From the time you were five years old, someone was always asking you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Maybe you answered “a cowboy” or “a princess,” but you really didn’t know. As you get older, the pressure intensifies. “A professional baseball player.” “A veterinarian.” Now you are in college, but you still don’t know. You have to pick a major, but how do you know (1) whether you will get a job, and (2) whether you will be satisfied with that job should you even get one.
These are all struggles about your vocation. That word has become a synonym for “job,” so that colleges debate the extent to which higher education should be primarily vocational training or whether it should have higher goals, such as cultivating the intellect. But vocation is simply the Latinate word for “calling.” It is one of those theological words—like inspiration, revelation, mission, and vision—that has been taken over by the corporate world and drained of its meaning. The idea is that what you do for a living can be a calling. From God. That He has made you in a certain way and given you certain talents, opportunities, and inclinations. He then calls you to certain tasks, relationships, and experiences.
Your job is only a part of that, and sometimes not the most important part. We have vocations in the family (being a child, getting married, becoming a parent) and in the society (being a citizen, being a friend). There are also vocations in the church (pastor, layperson), but even if you don’t believe in religion, the vocations are operative. Not only that, according to Martin Luther, the great theologian of vocation, God works through vocation, including the work of people who do not believe in Him. God gives us our daily bread by means of farmers, millers, bakers, and the person who served you your last meal. God creates new life by means of mothers and fathers. He heals by means of doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. He protects us by means of police officers, judges, and the military callings. He creates works of beauty and meaning by the talents He has given to artists.
The purpose of every vocation—in the workplace, the family, the church, the society—is to love and serve our neighbors. These are the “good works” that we are given to do. That may sound idealistic. Surely in our participation in the economy we are motivated by our enlightened self-interest. And yet it is surely true that if we are not helping someone by the goods or services we provide, we will not stay in business very long. Even our self-interests are taken up into God’s providential workings. In serving ourselves we also find ourselves serving others, whether or not that is our intention. Thus our work, our families, and our citizenship can be charged with moral and even spiritual significance.
It makes a difference if we think of our work as a “job” (meaning a task we perform), an “occupation” (how we spend our time), a “career” (meaning running at great speed on a preset course), a “profession” meaning taking a vow of commitment, or a “vocation” (meaning a calling). Strictly speaking, we do not choose our vocations. Our vocations choose us.
You can’t be anything you want to be
Certain Republican governors, Fox News pundits, libertarian think tankers, and others worried about skyrocketing taxpayer-funded student loans that are often impossible to pay back are arguing that students should stop majoring in liberal arts subjects like philosophy and history. Instead, they should major in something practical like business or “STEM subjects” (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). That way our nation’s young people would get good jobs that would enable them to pay back their student loans and contribute to society.
The assumption is that if students would just choose a profession, any profession, that would make them lots of money, all would be well. Now you would think that Republican governors, Fox News pundits, and libertarian think tankers would realize that free market economics, with its laws of supply and demand, applies in the job market. The reason certain jobs command big salaries is that not many people can do them. Conversely, if all college students were to go into the STEM line, both the salaries and the employment rate in these fields would plummet, since the supply would overwhelm the demand. As it is, business majors, scientists, techies, engineers, and math majors are already complaining that they can’t get jobs either.
Finding a career is not as simple as identifying fields with good employment prospects that pay a lot of money. There may be a growing need for accountants in the year you expect to graduate. But if you are no good in math, hate working at a desk, and fail your accounting classes, that field is not for you. Or, rather, you are not for that field. By the same token, if you are no good at science, technology, engineering, or math, you are not cut out for the STEM professions. If, however, what you do best is philosophize, you may be doomed to be a philosopher.
What you do is related to who you are. That is, to your personality, talents, aptitudes, and interests. Also, to your background, experiences, and opportunities. The factors about you that are “given,” that might be shaped by your choices but not easily changed, are the raw materials for your callings.
College is both a place where you learn things and a phase of your life. For many of those with the opportunity to go to college—and never despise those who don’t—it is a transition between childhood, living with your parents, and independent adulthood. So it is a time for seeking, preparing for, and finding vocations. (Not just in the sense of jobs. College can also lead to other vocations, such as marriage or a heightened awareness of your citizenship.)
Part of the genius of higher education is that its structure usually allows you to try things. Most people come to college with little sense of what fields even exist and have only a slim idea what they are good at. Here the much-maligned liberal arts requirements can be enormously helpful.
I think that part of the recently displayed hostility to the liberal arts on the part of the Republican governors, Fox pundits, and libertarian think tankers might be that these conservatives think the liberal in liberal arts means “liberal,” as in their political nemesis. It actually comes from the Latin word for “freedom,” as in the education needed for a free citizen, as opposed to “servile” education reserved for slaves, who handled most of the tech needs of ancient Greeks and Romans. The liberal arts, properly speaking, are an education for freedom, something conservatives should support.
It is true that most universities have also forgotten what “liberal arts” means. (Four of the seven liberal arts involve mathematics, indeed, STEM-related skills. The other three involve mastery of language and logic.) But the liberal arts requirements, or what is left of them, are designed to cultivate your intellectual powers. Studying history and your cultural heritage can help you in your vocation of citizenship. Learning to read, write, and think deeply can make you better at whatever profession you are eventually called to. And taking courses with so many different methodologies—hard science and social science, literary analysis and quantitative research—can give you a sense of what intellectual activities you find most rewarding, which can help direct you toward a major, perhaps one you never even knew existed.
The liberal arts are often played against “vocational education,” in the sense of job training. It’s true that the liberal arts are concerned with bigger issues than your own personal job prospects—that is, with transmitting our heritage and our civilization, with transcendent values such as truth, goodness, and beauty. But because the liberal arts are, above all, concerned with cultivating all your human powers and helping you to become a free human being, they are vocational education in the theological sense.
Your vocation now
Thinking about your future vocationally should take some of the pressure off. It isn’t that you have to make a career choice that will determine your entire life and ruin it if you get it wrong. Since a calling comes from the outside, vocation lets things happen. Finding one’s vocation takes seriously doors that open and doors that slam in your face.
Also, vocation is in the here and now. College students are often so fixated on what their future vocations may be that they forget that they have vocations right now.
Slinging burgers may be a dull and boring occupation with the sole purpose of earning tuition money. While it won’t be your vocation forever, it is still a calling, a sphere of service to one’s neighbors–customers, the boss, fellow workers—and a meaningful human enterprise.
College students also have a vocation as members of their family, with obligations to their parents, brothers, and sisters. They also have a vocation as citizens of the various communities they inhabit (their hometown, their college community, their state, their country). They also have vocations in their religious communities, if they have one.
Most notably, they have the vocation of being college students. This calling, like all the others, has its proper work—namely, to study, read, go to class, discuss ideas, and write papers.
Who are the neighbors a college student is to love and serve? Professors. Fellow students. Roommates. Also the people, living and dead, whom you are studying. As a student of literature (now a professor), I like to think that I am loving and serving William Shakespeare by appreciating his art and exploring its meaning.
Thus the vocations involved with being at college can themselves prepare you for the vocations that await you after college. This is a matter not only of what you are learning, but also of the kind of person you are becoming. The various and ever-changing vocations that you will experience throughout your life will blossom out of that.
Gene Edward Veith is Professor of Literature and Provost at Patrick Henry College. He is the author of 18 books, including two on vocation: God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life and Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenthood, and Childhood.