In a previous post, I defended the “still deciding student” who, despite pressure to participate in a culture of assessment, for which specific, quantifiable outcomes—as simple in some cases, even, as the declaration of a major—purport to measure what it means to be educated, would still hold some measure of themselves back from subjection to the metrics of attainment.
The key to my defense is the notion that still deciding is a virtue. I am thinking about what Aristotle called a hexis (ἕξις). What is a hexis? Not, despite what the dominant tradition of interpretation in Western philosophy has said, a habit. Indeed, the identification of virtues as habits is a most unfortunate error, as the philosopher Joe Sachs has argued. For a virtue is not—cannot be—a mindless habit. Rather, a virtue is an active holding of oneself, already ready to recognize the unpredictable, yet opportune, moment for action. As such, the capacity to be still deciding is crucial to virtuous decision-making.
A number of years ago, I attended an advising presentation aimed at a group of students undecided with regard to their major. The presenter told the students a version of the following: You cannot change who you are because you are wired in certain ways, and discovering the ways you’re wired can help you choose the right major and set you on a successful career path. From there, the presenter made the students aware of the resources available to them at the institution, including career counselors and various personality and skill surveys. The presentation was well-intentioned, and some parts were even inspiring. Students who felt confused and anxious about their academic choices were encouraged by being told they had distinct skills and gifts that could provide direction, and that trained professionals were ready to help them in the discovery and planning processes.
Of course, we all want to encourage and guide students as they navigate vocational choices and opportunities. That is, after all, why NetVUE exists. But NetVUE challenges formulaic approaches and offers nuanced imagination for vocation as a journey more than a destination, as something formed rather than found, developed rather than discovered, discerned with mentors more than detected with surveys. These are important challenges and correctives.
Nevertheless, even in more nuanced presentations, there are times when one can detect some residual assumptions of the formulaic/discovery approaches. In other words, some of the language we use to describe and promote the organic processes of vocational discernment still draws on philosophical assumptions that inform and enframe formulaic approaches. That is not necessarily bad since assumptions and language can be employed in different ways. But I find it helpful to bring the issues to the surface and engage them directly. This post is my attempt to do that by briefly contrasting the philosophical outlooks of Plato and Aristotle and their implications for vocational discourse. Continue reading →