William M. Sullivan’s book, Liberal Learning as a Quest for Purpose (Oxford University Press, 2016), explores how vocation and exploring life’s purpose can be a part of the American undergraduate experience. His work illuminates the ways in which different institutions have sought to integrate these themes into liberal education, with the assistance of the Lilly Endowment’s Program on the Theological Exploration of Vocation. He recently sat down with Betsy Johnson-Miller for this interview to discuss his findings.
Your book examines a different model of higher education—one that highlights the successes of colleges and universities that have asked students to consider issues of vocation. Why is this approach successful?
The focus on developing life purpose through the exploration of vocation has turned out to be a highly effective approach to enabling students to take a proactive stance toward their learning. This is because taking vocation into consideration encourages students to explore how large-scale contexts in the world, and future possibilities it offers, can intersect with their current concerns and immediate relationships. This is a process of personal discernment. It takes time, and it often proceeds unevenly. That is why the exploration of vocation works best within communities of learning, including faculty and staff as well as students, all of whom are committed to such exploration.
For example, students’ reluctance to invest themselves seriously in their academic learning – often doing just enough to get by so as to stay in college for the social opportunities it offers – has been noted and deplored for decades. However, few other efforts can rival the ability of vocational exploration to “move the needle” of student engagement in learning in a positive direction. It is not hard to see why.
Once students discover a meaningful set of goals for living, the value of developing their abilities and discovering new knowledge becomes vividly clear – and often compelling. That is a key reason that the Lilly Endowment’s Program for the Theological Exploration of Vocation, or PTEV, produced outstanding results on so many campuses. It enabled students to take possession of their lives, so that they could think both critically and imaginatively about their aims and commitments. Claiming a larger purpose allowed them to become full participants in their education.
Can you give us one or two examples of how current ways of thinking about higher education are deficient? What do these ways of thinking about higher education miss?
During this presidential election year, when the goals and purposes of a college education come up, the candidates’ answers typically reiterate a contemporary commonplace: higher education is for getting a job. Questions about costs and who should gain access to degree programs are taken seriously, but the larger question of the purpose of higher education is taken as already decided. The social function of college is said to be the upgrading and certifying of work skills. The educational objective of students is to be ready for the workforce. Period. Given that assumption it is consistent, then, to argue, as some have, that while the nation needs more welders, educating philosophers is a waste of resources. In the same vein, state legislators have debated whether students so irresponsible as to major in the humanities should be granted financial aid.
These are extreme views. However, like other extreme expressions in our current political situation, they point to an underlying current of opinion that is less extreme but broadly held: the notion that today’s economic circumstances, which have turned work and career into highly precarious endeavors, while at the same time made society dramatically less equal, require restricting the very idea of college learning to providing a boost into the job market. As all parents, most students, and many faculty realize, job-relevant knowledge and skills really are essential, and networking is a key to a success in all fields, but especially given the unsteady state of our economic and social reality, achieving these goals does not – and certainly should not – exhaust the meaning of “higher” education.
Recognizing the limitations of this narrow agenda, others, especially from within higher education, have countered with the claim that college has value because it teaches the skills of “critical thinking.” These are cognitive capacities believed necessary for success in the best-rewarded and most sought-after occupations, from high technology industries to financial services. While these abilities, which evidence shows can be substantially enhanced by college education, are undoubtedly important, an exclusive focus on the training of critical thinkers also fails to articulate all, or even the most important things college is about.
Those greater goals of learning are the ones long associated with the idea of liberal education. In essence, liberal education means enabling students to be able to make sense of the world and themselves— to enable them to use knowledge and skill in order to engage responsibly with the life of their times. In concrete terms, this entails developing oneself through finding meaning and purpose through the intellectual exploration and social experiences college offers. This is the dimension of higher learning that the current push toward workforce preparation, but also the focus on critical thinking alone, continue to miss.
The schools you studied were more deliberate in helping students discover a life’s purpose. In what ways did they connect a student’s serious academic effort with emotional, social, and practical relevance? Why is it important to connect those things?
As I’ve noted, it is clear how grasping the relevance of knowledge and skills for achieving life goals creates a virtuous cycle of intrinsic motivation for learning. An interesting feature of the PTEV on some campuses was the inclusion of various forms of non-classroom, “experiential” learning, such as service learning, internships, and the like. These pedagogies, when done effectively, are able to show, rather than merely to tell, how ideas matter in practice. One of the problems with a focus on critical thinking that does not attend to the social and emotional aspects tied to learning concepts is that it tends to convey meanings in an inert or abstract form. By contrast, attending explicitly to the human meaning of ideas in specific social contexts can have a galvanizing effect for students.
For example, students in some of the campus vocation programs engaged in courses in which the pedagogies of service learning were used to give reality to concepts of human dignity, human rights, and solidarity. In those courses, students were enabled to make contact with marginalized, displaced, or suffering groups such as recent immigrants or groups struggling with serious problems in our own and other societies. The empathic connections developed in these encounters became the practical catalysts for student reflection and self-reflection that opened up new kinds of awareness for many of the students who took part. In some cases, these experiences gave direct impetus toward students’ choice of academic concentration and even vocational choice
You use the metaphor of apprenticeship in the book. What might apprenticeship look like in higher education, practically speaking, and what difference would that make to the conversation about vocation?
The key notion behind the metaphor of learning as apprenticeship is that all learning is both an active and an inherently social process. Even when studying alone – and much intellectual development requires intensive training of individual attention, memory, and consciousness – we are always participating in some real, virtual, or imagined community. These knowledge communities, like the communities of those who play a sport, make music, or dance, depend, upon key shared practices. These goals and rules of these practices set the terms for engagement and self-development for participants. Research makes it clear just how much not only skill, but human motivation as well, depends upon gaining the affirmation from trusted others that comes from involvement in communities of practice. In college, this means first of all the faculty, but also more advanced students.
