Life is the Career
August is a teacher’s first bell, gently urging the transition from summer indulgences to fall preparations. I love the first day of fall term from which I draw a deep sense of renewal and promise. But this year my earnest anticipation is tempered by the burdens facing students in particular and the Academy in general. The most recent study of American college student’s self reported personal well-being has plummeted to 25-year lows. Students feel mired in a conundrum of compounding and asymmetrical problems within an Academy facing a crisis of consciousness. Heightened levels of fear, anxiety, depression and aimlessness among students are further vexed by alarmingly low financial and intellectual gains when compared to stratospheric tuition increases of 893% since 1980 and where a mere 39% of students now enroll in college to grow personally or intellectually. The result is a tempest transforming the college experience from a journey of discovery into more of a battlefront.
Too many students will arrive on college campuses this fall only to find the Academy’s founding maxim has been neglected. It is time to embrace the notion that we cannot divide “useful” knowledge from “formal” knowledge. Great achievements do not suddenly materialize in university classrooms, but are formed over a lifetime of social interactions advanced through a spirit of inquisitiveness cultivated while in college. A time when students should engage in ethical, analytic, and imaginative thinking that will support them throughout their lives.
Teaching the “art of living” – a college’s first duty – now seems secondary to the reality of merely equipping students with the skills ancillary to a respective vocation. Today, students arrive on college campuses conditioned to believe the most important choice they have is of career. That a fulfilling life is only achievable through the prism of a career. They face enormous pressure to specialize and pursue narrow academic concentrations while the very notion of a “universal man” is anathematized. They cannot be faulted when an entire system is engineered to harness and institutionalize imagination and creativity within the context of narrow academic paths and assessments. The Academy’s original culture of diversity and doubt and holistic curricula offered rich instruction in the arts and sciences while keeping the question of life’s meaning at the center of the Academy and pursuing it in a disciplined way. Something spawned originally from the ancients through PAIDEIA – a marvelous word Aristotle ascribed – that “educating the mind without educating the heart” is no education at all.
The great universities have long been a transformative force universally admired because they serve as potent agents of social progress, well beyond the confining metrics of employability. Moore’s Law reminds us that today’s state-of-art business skills and scientific advances are tomorrow’s museum exhibits. The economies of tomorrow have yet to be expressed and shall change when viewed in the quantum light of a global population of 10 then 15 billion. The more we encourage students to reflect critically, the better equipped they will be to think their way into and out of problems. It’s not only about getting a job. We must create models of education that inspire new understanding of what “knowledge” means in the twenty-first century and where curriculum for life aim to engage students in real-world problems, addressing issues important to humanity, and asking questions that matter. We should focus on designing classrooms addressing that which is often considered paradoxical: the practical and the ideal, business and art, capitalism and democracy. Where schooling inspires not only greater meta-thinking of great scientific advances, but also the humanist expressionism that outlives the ages. The economics of the future can thrive in countless domains of life. It’s about rekindling the flame the great social historian Max Weber referred to as “scholarship as a vocation.” Because life is the career.
So on August 25th when a new term begins here at Loyola and across the nation, let us embrace the ideal of cultivating classrooms that engender confidence and curiosity in our students so they may joyfully champion the Ignatian call to “go forth and set the world on fire.”