Avoiding Lopsided Vocationalism

This is the final post of a three-part essay on the vocation of a student.

What we have examined so far is that college students are first and foremost called to study; this is directly implied in the title “student.” Yet, college students arrive on the doorstep of the university already having grabbed hold of multiple vocations. They have families with whom they are very involved. They have jobs that provide them the ability to pay for some of their daily needs. They have friends that mean more to them than many in older generations can imagine. Many of these students participate in sports and athletic endeavors, and are highly loyal to those social organizations. In other words, even as students arrive at college, they are loaded down with multiple responsibilities that will, inevitably, influence their academic pursuits.

Often times, these pursuits will come into conflict. Athletic practice might get in the way of studying for an exam. Long hours spent at work might mean that there is less time to spend with one’s family, boyfriend, or girlfriend. This conflict often causes a good deal of stress, and even anxiety, within the student. Students today have been pushed to be high achievers, and when individual success is not achieved in every aspect of life, students often feel high levels of anxiety, and even depression.

When college professors and administrators insist that being a student is a college student’s only, or even primary, vocation, many collegians resist, explaining that they have too much to do to consider learning their single or principal calling.

Drawing on the biblical, Lutheran teaching that all people have sacred callings in even the ordinary arenas of life, Wartburg College theologian Kathryn Kleinhans rightly warns colleges that “Insisting that intellectual pursuits are more important than other areas of life can sound a bit like the insistence that the contemplative life of religious men and women is higher than the ordinary life of others.” Kleinhans reminds colleges that they are educating whole persons, and counsels them to be attentive to students’ multiple commitments and social structures, as well as the possible tensions that may arise from these varied involvements.

Yet, if someone is at college, then that person is primarily a student. And if it is the responsibility of colleges to educate the whole student, then it is the student’s responsibility to participate in all aspects of that holistic education. So how is this done and what does this mean for the student? The answer is a somewhat simple, though not simplistic, two-step approach. First, the student needs to identify her multiple vocations as well as the requirements those vocations place on her both qualitatively and quantitatively. Again, this is a matter of the individual determining all that she has been called, and agreed, to do and delineating the emotional and time management costs associated with those endeavors. Second, the student needs to find balance while attempting to avoid what we will call lopsided vocationalism.

Gene Veith, in his book God at Work, identifies that “vocation is played out not just in extraordinary acts—the great things we will do for the Lord, the great success we envision in our careers someday—but in the realm of the ordinary,” which includes—“washing the dishes, buying groceries, going to work, driving the kids somewhere, hanging out with our friends” and so forth. The life of the student is similarly busy and full of activity both in and out of the classroom. Each of the activities and responsibilities a student has is a piece of her vocational life. But with so much going on it can be difficult or confusing for students to identify what their different vocations are and what kind of commitments each entails.

Vocation is a calling to any number of different occupations, relationships, or commitments. Since the field is so broad, it can be helpful for students to take time and identify their regular responsibilities.

Doing homework, taking out the trash, and calling one’s parents are some simple examples of everyday responsibilities of a student. Each of these tasks is not in itself a vocation, but is a part of one. Doing homework is a part of the calling of a student; taking out the trash is part of being a virtuous roommate; and calling one’s parents is a part of the vocation of a child.

In order to see just how big a role their various vocations take up in life, have students try this short exercise. Ask them to think about all the things they need to do in a week as opposed to how many hours are available to accomplish those tasks. On the left side of a piece of paper, have them list all of the different vocations they have, like student, athlete, friend, and musician. On the right side, ask them to note how many hours a week each different vocation takes. Remind them that they should be studying 2 hours for 1 hour of class. Also remind them to account for sleeping, getting ready in the morning and for bed at night, eating, doing laundry, commuting, working, practicing, being with friends, everything else they do in a normal day—including avocations like watching movies. How many hours in the week need to be dedicated to accomplishing everything? Most students will find that they are seriously out of time to complete all of their vocational responsibilities. The question, then, becomes not only what are their vocations now, but how do they responsibly balance them all?

Imagine life as a bicycle wheel. A bicycle wheel is actually a very complicated piece of machinery. It is made up of several parts: first, there is a hub; second, there are spokes connected to that hub; third, there is a rim that is connected to the spokes and in turn is connected to the hub; and lastly, there is a tire (usually a tube inside the tire as well), which is the part that actually makes contact with the ground.

Bicycle WheelEach portion of a wheel is important in assisting the wheel to accomplish its primary task–providing a mechanism for the bicycle to move forward. But the hub is the one piece that holds the entire apparatus together. If the tire is flat, the wheel still rolls, though it will take more effort to get, and keep, the bike moving. If the rim is bent, the wheel can still function, though the ride will be a wobbly one. If a spoke is out of true, the wheel will shake as it rolls, but it will still roll. But if the hub is broken, bent, or even missing, the wheel will not function at all. It is the hub, the center, that holds everything else in place and makes it possible for the other parts to do their job in turn.

Similarly, though students have multiple vocations, if they are a student, then being a student is their hub. It is the central calling that holds the others in place.

The world of a student revolves around studying, learning broadly and deeply. If one of a student’s other callings, say a part-time job, is out of place by taking up too much time, then the student’s world may become a bit shaky. It might seem that the hub–being a student–is what is broken. But, in fact, what might be happening is a lopsided vocationalism that puts too much emphasis on an ancillary vocation, which causes the whole student’s life to be out of whack. Jobs, family, friends, sports, student leadership, roommates, social time, and the like are all important and need to be dealt with in a student’s multiple vocations. But they need to be attended to in balance and with an eye toward what it means to be a college student. To achieve balance in this time in life, though, means focusing primarily on learning.

If someone is a college student, college is the time he has been given to focus on learning. He has been called to and by the college to study. The student has also been given an invaluable gift to help him fulfill that calling and keep life balanced: leisure.

Leisure is often misunderstood in our modern world. Today we think of leisure as our “time off” to do nothing, just veg out or play video games. But the origin of the word tells another tale. The twentieth-century philosopher Josef Pieper explains in his book Leisure that, “leisure in Greek is skole, and in Latin scola, the English ‘school.’ The word [leisure] used to designate the place where we educate and teach is derived from a word which means ‘leisure’. ‘School’ does not, properly speaking, mean school, but leisure.”

What Pieper is driving at is that learning and leisure are intimately connected, not just on the level of etymology, but in reality.

To study, read carefully, ask questions, dialogue, dig deeply, follow an idea, test a hypothesis, discover, create art, hone an argument, craft a paper, master a musical piece, and so on all require leisure in sustained amounts of over extended periods of time.

We can put this into another context to clarify the point. No athlete would think to train just for one day before a competition. Musicians would see it as nonsense to practice once just for a few hours before a performance. Both understand that to fulfill their vocations excellently they must put in a sustained effort for a prolonged amount of time. To do that, they must have leisure, or free time, from other vocations and use it daily.

The same holds for the vocation of student. To perform the calling to study, and do it excellently for the benefit of your neighbor, students needs to engage in leisurely activity. Students need to find and guard free time every day and week throughout each semester. They need to use their free time regularly to dive into all the learning opportunities they have in college. Better than that, they get to do this because they have the God-given calling and leisure to be a student.

Scott A. Ashmon is Assistant Provost for Undergraduate Education and  Scott L. Keith is the former Associate Dean of Residential Education and Housing Services at Concordia University Irvine