Vocation and the role of the university

I am currently reading Ian Angus’ Love the Questions for my PhD colloquium, and it is raising so many interesting and often scary thoughts that I just can’t sit there and not write about it. Angus’ book raises issues about the current corporatization of university and its devastating social consequences. Universities are no longer able to function independently from corporate agendas; instead, they now depend on the corporate model to survive. This, as anyone in the university world can attest, is extremely problematic.

Angus’ book brought to my mind the concept of vocation. Its Latin etymology means to call or summon. Essentially, a vocation is a calling from God to fill a specific purpose. This calling is not necessarily a personal choice, but rather an irresistible pull towards work that is traditionally spiritual, but that today can be transferred to many other realms. I do believe that university professorship is a vocation, not a job. I think that careerists have no place in a university faculty. Why? Because our job changes lives. My life was changed by professors, and I hope (if I can get access to a classroom, given the gloomy prospects) that I will change students’ lives in my turn.

Angus argues that the place of the university is for people to be enlightened, i.e., achieve self-knowledge, self-expression and self-accomplishment. Basically, this is where people go to learn “the good life” in the Socratic sense of the expression: how to live well with others and with your state, how to be human in a political world. I suppose I have been spoiled, because my years at the Liberal Arts College have helped me glimpse at the role of a liberal, humanist education to teach me how to be human. I might have grumbled and complained about reading Plato or Kant or Heidegger, I might have enjoyed some texts more than others, but in the end, I cannot name a single text I read during those three years that did not influence my thinking. It still influences me today. I don’t think I am enlightened, at least not fully, and this is probably why I am pursuing this path at a very high financial and emotional cost.

One of my current professors said in our first class that despite the bleak state of the profession, “spending four or five years studying ideas isn’t such a bad thing”. I tried to resist it. I tried to convince myself that a practical, pragmatic education would be enough to keep me happy. I considered business school; I even trained for about 2 years in marketing. And yet, at least subconsciously, I felt unsatisfied with this. Today I wonder why I didn’t see it earlier: I was an avid reader as a teenager, and enjoyed reading textbooks beyond what was assigned. I loved going deeper into the subject matter of social sciences, but in high school I wasn’t a brilliant literature student, although I was a brilliant writer and obviously good with second languages. In any case, I ended up in university mainly through the workings of circumstances (divine intervention?) and while my initial intention was pragmatic (translation), the result, well, is writing this to you today.

What is the meaning of living a vocational life? Since I am a Victorianist, I cannot avoid thinking about professors at Cambridge and Oxford in the 19th century who could only remain professors as long as they were unmarried. Kant was famously single. Being a scholar was incompatible with being distracted by domestic life. Very few philosophers were married, and even less happily so. While this might not be the case today (just think about the issues surrounding double tenure for scholar couples), I still feel like I must give up so much of what constitutes a “normal” life in order to satisfy that calling. My best friend, whom I love and respect immensely, has found her happiness in the leisure time and domestic life that a low-responsibility clerical job has offered her. She is fulfilled by her hobbies, by cooking, by hosting, by sharing life with her partner. And she has chosen this path through experience (often harsh) and critical thinking about herself and her expectations of a good life. While I can see the appeal (no more reading through weekends, no more painful writing, no more running after time that goes too fast), I just could not feel satisfied with such a life. I feel called to study ideas, to produce knowledge and to help students find for themselves the answers to their questions. I have a vocation.

I will admit that up to now I’ve felt rather aloof from my future profession. Up to now, up to today when I started examining my own motivations, I’ve felt that being a scholar was simply a life choice, a way to avoid entering the corporate world of 9-to-5 cubicle life. I have often described my work as a secretary during my undergrad years as “modern slavery”. But now I am forced to look at why I’m doing this, and if it is worth it.

It is. Because I will make a difference. Not a I-will-help-build-a-new-product-bridge-building-for-people-to-buy-cross-live-in difference. That’s the difference of a engineer, and while I do realize that these things are important, they do not make an essential difference. The essential difference is to change, or help shape, how people think, observe and reflect on the world they live in. The essential difference is to help people learn, for themselves, what the good life is. I want to model my teaching not on my specialty, not on the texts in my syllabus, but on the idea that Angus defines so well as “loving the questions”. Question everything. Question your choices, what you see on the news, your parents’ opinions, what you choose to eat and wear. Question what you read, question the information you are given. Understand its origin, its rhetoric, its purpose. My own definition would be to “learn the ethics of living”.

Learning the ethics of living might not be a vocation, but learning it so you can teach it to others is. It requires a commitment beyond simply making choices for yourself. You need to commit to finding new answers to human questions, the ones that might lead to some answers (and more questions) about the ethics of living. Because you can’t live a good life if you accept everything without a thought. And the university, and the vocational teacher, is a place devoted to questioning everything and learning about the good life so we can help others find it, too.


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