Liberal Learning as a Quest for Purpose

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William M. Sullivan
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In 1999, the Lilly Foundation launched a project to fund religiously-affiliated colleges and universities as they developed programs that would encourage students, faculty, and staff to explore the theological notion of vocation in the context of their liberal arts education. Eighty-eight institutions—some more religious, others more secular, but all associated with a variety of Christian denominations—each received grants of more than two million dollars to support these programs for ten years. William M. Sullivan’s Liberal Learning as a Quest for Purpose analyzes the results of a qualitative research study of twelve institutions where the Program for the Theological Exploration of Vocation (PTEV) has been fully integrated into the academic and co-curricular aspects of the campus. He argues that the PTEV encourages students “to conceive their college experience as a serious enterprise with lifelong consequences,” thereby re-emphasizing the “formative power of liberal education” at a time when the public discourse about higher education has de-emphasized liberal learning in favor of job acquisition (16). Sullivan’s argument is persuasive, and supported by numerous examples of the ways that PTEV curricula envision—through the lens of vocation—a holistic approach to college education in the 21st century.

All of the TEV programs Sullivan highlights have three common features: an emphasis on vocation as a way to educate the “whole student”; the development of learning communities that bring together students, faculty, and staff; and the practice of theological and spiritual self-reflection to enhance students’ self-awareness and sense of life purpose (19). Each institution was given wide latitude to engage approaches to vocation based on the schools’ particular theological character, so the ways in which institutions put these features into practice were quite diverse. Santa Clara University, a Catholic University in the Jesuit tradition, developed a “vocation pathway” that students can choose as part of their core curriculum. One course in this program, “Vocation: Your Personal Renaissance,” is “organized around the vocational narrative of self-discovery” (25). Students examine the lives of Renaissance figures whose religious self-understanding gave them a sense of purpose, and then use what they learn to reflect on their own self-understandings. Students complete readings of primary and secondary texts, write argumentative papers, participate in discussions, and practice group meditation to develop self-awareness (22-24). At Macalester College—which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church but sees itself as a primarily secular institution—participants in the TEV program have multiple curricular and co-curricular opportunities to reflect on work and values as they think about life transitions: from high school to college, finishing their college career, and the year after graduation. Various programmatic opportunities give students time to reflect on how their lives can be centered on their ethical commitments. Faculty and staff at the college attribute a new openness on campus to discuss “issues of calling and religious meaning” (80) to the PTEV.

Although these are only two examples, the idea of vocation in the various iterations of the PTEV—whether framed in specifically religious contexts or more secularly as a way to think about personal ethics and values—serves as a way to reconnect conversations about individual purpose and social good that have become increasingly isolated from one another as the instrumental value of a college education has become more prevalent. And, although Sullivan points out that there are numerous other programs—in many ways comparable to the PTEV—that encourage students to engage the ideals of humanistic learning, he is right to point out that the PTEV’s emphasis on the idea of vocation “adds the important dimension of a context, lending significance to the call of sacred values as well as the impulse to live with and for others” (190). It is this argument that makes the book worth reading, especially as humanistic disciplines struggle to articulate their value in a science-technology-engineering and math [STEM] and job skill-focused world. Sullivan’s grounding of the value of a liberal education in the history and philosophy of Western culture adds additional depth to his analysis.

The challenge of this book—and this is not a criticism of the book—is that the idea of “vocation” remains primarily a religious (read: Christian) notion, no matter how hard we may try to take it out of that context. It would, indeed, be desirable for every college and university to figure out a way to harness the idea of “sacred values” and “life purpose” as a clearly-articulated—and essential—outcome of a college education, whether a student is religiously-oriented or not. Sullivan’s book leaves this reader mulling over how we can shape that conversation, and how we might be able to reinfuse the public discourse on higher education with an emphasis on the meaning and worth of the “good life” that education can cultivate.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Susan E. Hill is Professor of Religion at the University of Northern Iowa.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William M. Sullivan is currently a senior scholar at the New American Colleges and Universities and Visiting Professor at the Center for the Study of Professions, University College of Oslo and Askerhus, Norway. Previously, Sullivan directed the Preparation for the Professions program at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Prior to that, he was Professor of Philosophy at La Salle University.




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