Hope, History, and the Redress of Vocation

What Seamus Heaney’s “The Redress of Poetry” can teach us about rhyming vocation with our historical moment

When Joe Biden recently quoted Seamus Heaney’s famous exhortation to “make hope and history rhyme,” scores of subsequent articles commented on the fondness of Biden and other world leaders, writers, and activists for quoting this succinct and compelling civic calling that has echoed from the fall of Troy into the 21st century. As Biden’s speech sent Heaney’s call to visionary civic engagement trending on social media, I went back to Heaney’s 1995 essay “The Redress of Poetry,” a delightful, accessible, and wise essay first delivered as an Oxford lecture, that thinks through poetry’s purpose and the competing artistic and social obligations that the calling of poet enjoins upon those who answer it. As I read, I simply substituted “vocation” for “poetry,” and I came away convinced that Heaney has much to teach myself and my students about rhyming our vocations with our historical moment.

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Seeking Moral Clarity in a Time of Epistemic Confusion

Really, is there value in reserving judgment in critical times—like ours? The very fact we speak of crises signals the urgency of making up our minds. Over the course of three previous posts, I have described, analyzed, and praised as a virtue the capability of “Still Deciding.” But I make myself impatient. What more am I waiting for—while the meaning of our common life is at stake now?

Mural depicting Hannah Arendt near her birthplace in Hanover (Wikimedia Commons).

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Clarity of mission

In a week when thousands of Americans took to the streets in protest, two essays about the state of higher education used provocative, poster-worthy questions for their titles. The problem with rhetorical questions is that they can have the effect of smugly shutting down a conversation. These two essays, however, have the opposite effect: they open up the set of concerns and direct us to think carefully about how we want to proceed. Both, in their own way, call us back to a sense of institutional mission.

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Why go to college?

Why do young people go to college? In a short piece in Inside HigherEd this week entitled “A Not-So-Tidy Narrative,” Michael Horn and Bob Moesta share some of their findings, which were published this past fall in Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life (Jossey-Bass, 2019). The book explores the constellation (and complexity) of reasons that prospective students choose the college they do, and serves as a good reminder that it is about much more than “getting a job.”

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Making hard choices: the importance of deciding, not deferring

One of the most interesting parts of working with college students is the palpable potential of a future unknown. Anticipation of what is still to come is often innate in many students seeking their liberal arts and professional degrees.  With that can come a great deal of uncertainty, but also there are wonderful opportunities to use decisions for the realization of that unknown future. Yet, I have noticed sometimes students seek a “solution” to hard decisions by finding a way to say yes to everything. They defer decision-making for as long as they can. And I have noticed that my own skepticism regarding this tendency to try to “do it all” has become stronger over the years, leading me to wonder if I should take a more firm stance, pushing them to make the hard choices.   

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