On Being a Student: Vocation

Based on excerpts from an address given at the World Student Christian Federation Day of Prayer for Students, Brunswick Uniting Church, August 31 2008

In the 21st or in any other century, students have had an acknowledged role or vocation in society that goes somewhat beyond the mere fact that they are studying. It has been recognized in many times and places that the combination of youth, intellectual ability and the opportunities for reflection presented in university life means that some of society’s most creative and most critical participants are its students. Students have very often been among those most actively producing new ideas and new cultural forms, and among those most concerned with identifying society’s failures and its need for change.

However the realities of being a student in the 21st century in Australia are not altogether conducive to this role. Some planned developments in our education system, along with some accidents of history, have made student life busier and often less well-resourced or supported. The rapid expansion of our campuses and student numbers without commensurate funding and overt government attacks on the funding of student activities are obvious factors. Less obvious things include the emphasis on coursework, which maintains a fairly constant pressure on many students throughout the year. All these conspire to make the visionary calling of the student a difficult one to foster. While the determined and the well-resourced may still find the time and space for activism, many are too occupied with the immediate demands of formal study and of paid employment to offer much energy to those other, traditional pursuits of the student.

It is tempting to bemoan this situation, and to romanticize the experiences of recent decades or the last century as though they were all protests and poetry. The lament of a 13th century Chinese observer recorded in the Shilin Guangji is strikingly similar to the complaints of some today! In fact students have rarely been immune from pressures related to the need for employment and productivity.

And important as that visionary element of student identity is, we should not disparage those for whom the pursuit of economic security is the more obvious goal of their studies, or forget that university education has something to do with such goals for nearly everyone. While privileged groups may tend to think that the student of Arts or Science is the archetypal creative and critical intellectual, those from communities which have been marginalized and which struggle to achieve freedom and democracy may find that real power and opportunity comes through their access to skills and knowledge of a more technical or professional kind.

The prophetic has to find some relationship with the professional. The professionally-focussed student may have lost something without a sense of vision or creativity, but the prophetic or creative side of student life can become self-serving without a broader frame of reference including service.

I suggest that they are linked by the idea of “vocation”.

“Vocation” and especially “vocational” are used often used rather prosaically, to mean something ike “job” and “job-related”; but strictly speaking, such language implies a relationship between a job, profession or some other pursuit, and on the other hand a wider or larger reality that has “called” the person into that role. To speak of vocation and to mean it is already subversive of a merely technical or economically-driven approach to study or to life; it means being willing to place study itself and life itself in relationship to a wider horizon of meaning and value.

Frederick Buechner calls vocation “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”. He affirms in this statement the possibility that what we find in ourselves most fulfilling and for which we yearn, can be related fruitfully to the needs of the world in which we live. This insight might bridge the apparent contrast between the prophetic and professional orientations of student life; for all are called to seek that meeting place between our own gladness and the world’s need.


Vincent said...
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Vincent said...

Go, Buechner … and thanks for this positive spin on ‘vocation’.

As someone who wants dearly to find the nexus between deep gladness and the world’s hunger, who pursued a degree in fine arts – a degree of the idle rich in some communities, a grounding in knowledge in others – and who has sometimes struggled to find a workable balance between the romantic notion I hold of the student as thinker, idealist and activist, and the more prosaically vocational student (whose motivations I think I’ve understood, but whom I’m still tempted to harangue about having at least some ‘loftier’ – more ethereal? – aspirations), the ideal I’ve always held is to first widely, voraciously consume knowledge and experience (to become a person), and then seek your vocation.

Doing it the other way around puts us at greater risk of turning into so many Ulriches … but now I sound like a plug for the Melbourne Model.