Motivation to learn is a largely a function of wanting to join a learning community – sharing a practice, an identity, a status, a common purpose – that only those who share those practices can enjoy. Turning a vague, possible interest into desire, and then commitment, depends upon being able to perceive oneself as a member of such a community. That self-understanding is itself a social act worked out between the individual and members of the community. It finally depends upon the positive recognition and empathic communication of others who recognize each other as valuable members of their community of practice.
So, apprenticeship is a good metaphor for describing learning. It highlights the participatory dimension of how we all learn to play games, become good at a skill, or acquire expertise of any kind. The key educational challenge is to structure the social context and the pedagogical practices to support and encourage the movement of novices along the often exacting path toward competence and finally expertise in a specific area. And that requires the full and reflective involvement typical of good coaches, mentors – and educators.
You mention the idea of “grit,” something I’ve been hearing about more and more recently. What is it, and why is it something to cultivate in higher education?
You are right about “grit” as something you are hearing about more and more. It is a general marker for the set of virtues that our increasingly demanding and competitive, yet fluid and unstable, social world demands. It denotes the tough side of character, comprising what Adam Smith called the “awful” or “respectable” as opposed to the “amiable” virtues – those capacities that typically incite respect and admiration. These are the virtues that make it possible to maintain energy, commitment, and direction, even with uncertain support from uncaring or hostile others, and in the face of discouragement and failure. So, grit is a very valuable capacity in any age, but perhaps more so in today’s highly competitive and unequal America. The issue isn’t whether developing self-control, long-term commitment, and perseverance are necessary for success (or survival). The question is how to do so.
There is considerable evidence from psychological research that developing purpose and strong motives for commitment is the most significant factor in the fostering of grit. This was, in effect, the approach of the PTEV. The key was the employment of the idea and the theology of vocation. The use of the Christian language of calling provided, through the various forms that were given it by the specific theological tradition of particular campuses, a climate that supported exploration of questions of value and purposes beyond the self.
This proved resonant for students and educators, both across Christian traditions and beyond Christianity, including purely secular forms of humanism. In some cases it gave rise to new and constructive campus conversations about religion and secularity in undergraduate life and learning. Throughout the programs, these reflective activities led participants to cultivate a stance of engaged reflection. It was the focus on meaning, as interpreted through the lens of vocation that brought reflection into prominence, and so conferred new vitality on a central theme of liberal learning.
Let me sum up how the idea of vocation worked by saying that the campus communities of learning that I visited, and report on in the book, encouraged students five things to do five things.
First, to explore their individual talents and interests, now reframed as “gifts” to develop and employ, typically within a learning community concerned with vocational themes. Second, to explore the world of knowledge through various intellectual disciplines and perspectives. Students often did this in relation to either possibilities for careers related to students’ interests and concerns or to needs and hopes for the larger world. Third, to frame these explorations as a process of finding oneself through personally chosen participation with a larger purpose. In theological terms that purpose was seeking the kingdom of God. This moral logic was also articulated in secular terms as participation in citizenship and shared responsibility for the welfare of humanity and its environment. Fourth, to expand their imaginations and develop empathy for others, with the intent to shift self-concern toward seeking fulfillment in service to others, a process typically supported by the campus learning community. Fifth, to consider a variety of examples of lives committed to purposes, secular as well as religious, that could provide plausible possibilities for probing and debate, including encounters with mistakes, failure, and suffering.
This educational agenda gave the PTEV programs their distinctive form and spirit, across the range of specific programs with their different emphases. It invested the exploration of purpose with both a deeper, religious significance and provided access to a rich variety of concrete examples and experiences through which individual students could work out and test their own sense of calling.
Could thinking about vocation and work leave some people feeling paralyzed—as if they have to find the perfect job, or as if they can only take jobs that make an obvious difference in the world?
In fact, it didn’t. The reason is that the way vocation was articulated and developed in the PTEV worked in the opposite direction. Rather than heightening students’ anxieties over getting it right the first time or overwhelming students with options, the campus learning communities taught students how to engage with the big questions through a continual practice of imagining, exploring, and reflecting about meaning and purpose in smaller, less decisive contexts, while keeping the larger ends in view. You might say they taught rules of engagement for living.
In writing this book, is there something—a conversation, an experience, an insight—that really stayed with you?
The book is full of first-hand testimony from the many interviews and discussions I had with students, faculty, staff, and administrators on many campuses. The big impact on me was realizing how much variety there was among the campus communities that the Lilly vocation initiative spawned and that at the same time there was a shared energy and purpose coursing through them. My effort in writing the book was to try and articulate the feel of the particular people and contexts while conveying my realization that this was indeed a shared endeavor, marked by a common spirit across a range of particular embodiments.
This sort of thing—the PTEV— feels like it might work well in religious schools, but can secular institutions engage the issue of vocation?
There is no question that the vocation initiative was so successful because it was grounded in a theological orientation and religious faith that was broadly shared, even with lots of particular variation. Vocation as it has developed in the Christian tradition is a distinctive and finally unique way of approaching life purpose and meaning.
However, it has analogies in other religious traditions. Moreover, it has important analogies in the larger secular world of American higher education. I tried to show some of these analogies by investigating movements for reshaping undergraduate learning that also emphasize students’ exploration of life purpose, framing that with reference to long-standing American ideals of citizenship and social responsibility. Even more broadly, higher education in other nations as well as the U.S. counts as an important, even essential, aspect of its heritage the philosophical quest for meaning embodied in Socrates’ famous dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Click here to purchase William M. Sullivan’s book Liberal Learning as a Quest for Purpose (Oxford University Press, 2016).