Historical Reflections on Vocation and the Liberal Arts

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By Jeanne Halgren Kilde
Past Curricular Director of the Lilly Project and visiting professor of Religious Studies

Paper delivered at “‘Life’s Work’: A Six-College Convocation on Work, Ethics and Vocation,”hosted by Macalester College, January 17-19,2003, in Burlingame, California.

Derived from the Latin word vocare, meaning to call or summon, vocation appeared in English during the Renaissance and was popularized during the Reformation.  Christians had historically used the term to describe a summons or call from God to fill a religious office.  Thus, vocation highlighted a link between divine desire and human work. An individual’s service to God answered this call.

Service to God, however, for early Protestant reformers like John Calvin and Martin Luther, did not necessarily lie exclusively within the confines of the Church.  For them, vocation could encompass many occupations.  Laboring for the glory of God could include everything from manual labor to secular professions to domestic labor.  All work, at least in theory, was sanctified.  Following this line of thought, pietistic groups like the Shakers maintained that through work individuals expressed their love of God.  With the development of capitalism, this view of sanctified labor became codified in the phrase "Protestant work ethic," and the ideal of work for the service of God, many argued, was transformed into work for the service of wealth.

Both these religious and secular understandings of the idea of vocation held currency in the development and growth of liberal arts colleges, literally hundreds of which were organized by Protestants in the U.S. in the nineteenth century.  Higher education, particularly Christian higher education, was seen as a crucial step in the development of a “vocation.”  For Protestants who believed that all truth and knowledge came through God and that only through Christianity could one fully access and understand that knowledge, the liberal arts college, firmly resting on a Christian worldview, would provide the national leadership required to advance both the country and humanity itself.

As Edward Duffield Neill, the founder of Macalester College, put it in 1874, “Differing from the secular school, [the Christian school] teaches that the performance of duty and not merely successful achievement should be the object of life . . . it simply placed the Bible in the hands of its students, and taught that any one who loved God and his fellow man was sure of an entrance into the Kingdom of God.”1

For students in the early decades of church-related liberal arts colleges, vocation played a strong role, formed a distinct goal at the end of the educational tunnel.  Christian moral ideology and U.S. nationalism combined to encourage students to aspire to service to God, the nation, and society.  And these institutions were quite successful in imparting their vision of the moral value of education and the uses to which it should be put.  For instance, between 1885 and 1910, 45% of all Macalester graduates opted for some type of religious career.2

In the twentieth century, however, this ideological relationship between vocation and the liberal arts would be buffeted by a number of social and cultural changes and national events.  Transformations in the understanding of knowledge most directly impacted the Christian liberal arts college and, in turn, how students would be encouraged to think about vocation.  In the first two decades of the 20th century such factors as interfaith dialogue, higher biblical criticism, theories of evolution, the growth of modern scientific methods, and World War I eroded confidence in the view that “truth is the expression of the divine intelligence” and that Christianity held the only route to it.3      New goals came to inform the educational process at liberal arts colleges: the creation of knowledge, the dissemination of information, the development of intellectual skills, and even the imparting of technical, professional knowledge.  Thus, between 1910 and 1930, many colleges loosened their ties to the religious denominations which had originally founded them and continued alone as secular colleges.

Ideas of vocation lost a good deal of their influence, particularly as the Great Depression and then World War II, focused people’s attention on survival.  Yet the war proved to have a critical influence on ideas of vocation within the liberal arts.  With men at war and campus populations made up of large percentages of women, curriculums changed, bringing ideas of suitable women’s vocations to the fore.  Nursing and education programs grew, as did the new area of home economics.  Even secretarial classes were taught at Macalester.  As the men returned after the war, institutions eagerly accepted new students under the GI Bill, and they seriously scrutinized their curriculums to address the vocational needs of these new students, bent on getting their degrees as quickly as possible and entering the workforce.  Science and engineering courses expanded as liberal arts colleges accepted the challenge to educate students for the career market.  Slippage occurred in the use of the term “vocation,” which could mean either a strong sense of calling to a profession or, simply, career - and at its worst, “careerism.”

Pragmatic educational leaders like John Dewey argued that the liberal arts could bring a reconciliation between these meanings by combining “the teaching of practical and technical subjects.”4  His colleague Arnold S. Nash argued that “The study of the humanities should be carried on not as an addendum to but within the context of and giving meaning to a student’s professional studies,” and Ernest Earnest declared that “the liberal arts college cannot educate some sort of mythical men of vision; it must educate chemists and sociologists and journalists with vision.”5

But a strong counter-position developed as well - the knowledge for its own sake position.  In the case of Macalester College, career-oriented courses were terminated in the late 1950s as the institution pursued affiliation with Phi Beta Kappa.  This influential organization discouraged “vocationally” or career-oriented courses.  In its estimation, a liberal arts college, focused on the transmission of knowledge and tradition, so while Latin, Greek and Classics courses were generally seen as boosting institutions’ chances of being accepted into Phi Beta Kappa, nursing and engineering courses were not.

By the 1960s, however, new sets of moral agendas developed and the traditional liberal arts perspective came under attack as students struggled to obtain educations they felt carried “relevance” in a rapidly changing world.  As the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the women’s movement developed and new forms of mass communication brought what had been the far reaches of the globe into students’ dorm rooms each evening, new curriculums entered the liberal arts college.  Courses and departments in African American Studies, Women’s Studies, Chicano and Latino studies, requirements in cultural diversity, and expansion of Area Studies and the growth of International Studies brought a new type of moral component to the curriculum.

