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George Dennis O'BrienNovember 23, 2016
Liberal Learning as a Quest for Purpose by William M. Sullivan

Oxford University Press. 248 p $35

From 2000 to 2002, the Lilly Endowment undertook an ambitious program for the reform of American college education. Initiated by the religious division of the foundation, the effort was directed toward specific church-related careers and called the Program for the Theological Exploration of Vocation (P.T.E.V.). It approached nearly 400 institutions to submit proposals for the project, and it eventually muted the theological direction by broadening “vocation” to “a quest for purpose.” Eighty-eight colleges and universities were selected and by the conclusion of the program Lilly had distributed $225 million. Was it worth it the cost?

Unlike many grant programs that float on good intentions, Lilly commissioned a prominent sociologist, Tim Clydesdale, to assess the results. A graduate of evangelical Wheaton College, Clydesdale was initially skeptical of the program’s success, but he was persuaded otherwise by his own research. His book The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students About Vocation (Chicago, 2015) records how a variety of institutions created successful structures making education for vocation a focal point for student learning. William Sullivan’s Liberal Learning as a Quest for Purpose also draws on P.T.E.V. but broadens its lessons by also assessing similar efforts at institutions not in the P.T.E.V. program. Sullivan may be best known as a collaborator with Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart (University Of California)a trenchant sociological critique of American “individualism” as withdrawal from common purpose. Beyond comparing programs, Sullivan, as befits a philosopher, proposes that vocational studies is an educational response to the cultural challenges discussed by Charles Taylor in his magisterial study A Secular Age (Harvard University Press).

Vocation turns out to be critical not only for life beyond college, but for life within college. Sullivan notes a “widespread concern about student disengagement from academic activity.” True enough. Disengagement is encouraged by the prevailing view that the purpose of college education is the acquisition of marketable skills. Under this view, the payoff for college study is not intrinsic, it is extrinsic; the payoff is out there in the job market. But education as preparation for vocation raises questions well beyond the job. One may have a job, even a career, but no activity that has a deep personal meaning (this is how P.T.E.V. defines vocation). By bringing education aimed at vocation to the classroom, colleges help students not only to engage life beyond college, but to engage college education itself.

I want to highlight two aspects of the P.T.E.V. program: leadership and community pedagogy. Regarding leadership, a large number of the successful programs in Clydesdale’s study were not led by faculty but by “extra-curricular” staff—e.g., the campus minister or the head of the counseling service. This is not accidental. As Sullivan points out, much of the current collegiate social scene, from “hovering parents” to “hook-ups,” boils down to “a reluctance to grow up.” The most salient fact about American undergraduate education, and the most overlooked, is that undergraduate students are on the way to adulthood. Given the developmental state of undergraduates, it is not surprising that ministers and guidance counselors have special insight into purposeful education. Faculty members, in contrast, are focused on the discipline, not on the 18-year-old Latina in the third row. Instruction in a discipline is neutral to age, gender or race. Education for adulthood is not.

Though discipline-oriented faculty may not be natural leaders on the road to purpose and adulthood, it is essential that they be fully incorporated into vocational education. Sullivan notes that successful programs incorporate faculty in three “apprenticeships”: academic, social and—the link of the previous two—an apprenticeship on identity and purpose. The idea of apprenticeship suggests a relationship other than academic authority over a mere student. Learning becomes the shared task of master and apprentice. Apprenticeship is enhanced by learning communities. Not only is academic hierarchy attenuated, but negative student competition is also transformed by learning together.

Three P.T.E.V. institutions covered in Sullivan’s account are Catholic: Marquette University in Wisconsin; Our Lady of the Lake University in Texas; and Santa Clara University in California. (Georgetown University, which has programs similar to the P.T.E.V. initiative, is also mentioned.) Santa Clara created various structures for purposeful education. For instance, academic apprenticeship is realized in a history course titled “Personal Renaissance,” in which key Renaissance figures are presented as “distant mirrors” for a student’s own aspirations. The practice of meditation in class deepens personal reflection, and social apprenticeship exists in “immersion experiences” that take students off campus, often to Jesuit centers dealing with marginal communities. Apprenticeship of purpose is represented by “Careers for the Common Good,” a course that not only addresses vocation, but demonstrates leadership from extra-curricular staff.

A final note: Sullivan suggests that religious commitment makes the pursuit of vocation “tradition enhanced” in Catholic institutions and other religiously based institutions like Earlham College (which is Quaker).

Liberal Learning as a Quest for Purpose could be of immense value to anyone interested in understanding the social dynamics of contemporary undergraduate education, and in discerning how institutional structures help or hinder sheer academic achievement and the developmental needs of the young adults. Sullivan’s prescriptions are clear, direct and deepened by philosophical reflection. The specific programs at the various colleges should stimulate creative adaptation.

Having said that, I wonder whether the book will be as influential as it deserves.

My first administrative job involved dealing with all the undergraduates who flunked out of Princeton. There was nothing in their admission credentials that could have predicted that sorry outcome. Some personal issue was overriding their A.P. scores. Puzzled by my failing cohort, I was greatly interested in Nevitt Sanford’s intensive psychosocial study of higher education, The American College (1962). Sanford’s case studies offered valuable insight into “why colleges fail”—the title of his follow-up book (1967). Neither volume seemed to cause much academic reform. Sanford quipped that the books were too heavy for college presidents to carry on airplanes. Be that as it may, the problems of student engagement in college are much more acute than in my days in the dean’s office. Proof: the proliferation of counseling services on campus. Maybe the time has come to look seriously at education for vocation—and the vocation for education.

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