Liberal Education

Renewing Liberal Education as Vocational Discernment

A major discovery, or rediscovery, of our time is that an education that matters—an education that enhances capacities and expands outlooks—is one that engages the whole student. Research in learning has shown that making sense of the world and learning to use knowledge and skills in responsible and engaged ways—long the developmental goals of liberal learning—require coherent curricula and ways of teaching. It has also become clear that the essential basis for both academic success and personal resilience—the “grit” that sustains energy and direction in life—hinges on finding a sense of meaning and purpose. Education aligned with these goals must intentionally foster students’ deepening exploration of life’s ends and values. And far from being a solitary quest, this kind of learning is most effective when students participate in communities of learning that are structured by these concerns. Such learning demands the development of critical awareness. But it also requires the cultivation of empathy and receptivity as well as the appreciation of value and imagination. These qualities of sensibility and disposition, of what were once called “heart” and “spirit,” are the necessary complements to analytical prowess.

What, then, might a college education that takes these themes seriously look like? How to provide a center of curricular gravity that can enable students to build connections between concerns about their lives and futures and liberal learning?

Enter, PTEV

Among recent innovative efforts to connect liberal learning with the personal, moral, and civic development of students, one of the most successful has been the Lilly Endowment’s Programs on the Theological Exploration of Vocation (PTEV). Through a decade of experiment and reform, many of the participating institutions found effective ways to foster the development of purpose among their students, while the faculty have reported a greater sense of common purpose and personal commitment to the profession of higher education.

The PTEV programs all included three key elements. The first was the use of the language of vocation as the primary approach to enabling students to grow toward a life purpose. This language framed holistic student development by employing the search for purpose in order to focus and inspire academic learning as well as personal and career development. Second, the exploration of vocational purpose was rooted in campus learning communities that supported students on their developmental path, a process that frequently gave rise to faculty and staff learning communities. This process has had a revitalizing effect on educational mission on many PTEV campuses. Finally, the third element was the fostering of specific practices of reflection—focused on identity, learning, and purpose—that enabled students, as well as faculty and staff, to connect the liberal arts disciplines, experiential and civic learning, and career preparation in ongoing ways. The most successful PTEV campus programs have become explicit and intentional about fostering these practices, but all campuses share them to varying degrees.

Engaging the language of vocation: “Your Personal Renaissance”

To see how these ideas have played out in practice, consider a course developed at Santa Clara University as part of its participation in PTEV. It is called “Vocation: Your Personal Renaissance.” The course was designed to provide students at the mid-point in their college careers, when students are most open to questions about identity and purpose, with the opportunity to consider the question of vocation in an engaged and intellectually sophisticated way. At Santa Clara University—a middle-sized, selective institution in the Catholic, Jesuit tradition—the course fulfills requirements of the core curriculum. It is also a course in a new type of core known as a “pathway,” part of a “double helix” curricular model. Pathways, such as “Vocation,” are sequences of courses that parallel specialized study in the major with connecting themes designed to bring students’ educational experiences together.

The course is taught by Professor Diane Dreher, a scholar of Renaissance literature who has also participated in positive psychology research on the course theme. “As you become more aware of your calling,” Diane Dreher writes in a text read in the course, “it weaves like a bright thread through the daily fabric of your life, and as you move through life’s seasons, into new roles . . . every stage in your life invites you to discover your calling on another level.”1 The idea of “personal Renaissance” draws together Dreher’s own areas of expertise, the comparative literature of the European Renaissance and developmental psychology, with themes of the religious dimension of life. “Renaissance men and women were empowered by a sense of calling [newly expounded by religious leaders in the Reformation]. . . . [T]heir identities were informed by a sense of personal destiny, their faith in a meaningful universe and their place in it.” Because of this religious understanding, Dreher continues, such figures were accustomed to “seeing themselves as creative agents, not passive victims of fate.”2

The fundamental strategy of the course involves both imaginative participation and analytic rigor. It seeks to engage students in understanding the inspirations and challenges, setbacks and crises, of famous men and women of the Renaissance. Each student must choose from a group of twenty-eight such figures—ranging from Shakespeare to Teresa of Avila to Michelangelo—a life to explore in depth, reading their works, viewing their art, and researching their activities and context. These lives then function as distant mirrors for the students in exploring their own lives in similar terms.

