As an English teacher, I’m always attuned to language and its implications. The language of vocation tends to be a language of opportunity: to grow and flourish, to move forward, to make life-defining choices. Correspondingly, the imagery is of doors opening, of young people silhouetted against a sun-drenched landscape, their backs to us as they move forward into the radiant future. Both this language and imagery signal individualism, which is also present in my college’s exhortation to students to pursue their own “unique career path.” All this is certainly sensible: we want students to have a path to follow when they leave us, and to thrive and find fulfilment in the wider world. But in my interactions with students about the broad issue of vocational discernment, I find myself emphasizing the language not of opportunity but of constraint. Counterintuitive as it may seem, being explicit about how life choices are constrained by responsibilities to others and by factors out of our control can offer students a more robust framework for thinking about how to move forward.
Since the Lutheran mission of my college is vestigial, and since my students rarely have much formation in the concept of vocation, I don’t usually raise questions about discernment directly in the classroom. I do, however, teach a course on book history—the material lives of texts—that I have found a useful place to engage students in reflection about how they want their education and their lives to matter.Continue reading