Two views on vocation are apparent during this period.  On the one hand, traditional, mainline religious understandings of service blended with strong social justice convictions to encourage student participation in on-going socio-political events and activities.  The Civil Rights movement, based firmly in Christian activism, revived “vocation” as a sense of moral duty to improve the world.  The second view, based on political and social philosophy rather than in Christianity, brought a new understanding of the role of the liberal arts as fostering a moral/intellectual understanding of the necessity of education in an increasingly complex world.  For some, that moral understanding carried with it a new commitment to society and the nation - frequently a commitment to political and social reform.

While student activities and organizations like the Freedom Summer and SDS grew out of students’ religious convictions and liberal arts learning, the institutions themselves rarely took ideas of vocation beyond the notion of service - and in many cases, including that of Macalester, service itself was perceived as tangential to the educational agenda.  While it was good to help people, doing so was something separate from education, from learning.  Thus, here again we see the liberal arts advancing a view of the moral foundation of knowledge, though this time philosophical rather than Christian, but this time students took the lead in translating the use of that knowledge into doing the work of the world.

By the 1970s and ‘80s, when I was a student and a beginning teacher, a career-oriented “vocationalism” once again buffeted the liberal arts as many colleges, responding to the economic crisis of the early ‘70s, introduced business and management courses and expanded their economics and science departments.  With double-digit inflation and high unemployment, hiring was at a standstill and colleges felt it was time to embrace the idea of preparing students for their future working lives.  Vocation, as in the ‘40s and early ‘50s was once again understood in terms of a career - a profession for which one was preparing.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, vocation was frequently cast in psychological terms.  We encouraged students to find the work, the classes, the occupations best suited to their individual personalities.  Too often, however, our tests, designed to lend insight into the self, into our personality type, implied that personhood is static, that the self is a fixed product, an “I “or an “E,” rather than a work in progress.  In these terms, vocation becomes a search within.

As we gather this weekend to discuss ideas of vocation and means of developing a stronger sense of vocation, I encourage us to keep this history in mind.  Buffeted by cultural and social change, vocation is a slippery concept.  We should ask how our own cultural moment informs our current interest in uniting value and work.

In the brochure for this convocation, we defined vocation as “Seeking engagement in or search for fulfilling work - work that is at once meaningful, realistic, challenging, and appropriate.”  We asserted that the liberal arts college is the appropriate place for pursuit of vocation, saying that such a question reaches to “the heart of the student experience, the place where the classroom transmission of knowledge intersects with students’ development as young adults.”  Thus, “a sense of vocation seeks to join (ever-developing) personal desire, values, and convictions with the reality of the workplace.  It is predicated upon students’ growing intellectual capacities, self-knowledge, and confidence.”

We can see that the failure to aid students in developing authentic value systems and connecting them to their post-graduation working lives has great consequences.  Perhaps we see this most clearly outside of the liberal arts context with the corporate scandals that have rocked not only the nation in the past year but also business schools, which are now scrambling to either deflect responsibility or to find ways to strengthen the ethical training of their students.

But while it is easy to point fingers at the failures of business schools, we must also turn our scrutiny on ourselves as we collaborate in liberal arts.  How successful are we in integrating ethical questions - questions about what values we bring to our life’s work - into our courses, our curriculum, our co-curricular activities, our lives?  As a U.S. historian, I frequently raise ethical questions in class, but these are typically examined on a theoretical level.  Only rarely do we address ethical questions that relate directly to students and how we/they do the work of a historian.  Interestingly, discussion of the ethics of being a student and doing the work of a student are most often addressed in terms of plagiarism.  And higher education’s track record on this issue is far from stellar.

Yet as a historian, I deal with ethical and moral situations repeatedly.  How to interpret a document, a statement made perhaps in a heated debate?  What to do with evidence that counters or throws doubt on my hypotheses?  How to deal with other historians’ work?  How to review a book with which I disagree - or even despise?  How do I work with others whose opinions might be might be widely different from mine?  How do I deal with the sometimes overwhelming competition for jobs, for tenure, for recognition?  How do I integrate my political beliefs or social convictions into my teaching - into my other life choices?

Each discipline carries its own ethical challenges.  Yet college courses tend to focus not on the reality of doing the world’s work in a given area - be it literary studies, sociology, or biology - but on transmitting knowledge and developing critical thinking skills . . . basically within a vacuum.  They don’t call it an ivory tower for nothing.

Recent pedagogy has urged us, as teachers/researchers, to share our research with students - to involve them in the ways we “do” our research work.  And we are increasingly successful.  The next step - the step which this conference is designed to address - is to similarly involve them in the tough decisions we as scholars/teachers/researchers make everyday - the decisions that require us to draw not just on our years of disciplinary tracking, but also on ourselves as whole persons, with specific beliefs, world views - with “faith” in the language of Sharon Deloz Parks.

In an interesting way, this agenda brings us “back” to an earlier notion of the role of vocation in liberal arts education.  Not, of course, in the sense that education is a means of understanding divine revelation and prepare Christians for service to society and the Kingdom of God, but in the sense that knowledge must be conveyed and received in ways that locate it within a framework of values that acknowledge the broader context of society - and here I mean global society - and that emphasize the responsibilities of educated persons within the world.

1 St. Paul Pioneer Press, September 6, 1874.

2 Macalester College: A Century and Beyond (St. Paul: Macalester College, 1985), 34.

3Neill, Edward D., “Thoughts on the American College.” September 16, 1885. Macalester College Archives.

4Richard Nelson Current. Phi Beta Kappa in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 245.

5 Current, 245.