The motivating questions of the course are, finally, “how should I live?” and “whom might I become?” Understanding how exemplary men and women of the Renaissance answered these questions by finding their vocations is intended to provide “insights for your life today.” The syllabus also explains that the course addresses a learning goal Santa Clara calls intellectual “complexity” through requiring demonstration of the capacity to “reflect, compare, and integrate approaches to vocation from religion, literature, art, and contemporary psychology.” The course also tries to stimulate “religious reflection” directly by using “comparative analysis, ongoing contemplative practice, reflection, and your own vocational narrative” to “clarify and express your beliefs about your own vocation.”3

The several major writing requirements reveal the underlying pedagogical aims most clearly. They combine academic rigor with an imaginative extension of the concepts of the course toward making sense of the students’ own experiences. The first half of the course culminates in a paper in which the student presents and analyzes the “vocational narrative” of the Renaissance figure under study. In the second paper, toward the end of the course, students repeat this exercise, only now focused on their “personal vocational narrative.”

As an educational experience, then, “Vocation: Your Personal Renaissance” presents finding a vocation as a live option that admits of various religious as well as secular interpretations. Vocational decision making is examined from the “inside” point of view of those involved as well as analytically from “without,” as a historical phenomenon—the bifocal approach characteristic of humanistic inquiry. Students gain insights into the content and approaches of a number of academic disciplines. They must show analytical skill and synthetic capacity in relating these approaches to the course themes. But students in this course are also being explicitly taught how to use that learning to inform their education and their lives. Such teaching carries the accomplishments of liberal learning into the practical dimension not by reducing learning to an instrument for advancing individual interest, but by expanding the horizon of the practical to connect with the wider possibilities of human flourishing.

Building learning communities around vocational exploration

The idea behind the development of campus learning communities is that liberal learning happens best when students and educators work together over time in communities that are small enough that everyone knows everyone else’s name and yet span a significant breadth of disciplines trained on wide-angle questions. For PTEV programs, there was also an internal fit between the way in which learning communities educate by focusing on students and faculty in a shared context, and the vocational content the Lilly initiative was crafted to promote. On some campuses, residence halls became sites for such integrated learning, bringing academic activity together with civic service and social life. On others, cohorts of students embarked on civic and service projects that were woven into parts of the academic program, often also linked to student affairs, religious life, and career planning activities. In many cases, these learning communities provided an organizational basis for faculty and staff cooperation that could grow into mutual understanding of each other as fellow educators sharing a common mission.

While undergraduates were the primary intended beneficiaries of the Lilly initiative, faculty and, over time, staff from student affairs, counseling, and career planning also joined learning communities that paralleled those of the students. Faculty and staff might come together initially for instrumental reasons—to support the “real work” of PTEV—directed at students. Fairly quickly, however, the participants realized that through their cooperation and discussion they were building professional relationships of intrinsic rather than simply instrumental value that were important for the vitality of education on the campus as a whole. The frequent and enthusiastic report was of “being heard.” In these groups, faculty and staff came to recognize each other as peers—something that was often especially important to staff. Many reported having developed a greater ease in speaking of the ups and downs of their lives in terms of meaning and calling, saying that this enabled them to engage more easily around these issues with students.

A context for making positive connection to the life of their times

A major goal of liberal education has always been enabling students to make a responsible contribution to the life of their times. By building learning communities around the theme of vocation, PTEV has achieved this goal in noteworthy ways. At Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, a student learning community was developed as part of La Llamata (The Call), as the program was known. Organized by the Roman Catholic campus minister, Gloria Urrabazo, the program began by offering faculty small grants to incorporate service experiences into their courses. It grew to include the participation of student affairs and career placement staff as well. The focus of the program was on strengthening the university’s relationship with San Antonio’s West Side, a largely Hispanic neighborhood that is home to many immigrant families and to some of the university’s students as well. These service projects were anchored in Roman Catholic parishes, which also provided internship placements for weekly work with youth groups.

While not all interns were either Hispanic or Roman Catholic, through the coaching of parish staff, students reported developing greater understanding and empathy for the circumstances and struggles of the families of the West Side. For some of the students, this provided a kind of renewed connection with their own ethnic roots. For others, it was an awakening to aspects of contemporary life of which they had little understanding. On campus, participating faculty described these experiences as promoting students’ growth in maturity: being entrusted with responsible roles in the life of these communities affected students’ sense of what they could do, and it deepened their commitments.

The formation of this extended student learning community at Our Lady of the Lake was a direct outgrowth of the Lilly initiative. But it built upon a longer tradition at the institution. Founded by the sisters of the Congregation of Divine Providence a century ago, the university initiated the first program in social work in the region. It had long participated in the economic and social development of the American Southwest, providing a base for enriching the material as well as the spiritual lives of its students. With PTEV, it has added the conscious task of preparing students to take a constructive part in one of the major features of today’s globalization: the migration across national borders of formerly agricultural people seeking a better life through urban jobs and lives.

