Meaning and Vocational Programming

Indianapolis’s Lilly Endowment, one of the world’s wealthiest philanthropies, focuses its grants on community, education and religion. More than fifteen years ago it launched a huge multi-year and multi-school project called Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation (PTEV), allocating $250 million. The aim was to work with colleges and universities to help students examine the relationship between faith and vocational choices, provide opportunities to those that wanted a career in the ministry, and help with mentoring. The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation by sociologist Tim Clydesdale is a summary of the project and its findings. PTEV has ended, but its impact lives on. The book looks thoughtfully at how students and their colleges assess the meaning and value of an education, as well as a provocative and brief, suggestion about how think about student groups (an issue always high on the agenda for those thinking about students). Purposeful Graduate

The initial push for the Lilly grant was driven by a concern that students and colleges are becoming too focused on job and career training. Clydesdale asserts the need for employment after education is central to how we think of a college education. He also stresses that in today’s economy, comfortable and secure jobs would still be very hard to secure – even with massive changes in American higher education. The economy is different, he writes, and backs that up with data. He further notes that many colleges have an inherent difficulty in offering many students real career counseling. The ways that colleges are organized and operate tends to separate the questions of what career from the questions of what sort of life to lead.

Clydesdale was attracted to the grant because of what PTEV might spur, various examples of counterbalancing the employment alone model with inquiry into questions of purpose. Careers matter, of course, but he wants to see how careers are considered with purpose. The grant sponsored exploratory vocational programs, he finds, led to increased student engagement and graduates who are more “purposeful” global citizens. The programs are not perfect, though. They are not for all students. But when they work, they are transformative.

The Purposeful Graduate describes how 88 institutions, all church affiliated, created and administered exploration programs under the Lilly grant. Some colleges were explicitly religious. Most, however, were more ecumenical and open to all students. Colleges created centers, courses, seminars, workshops, and programs to facilitate discussion, reflection and conversation. Most focused on working with students at the sophomore or junior year.

A vocation, speaking in religious terms, is neither job nor career. It is akin to a calling, the alignment of one’s gifts and talents with God’s purpose. One does not have to be religious to recognize the worth in thinking about vocations. Students in the exploratory programs were challenged to think about these issues. Clydesdale highlights some of the students’ journeys, how faculty and administrators developed programs and participated (or not), the effects on college culture and practice, and how each institution tried to tailor its program to its own history, culture and aspirations. The student’s stories are powerful and Clydesdale writes well. Across the board, the challenge was finding the space and time and incentives to make discussions with students about purpose possible and attractive to students, staff and faculty facing multiple demands for their time. However, once the discussions took place, the program’s impact, according to the data, was significant.

Clydesdale emphasizes college’s interest in the development of the whole student in these efforts. He believes that inquiry in to issues of spirituality and purpose – in an educational environment – fosters reflection and matures students. Students who participated in the programs reported high levels of satisfaction and personal growth. Follow up studies show that the programs had impacts that remained with the students after graduation. Most interestingly, for many students, reflection begets reflection. These students continue to reflect and ask hard questions, often framing life choices in a similar manner. These students demonstrated more grit that students who did not participate in the programs.

Faculty and staff found meaning, too, Clydesdale reports. He observes that one of unfortunate consequences of specialization in the academy is that too often, there is little shared is shared at the center of the college. The exploration programs gave opportunities for different kinds of discussions, for the integration of curricular and co-curricular activities and for community building. They nurtured the development of institutional “good citizens” who could reach across disciplines, departments, and organizational silos. PTEV was so successful and positively received that many of the participating colleges have found the resources and will to continue their programs in other formats without Lilly support.

Amid this sunny picture, Clydesdale makes several criticisms. He believes that many colleges tend to avoid the difficult discussions about meaning with or without these programs. He notes that many institutions do not consistently demanded academic excellence from faculty and students. He sees little evidence that colleges have sufficiently prepared their graduates for the “long slog from commencement to stable employment to productive citizenship.” He worries about cultural resistance to change and the destructive consequences of thoughtless bureaucracies. Clydesdale emphasizes that this sort of requires patience and persistence.

The nature of the Lilly program – support to four-year religious institutions – means that the students involved are different from the larger overall college going population. They have more wealth, more options, and they specifically chose a religious college or university. Therefore, the lessons of the Purposeful Graduate have to be carefully considered. Some students need a college education to provide income immediately. Many students know that the long slog includes years and years of part-time study with part-time work. Programs that explore questions of meaning and vocation simply may not be as relevant when offered. As for the question of meaning and purpose, many institutions, though other programs, faculty and courses, engage with students on just these issues. It is one of the central themes in the liberal arts.

Lastly, for those interested in the sociology of college students, Clydesdale makes some interesting proposals. Drawing on his sociological skills, he puts forward a rough typology of students. The section does not fit neatly with the book as a whole, but it is very interesting. He suggests that there are two main categories of students: idealists and instrumentalists. Remember, too, that he is writing about “traditional” – students in their late teens and early 20s. For colleges that service this population, there are many more instrumentalists than idealists. Clydesdale is not specific, but he indicates that a rough measure is four instrumentalists for each idealist.

Further, he breaks down the idealists into three categories: Future Intelligentsia (next generation of intellectual and creative elites), Reforming Activists (social change agents), and Rebels. He also places the instrumentalists into three subcategories: Obsessive Compulsive Achievers (crave grades and status), Utilitarians (balance academic work with other pursuits), and Minimalists (see college as a party). These categories are far from fixed and can be thought of as a continuum. In fact, many students change over time – and a thoughtful exploration of meaning can bridge instrumentalists and idealists.

What the categories do offer, though, is a framework to consider communication, support and programming. Instrumentalists will respond to incentives one way; idealists will respond another.

The book could have been stronger if Clydesdale had contrasted the grant-funded exploratory programs with more traditional career exploration or experiential learning programs. These, led by the right mixture of faculty, advisors, and employers, can and do have amazing outcomes. What all these efforts share finding the time the time and place to ask students hard questions and help them answer them. When a student knows why they are studying and pursuing a college education, the results are good.

David Potash

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