Postmodern Conservative

Vocations and Higher Education

So I’m back to thinking about higher education.

I’ve gotten several complaints about my post below about evolutionary psychology. Someone was wondering whether it was my “Pope Francis” moment in which I was subtly repudiating Catholic teaching on the purposes of sex and marriage. Well, I don’t think our pope is actually doing that, although I will say he’s filled the air with mixed messages. But maybe he’s right in some way such that, although the truth doesn’t change, recent developments might suggest that the gift of talking about it lovingly and effectively is in short supply. I certainly don’t claim to have that gift.

My presentation of the partial wisdom found in evolutionary biology is that it offers a correction to “angelism.” Angelism is everywhere in our virtual world, but not so much with Christians. Our most extreme from of angelism is found with the transhumanists, who identify being human with pure consciousness and our future with pure freedom from the limits and direction of our biological bodies. It is found with our existentialist Supreme Court, which seems to say that we have a mysterious and unbounded freedom to define for ourselves our personal identities. It’s also found with those who reject relational (or embodied) institutional religion by living spiritually according to the god within.

A strange form of angelism is driving currents of reform in higher education in the direction of measurable competencies and techno-enthusiasm about “delivery methods.” Education is a set of skills or techniques that frees the pure being from the burdens of personal authority and the confines of place. The person is being displaced or disciplined by the screen. More about that later.

For now, I’ve started to give a little attention to one way of justifying the humanities that’s catching on a little: vocation. If you want to learn more, google the Lilly Endowment and its theorist, my old teacher (well, he wasn’t old when he taught me) William Sullivan. He was one of the authors of Habits of the Heart and follow-up publications in that project. In those days (and to an extent now), he wrote against those Americans who didn’t channel their personal aspirations in the direction of egalitarian political reform. He claimed Tocquevillle as an authority, forgetting how hostile Tocqueville was to socialism and the politicization of religion.

Being a cradle Catholic, when I think vocation, I think of the religious life. Priests and nuns don’t get married, I learned, because familial attachments would distract them from a way of life that demanded their full and constant attention.

And when I read the Apology of Socrates, I learn that Socrates was so focused on his (alleged) mission from God that he had no time for anything else. What Socrates calls work (philosophy), we call leisure. What he calls leisure (caring for your family and country), we call work, or your job.

One more thing: I once had a dentist explain to me why he was called to the vocation of dentistry. Because he was very intrusively sticking sharp stuff in my mouth, I decided not to laugh.

Truth to tell: Most of our graduates from Berry will have jobs in which they will somewhat inauthentically play “roles” for money. There’s nothing wrong with that. The alienation of the division of labor is a price worth paying for our prosperity. They can always find satisfaction in worthwhile work well done, and they shouldn’t sell their souls for a price. Some students will be lucky enough to find fulfillment or joy in their work, and love and money will occasionally be on the same page.

In our middle-class society, the goal is not usually the whole-hog dedication of Mother Teresa or Socrates, but finding balance. That means not neglecting what’s most important, which is typically family, friends, community, church, God, and the good. It might also mean that balance is just too hard for most two-career families and that we ought to do more to detach “vocation” from measurable productivity.

We did have a Calvinist scholar speak at Berry yesterday on vocation. He was more about developing a “worldview” into which a person should fit each part of his life. His talk was Christian evangelism, but, to use his own word, he “translated” it into more general or inclusive language.

In my opinion, he went too far down the road of  being inoffensive or unchallenging. So he told students to be serious about choosing their courses and take charge of their own education. That “take charge” thing could easily be understood to flatter the idealistic or mercenary or slacker ignorance of the young.

In his own case, he had to drop out and experiment with Sixties’ communes and do a lot of reading on his own before he could take charge. He was majoring in journalism, figuring out that his so-called studies were nothing but techniques leading him nowhere, when he dropped out. I wish he had highlighted the somewhat offensive point to our students that he wasn’t serious when he when studying journalism (to which you could add management and so forth and so on).

The great thing about Steven Garber’s talk was its positive message: He said that if you’re serious about a seeking and searching education that links the truth about who you are to what you must do to have a real life, read Tom Wolfe, Walker Percy, Simone Weil, and Wendell Berry. In his book Visions of Vocation, he actually adds, among others, the dissidents Solzhenitsyn and Havel.

I sure hope our administrators we’re listening and that we configure our “life ready” interest in vocation to a gen-ed focused on those highly relevant authors.

I admit that his worldview thing is a little too dogmatically Calvinist. So he criticized Tom Wolfe for not ending A Man in Full with a tale of conversion to Christianity.  I tried to explain to him that it really is a Southern Stoic book, with the transformational author, the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (who inspired so many of the Southern aristocrats), replaced with the philospher-slave Epictetus. In a way Stoicism, or “classically confident personal rationalism,” is the secret to genuine liberation or authentic “vocationalism” in both A Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons. (Steve highlighted, to his credit, both books.) Can Southern Stoicism be “democratized,” and can genuine class be divorced from the unjust pretensions of aristocracy? There’s no reason why not, we can hope!

The best takeaway Steve left with us: A good book is good because it tells the truth about who we are. A bad book is bad because it lies about who we are. That’s the method of assessing a book that makes a claim for our serious attention. How do you quantify that? And how can you be sure and convince the experts that a student really has acquired that skill?

Steve’s book deploys Wendell Berry and Neil Postman and others to show the need to detach serious education from the sentimental angelism of the world of the screen and the imperatives of technology in general. I, of course, don’t go as far as Berry, but I certainly agree that teachers should leave those  screens alone.

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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