PTEV’s focus on cultivating vocation has provided students and faculty with new inspiration for learning and service. Connecting students and staff with communities in San Antonio provided a context for employing various academic disciplines in order to understand the effects of vast economic and social developments on their actual neighbors. Grounded in contemporary Catholic social teaching, the program’s themes of solidarity, human dignity, and economic justice created a way to make sense of the moral demands thrown up by contemporary life. As one student put it, “It has been a huge learning experience for me, not just spiritually, but in terms of personal self-confidence and my ability to work as a team member. It has helped me develop better as a person. . . . I’ve learned to engage with many points of view and people at different levels.”

Reflective learning: Connecting knowledge to purpose

Practices of reflection fostered by PTEV have made it possible for students to put the elements of their lives together more coherently than would otherwise be expected. Especially today, when life often feels like a succession of discontinuous bits of experience, there is appeal in the notion—common in liberal learning from the Bildungsroman through Erik Erikson’s influential framing of the life course—that education can mean the beginning of a life trajectory that can maintain direction through crisis and struggle in the quest for integral identity and positive purpose. The concept of vocation adds the important dimension of response to sacred value and of responsibility to and for others. PTEV’s emphasis upon vocation as a narrative quest, rooted in learning communities, provided students with experiential proof that life could be more than just “one damned thing after another,” that it might matter that one had lived.

At Augsburg College in Minneapolis, the PTEV program, called “Embracing Our Gifts,” built intentionally on the college’s Lutheran heritage by attempting to infuse vocational reflection through the curriculum and cocurriculum. A noteworthy feature was the “senior keystone” requirement. For business majors (Augsburg’s largest major), “Vocation and the Meaning of Success,” which was taught by teams of business and religion faculty, aimed not simply to consolidate students’ knowledge of business as a discipline, as in a typical capstone experience, but to enable them to use their business knowledge for finding personal significance in a life with social purpose.

The curriculum provided the keystone as a way to draw together the major with earlier courses that explore the vocation idea in global religious context. For seniors, this meant encountering three large questions that organize the course: Who are you? What is your sense of mission? What are you going to do with your business knowledge and skills? Many of the students, often the first generation of their families to attend college, were wary of such questions, fearing they could distract them from the serious business of entering the occupational world.

The response of the faculty was to link the large vocational questions with knowledge and skills of immediate practical value for occupational success. Accustomed to approaching business with questions about goals and strategy, the course faculty encouraged business majors to use these skills to think about their lives as an ongoing narrative—looking backward to understand themselves and their gifts, and then analyzing the challenges at hand by inquiring about their place in the world, their values (what “success” might mean for them), and their possible futures.

Students were prompted to reflect on their self-understanding and their values by readings that placed business careers within a normative perspective drawn from Lutheran theology, which interprets work as a way for individuals to contribute to the common good. The course also promoted a similar reflectivity in occupational exploration by requiring placements in community and business organizations in Minneapolis. In addition, working in teams to find equitable solutions to business problems enlarged the scope of reflection to include a critical look at what makes some business professionals admirable, which business contexts seem best able to sustain that kind of professional identity, and the role of business in civic life. This exercise tied the humanistic questions of personal identity and mission directly to the students’ life challenges in the present and the near future. It provided perspective that is often missing in the transition from college to work. As written academic work, students’ reflective papers not only fostered habits of thinking about goals and challenges in light of value commitments, but they also provided graduates with potent examples of their ability to investigate complex and challenging problems in contemporary business from more than a purely technical perspective—examples they can present to potential employers.


Reflection on vocation, grounded in a community of shared interest and support, shifts the framing of higher education. It invites students to engage their college education not as passive consumers, but as protagonists in a collective drama with real import. The Lilly programs demonstrate that it is possible to recover the formative power of liberal education, even in a time when fixation upon its merely instrumental value threatens to diminish the promise of higher education as a whole.

This is a significant story. It points to new directions for the nation’s many religiously affiliated colleges and universities. But it also holds lessons of value for the enterprise of higher education as whole. Many of the participating campuses succeeded in engaging students in learning by fostering exploration of purpose, guided by humanistic ideals, religious and secular. They intensified professional commitment as educators among not only faculty but also staff. And perhaps most notably, administrators and governing boards were sometimes swept up in the enterprise, forging or renewing a sense of common purpose for their institutions, making them more vital centers of learning and more actively connected to their communities and civic contexts.


1. Diane Dreher, Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps To Finding Your Life’s True Calling (Philadelphia: DeCapo Press, 2008), 3.

2. Ibid., 5.

3. Diane Dreher, “Vocation: Your Personal Renaissance” (course syllabus, English 198, Santa Clara University, 2013).

William M. Sullivan is senior scholar at the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College.

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