely that we, our children, and grandchildren will soon have to navigate disruptions on an even bigger scale. In other words, the mounting Automation Revolution and all the technological, sociopolitical, and economic restructuring that it is already generating will affect everyone.

We will have to cultivate new virtues.

In Humility is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler, 2017), Edward Hess and Katherine Ludwig assert that the emerging world requires us to transition from the “Old Smart” to the “New Smart.” The Old Smart is the industrial era’s emphasis on quantitative skills which smart machines increasingly perform in superior ways. The New Smart emphasizes qualitative capacities such as emotional engagement, critical and innovative thinking, intellectual and artistic creativity, self-awareness and introspection, compassion and dialogical collaboration. The New Smart is less about information access and more about processing and prioritizing the deluge of information we now experience. Hess and Ludwig broadly characterize these new capacities with the notion of “humility” which they correlate with lifelong learning, open-mindedness, and adaptive agility.

All said, it seems that the best way to prepare for the approaching tsunami is to nurture the most human of capacities especially among the rising generations. As such, NetVUE’s emphasis on vocation in undergraduate education as organic, realistic, embodied, narratively-based, communally-oriented processes is not just thought-provoking, it is critical for the future.

John D. Barton is Director of the Center for Faith and Learning at Pepperdine University where he also serves on the faculties of Seaver College’s Religion and Philosophy Division and the GSEP’s graduate program in Social Entrepreneurship and Change. His areas of interest and research include African philosophy, ethics and philanthropy, and inter-religious dialogue.