Confucian Metaphors for Discerning Meaning

For those of us who care about guiding students along the path to finding meaning in their lives and work, it seems obvious why a person would want to find such a path. Unfortunately, a big part of that guidance is just convincing students that striving for “meaning” is worthwhile in the first place. That’s because to discern a more meaningful way of life, you must be willing to admit that some ways of life are not as meaningful, and thus not worth pursuing. Even more complicated yet, the ones most worth pursuing will almost certainly require accepting unpleasantness and constraint. Job number one in vocational discernment is identifying why you should even care to “aim higher.” Some metaphors from the early Confucian thinker Mencius (or Mengzi. who would have understood himself as a Ruist rather than as a Confucian) are helpful in working through this problem with students.

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Knowledge, Love, and the Meaning of Life

Drawing of Hayden White
Drawing of Hayden White by A.E. Kieren for The Chronicle of Higher Education

I suspect that anyone involved with the teaching of undergraduates will appreciate this interview (from 2008, but heretofore unpublished) with the historian Hayden White, who died last year.  I encountered White’s work in graduate school, when his Metahistory changed the way I thought about scholarship. In this interview, practically every response he offers contains multiple gems of insight, and those who are interested in helping students with matters of vocational exploration and discernment may find his thoughts quite inspiring. In addition, those readers who work at liberal arts institutions may be particularly interested in the person whom White considers to be the greatest teacher of all time.

Robert Pogue Harrison, who introduces the interview for the Chronicle, notes that “As departments shutter and enrollments plummet, White’s thoughts on professionalism, vocation, and love are more relevant than ever.”

The interview can be found here. It may be behind a firewall, but most academic institutions subscribe to the Chronicle and their libraries can provide access for anyone who hits a roadblock.

I hope others find this short interview as inspiring and enlightening as I did!

Happiness and fulfillment

Reading applications for prestigious scholarships gives the author hope but also raises some questions about how we understand a “meaningful and fulfilling life.”

In December I participated in a national review of applications to a prestigious post-graduate fellowship. The review process was enjoyable, even exhilarating, as my team read and reflected upon beautifully crafted essays, thoughtful letters of recommendation, and staggeringly extensive records of accomplishment, leadership and service. The applications increased my hope for the future. With students like these coming out of our colleges and universities, seeking continuing opportunities for growth and giving, there’s good in the world.

And yet. The wisely mentored, academically successful lives of outstanding students, with their impressive profiles of study, service, travel, internships and leadership, prompt in me both admiration and weariness, and some skepticism about the ways in which we value “meaningful and fulfilling work” as something one can prepare for and deliberately seek out.

Do we know what will be meaningful before we choose it? Is meaning sometimes (perhaps often) conferred more in retrospect than in design? What happens when work isn’t where a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment reside? At what point(s) do we take stock, try to determine what is meaningful, what is fulfilling? And what do people do who have few resources with which to respond to the injunction to pursue a meaningful life?

It got me thinking about the difference between happiness and fulfillment.

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Pomp & Circumstance

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https://www.theodysseyonline.com/graduation-speech-for-college-graduates

May is the season for commencement addresses, a genre of writing often marked by platitudes and clichés, personal anecdotes that are of questionable relevance, and hyperbole about the significance of this historical moment or the potential of this year’s graduating class. As people tied to the rhythms and rituals of the academic year, over the span of a career we are exposed to dozens of such speeches. Since most graduation speeches are utterly forgettable, it’s difficult not to become somewhat cynical about them. And yet, they often touch upon important messages about vocation, and so it’s worthwhile to stop and think about the genre and function of the graduation speech. Continue reading