Vocation and Universities

When my daughter went to college, within several days of arriving there she was asked what she wanted to be and told she needed to decide very quickly. Emma, age 18, was uncertain about this. In conversing with her about this, I advised her to focus on learning and pursuing what she found interesting. This is pretty much what she did.

This stress on going to college to prepare for a job has become a dominant topic for discussion and debate, sometimes contentious. Job-preparedness seems to have crowded out any aspect of learning, becoming a well-educated citizen or consumer. It is why there is a fleet of books out there lamenting the demise of the humanities or explaining why the liberal arts are actually useful for career preparation. It is why politicians often lambast subjects like the Classics or the study of poetry, emphasizing that students need to be grounded in computer science, mathematics, and the sciences. This may also explain, of course, why so many politicians make hilarious and disturbing comments about topics like history and global warming.

There is an aspect of vocation, however, that it would be useful for students to be better grounded in, and that is the notion of discerning a calling. Tim Clydesdale, The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students About Vocation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015) provides a useful perspective on this issue. Clydesdale argues, “institutions of higher education, if they wish to maintain their autonomy and core structure, must undertake: intentional and systematic assistance to students in identifying talents, clarifying values, and developing the grit that will sustain them in the long path to productive, global citizenship” (p. xvi). As it turns out, what he is considering is not some sort of vocational-technical training, but a more sophisticated approach to getting students to look deep within themselves about their life aspirations and values.

This book is a detailed evaluation of the Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation, funded by the Lilly Endowment, drawing on its operation at 26 different colleges and universities, interviews with 284 students and 274 faculty and staff, and a survey of 2111 program participants. The intent is to make such an effort more effective and encourage its use at other higher education institutions. There is considerable analysis, not surprising given that Clydesdale is a sociologist, all leading to ne overarching conclusion: “There is one place . . . where colleges and universities do possess responsibility for aimless and lengthy wandering by college graduates. That place is higher education’s retreat from questions of purpose and vocation” (p. 204). Such questions must involve engaging students about religion and spiritual issues.

Some will worry about the dimension of religion in this. However, in my experience, it is critical when discussing matters like professional ethics and related concerns to ask students to relate on their own personal ethical values and these often have a religious characteristic. Codes of professional conduct have limitations, most notably the fact that most are aspirational and unenforceable. Given that, what do students, future professionals, resort to in such a void? How do they wrestle with appear to be ethical misconduct and still function?


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