Public Square

Is Vocation the Key to Revitalizing Higher Education?

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American colleges and universities are in trouble, according to sociology professor Tim Clydesdale.

Tuition is increasing at “twice the rate of inflation,” leaving many emerging graduates in serious debt. Yet these same graduates who paid so much money for a degree “lack basic academic skills” and are “lost in transition,” taking longer than expected to get a job.

In the face of such poor return on investment, “America’s public and its many populist pundits… blame higher education for overpriced and inadequate training of students.”

Additionally, higher education in many cases seems to have been gutted of its greatest ideal as an endeavor where students pursue learning for its own sake:

For the vast majority of the nation’s undergraduates, college is a four- to six-year hazing they call “meeting degree requirements,” endured because graduates presumably obtain comfortable and secure incomes… The pressure on higher education to prioritize workforce preparation has never been greater.

What’s to be done about this slew of problems?

The Necessity of Exploring Vocation on Campus

There is probably no single strategy that can turn around higher education all on its own, but there is one in particular that Clydesdale champions in The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation as a way to improve students’ prospects after graduation – the exploration of vocation on campus:

When colleges and universities meaningfully engage… with students about questions of purpose, the result is a rise in overall campus engagement and recalibration of post-college trajectories that set graduates on journeys of significance and impact.

Clydesdale argues that when campuses implement programs to encourage students to seriously consider questions like “What gifts and strengths do I have that I enjoy using?” and “How can I use those gifts to make the world a better place,” they are more likely to become “broadly skilled [and] thoughtfully engaged” after graduation.

Clydesdale reached this conclusion by seeing the effects of such programs himself. The entire book is actually a study of an initiative by Lilly Endowment Inc., the ninth largest philanthropic foundation in the United States and the fifteenth largest in the world.

The purpose of the initiative, known as Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation (PTEV), was to

[Invite] church-affiliated colleges and universities to develop programming that would foster campus conversations about questions of meaning and purpose, and in particular their religious underpinnings, which is the theology of vocation.

According to a web-based survey that was part of Clydesdale’s study—with 1,340 respondents from nine of the eighty-eight participating campuses—84 percent:

Confirmed that discussion, reflection, or reading about purpose or vocation had been personally “helpful” or “very helpful,” and 74 percent reported that they had a faculty or staff adviser with whom they had valuable “conversations about my vocation, calling, or purpose.”

So it appears that discussing vocation on campuses has a positive effect on students. Sounds great, but there is a wrinkle in this story.

Does Religious Affiliation Matter?

Many of the participating campuses were only historically (as opposed to actively) affiliated with Christianity.

This means that explorations of “purpose”, to use a less spiritually charged word adopted by many programs, were considered helpful on campuses that would have been indifferent to or even hostile toward a more explicitly theological approach.

Minimizing the spiritual or theological element of vocation was an option for campuses in the first place because, despite the above description of the initiative calling for “campus conversations about questions of meaning and purpose, and in particular their religious underpinnings [emphasis added],” Clydesdale writes that Craig Dykstra—then vice president of the religion division of Lilly Endowment—said this to the participating campus program directors:

What does Lilly mean by “theological exploration of vocation”? The honest answer to the question is this: we don’t exactly know. That is what we hope you will figure out [emphasis in original].

Program directors had a great deal of leeway to emphasize or downplay the theological nature of vocation, in accordance with what would best fit campus culture.

This raises the question: is it feasible to speak of vocation without invoking the divine?

Clydesdale certainly thinks so:

Campus conversations about purpose do not, of course, require engagement of theology or spirituality. Two scholars report positive results from nonreligious examination of meaning and purpose by college students, and I encountered many individuals during this project who held positive and resolutely nonreligious perspectives on meaning and purpose.

This is not to say that the only options are demanding adherence to a Christian view of vocation and disregarding the realm of spirituality entirely. Clydesdale writes that the most successful programs were based on a particular religious tradition without excluding those outside the tradition:

Campuses can spawn creative, intellectually engaged, and pluralistically respectful conversations and exploration of purpose and vocation, including these concepts’ theological underpinnings, because campus citizens can learn how to tell meaning-making stories that convey particularistic origins and lessons without disrespecting other origins and lessons [emphasis in original].

Students from multiple different campus programs reported that they were helpful. Surely many of those students were not religious at all.

The Greatest Source of Resistance to Vocation on Campus

In fact, the greatest impediment to vocational exploration programs being implemented may not be skeptical students, but skeptical professors:

The chief obstacle to conversations about purpose and meaning is not their potential inclusion of particularist ideas, but professors, of whom only one in three nationally agrees that “colleges should be concerned with facilitating students’ spiritual development.”

Clydesdale writes that even the most skeptical professors were often won over by the positive outcomes, although “some continued to struggle with the cause of the program’s positive effects.”

In the end, it may be best not to worry too much about why it works and just be glad that it does work. If the PTEV initiative is any indication, vocational exploration could play a key part in rejuvenating our colleges and universities. If it leads to more students embracing a sense of purpose beyond their own material and emotional fulfillment, what can be said against that?

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