Reclaiming the higher calling of higher education

A new book encourages colleges to ask students broader questions of life and purpose

In the eyes of many, higher education has become an industry focused on a singular goal—career training—and college students these days forgo the big questions about who they are and how they can change the world.

In The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation (University Of Chicago Press, 2015), Tim Clydesdale says higher education can retain its deeper cultural role, and students can be imbued with a true sense of purpose, instead of measured by material pursuits.

Clydesdale, a professor of sociology at the College of New Jersey, uses data from programs funded by a Lilly Endowment grant to show the rich rewards produced when colleges engage students, faculty and staff in the notion of vocational callings.

What role does the Lilly Endowment play in this?

The Lilly Endowment has three divisions, one of which is religion, by which Eli Lilly meant Christianity. There had long been a connection between the best liberal arts colleges and seminaries. Just like there’s a pre-med track and a pre-law track, there was a well-established pre-clergy track.

Lily wanted to encourage liberal arts students to think about entering the ministry. They launched this “Program for the Theological Exploration of Vocation” to ask what colleges can do to encourage students particularly interested in the ministry. What is a well-lived life? What does it mean to have a sense of calling, vocation or purpose?

They invited any institution with an affiliation with religion to apply for a grant. For some, the affiliation with religion was historic only. Pretty much any institution founded in the 19th century is going to have people religiously connected with it.

But that didn’t mean that the institutions themselves were religious. Places like Grinnell College in Iowa and Occidental College in California—places that people don’t think of as religiously affiliated—also received these grants.

Words like vocation and calling could confuse people about the purpose of the program. And they certainly do. For example, the term vocation, particularly to most lay Catholics, refers to someone who is a priest or a nun. So a lot of the Catholic institutions have never even used the word vocation.

What made this more palatable for many schools was that the endowment really wanted people to simply have a conversation. It begins with, “Here are some classic ideas that have informed the tradition that this institution is connected with.

Whether it’s Saint Ignatius of Loyola or 18th century Methodist leader Charles Wesley, there were some ideas that powerfully shaped these people. What were these ideas? Let’s talk about them.”

Broad conversations are exactly what liberal arts colleges should be about. How do we think about those ideas now? What sort of relevance do they have in today’s world? How do we gain a sense of purpose or meaning in our lives? It’s a conversation that’s still important to have.

Once you realize that you are not asking people to be dogmatic at all about this, but simply to talk about some old ideas, some new ideas and a sense of purpose in life, that’s a conversation that draws a lot of people in.

You suggest that higher ed itself is largely responsible for the current state of affairs. Why did the change occur? Was it a backlash from the free thinking 1960s and ’70s?

Absolutely. For probably a century and a half, liberal arts colleges have always been about these bigger questions, but what happened in the 1960s, as institutions realized that they were becoming very white and male and privileged in their perspective, they said, “We need to be much more diverse. We need to open up access much more. We need to think more broadly.”

Then the pendulum swung to: “We’re not even going to engage questions of character formation—this ‘whole student’ idea. We’re going to let students have their private lives and we’re going to focus on the education.”

Then what increasingly filled the vacuum was the dominance of disciplines and professions. Then it became about jobs and job placements and graduate placements. That profoundly changes the tenor of the conversation.

Educating the whole student involves both faculty and staff, but often those two groups have little interaction with each other.

There’s a divide the size of the Grand Canyon on many campuses between the faculty and staff. The staff often feel like second-class citizens around the faculty because the faculty think of themselves as the real educators.

And yet, what I hear from students again and again is: “I learned far more outside of the classroom than I ever learned inside the classroom.” That’s an important slice of humble pie that the faculty need to hear, and they need to respect the staff for the educators that they are as well.

There is a common purpose to what they’re trying to do here. Faculty respect and see what the staff are doing. The staff realize that there are faculty out there who really appreciate what they are doing.

Deep down, most educators share a common set of values, but they’ve forgotten about those values. This initiative rekindles some of that interest and enthusiasm.

But you wrote that many tenure track faculty don’t participate in these programs, and some are actively discouraged by their department heads.

Right, that will happen. It depends on the institutions. The more elite an institution is, the more the junior faculty and the grad students are under pressure to grow the institution’s reputation academically. So they are told basically to get into a research scholarship focus silo and stay there, and don’t do other things beside that.

Faculty can be self-policing in that way, which is sad. They’ll say, “Yes, we want to be about ‘the whole person,’ but if you are on the tenure track, you are going to have to wait. Once you are tenured, then you can engage those things. But until then, you need to demonstrate that you’ve got the research chops to bring in the grants and write the publications that we’re expecting you to do.”

These programs focus on the student lifecycle, but you say they are not about retention.

On the whole, it has retention effects, but that’s not its primary thing. Instead, the program can really supercharge students and faculty and staff to connect to something that’s really important to them. And that can go in lots of interesting ways.

I recall one student who was a semester away from graduating and spent his winter break working with Mother Teresa’s organization in Calcutta. When he came back, instead of signing up for class, he moved out of his room and went back to spend another year working in Calcutta.

He ultimately did finish his degree, but he just felt that the work that he was doing there was more important than completing a degree at that time.

Some students profiled in the book were headed to lucrative careers in investment banking and so on, but the program helped them realize there’s more to life.

It’s about asking the bigger questions again. And maybe, at the end of it, investment banking is what you do. You’ve got a special talent for it, but now you are doing it perhaps for a purpose that’s different than just material acquisition. I’m not saying that certain careers are immoral or anything, but there are plenty of ways to pursue a career in a manner that is inspiring and good for the benefit of humanity.

Is the Lilly Endowment continuing this grant system?

The original program funds began to expire in 2007, but a number of the campuses that were involved wanted to continue. They had regular conferences while the initiative was in full sway, and they’d meet and swap ideas. And they wanted to continue that.

The Council of Independent Colleges stepped up with a similar program called NetVUE, which stands for Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education.

There are almost 200 member campuses at this point. They have regional conferences. They have a whole set of resources for faculty and staff about programs, about films, and discussion guides and syllabi.

The Lilly Endowment has underwritten some of these CIC efforts and funded them, and then offered some of these campuses $50,000 grants to support some initiatives—much less money than they used to give out, but it’s really starting to spread in a grassroots sort of way.

The campuses involved in NetVUE are a pretty diverse group. They are very much interested in infusing this conversation more into undergraduate education.

Tim Goral is senior editor.

Most Popular