Learning and Living Through Awe

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In his recent article in Christian Scholar’s Review, Paul Waddell suggests that every human being is called to live wisely and well. In practical terms, responding to this shared calling means becoming “skillfully attuned, each day, to the myriad ways in which we are summoned out of ourselves in response to the beauty, loveliness, and goodness of the created order—as well as in response to its suffering and affliction.” To me, this sounds at once true, simple, and utterly countercultural, as perhaps simple and true things often are.  

Waddell’s account of growth in wisdom certainly runs counter to what many people these days expect a college education to accomplish. Professors and university administrators are asked by pundits, legislators, parents, and prospective students about placement rates, career-readiness, and trending programs, but not very often about what it means to live well. I personally can’t recall any conversations in which outsiders to the university have asked me if we give students the capacity to be skillfully attuned to beauty and suffering. And the truth is that in an atmosphere of precarity, many of us might prefer simply to focus on “giving them what they want,” which seems to be a clear and comfortable path to a lucrative credential.

Except that we do still talk about learning, and I want to propose that the necessary connection between learning and awe is the reason that college still can and should produce the kind of attunement to calling that Waddell talks about. In fact, if we do learning right, it must at least potentially give students the capacity for living wisely and well.

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Embracing Uncertainty: Parallels Between the Scientific Method and Vocational Discernment

(Austin) I recently hosted a career panel for our science majors at my college. During this panel, students had the opportunity to hear from fantastic individuals who were doing exciting and fulfilling work in careers like healthcare diagnostics, pharmaceutical management, and biotech research and development. The students heard compelling stories about the winding and fortuitous journeys that led the panelists to their current vocations. Since the panelists were alumni of the college and had been in the same position as my students a decade ago, I was excited about how current students might gain confidence in pursuit of their own unique and creative paths.

After the panel, I held a feedback session for my students. I anticipated their excitement about potential careers and where they might be called. However, they seemed more nervously overwhelmed than awestruck. The sentiment in the room was summarized by a student who said,

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The Pandemic Mirror

These days, we barely recognize our lives: teleconferencing in sweat pants, teaching skeletal versions of our classes, socializing and exercising only through screens. Yet in some ways the pandemic is a mirror in which we and our communities are reflected with vivid, urgent clarity. We know what matters now, in our teaching and our friendships, our families, in the places we live. We know what matters to our leaders: we see politics playing out with stark and immediate consequences. We see the usually opaque mechanisms of access, equity, race and privilege made visible in who gets tested, who gets care, who gets sick and who dies. We are watching ourselves rise to the occasion, so many of us voluntarily exceeding the directives of our mayors, governors and president. We are seeing what remains when so much is swept away.

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Daunting Freedom, Paralyzing Fears

One of the most dramatic features of the late modern period (which to historians means anything after about 1790) is that everything about where you will live and what kind of work you will do and who you are likely to meet and marry was no longer decided by the time you were born. As the myriad changes in the technology of production collectively constituting the Industrial Revolution produced in turn momentous shifts in geographical, political and familial organization, suddenly people no longer simply inherited their place on the planet and their place and role in a community from their parents. More than two centuries downstream, we take all this for granted, but of course in the grand sweep of human experience across millennia, it’s really pretty much a recent innovation.

The good news is that, to a significant extent, if you are born in the US or Canada, in Western Europe and in increasing portions of Eastern Europe, as well as in many other arenas of relative affluence and stability around the globe, you are largely free to choose your life: where you want to live, what kind of work you want to do, whether and whom you want to marry or whether to have a family at all. In short, you can decide who and what you want to be when you grow up. (This remains true in general despite all the ways access to various life paths and indeed to freedom of choice itself is filtered and limited by economic resources, ethnicity and social class in America as elsewhere, despite our denials. Social mobility and the liberty it offers is not by any means unqualified or universal, but it is real, and historically unprecedented.)

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