Vocation Across the Academy

A New Vocabulary for Higher Education

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David S. Cunningham
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“The soul,” writes Robert Louis Stevenson, “demands unity of purpose, not the dismemberment of man.” The spirit of this sentiment appears throughout Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, the second in a projected three-volume series on the subject of vocation edited by David S. Cunningham. For Cunningham, however, the unity of purpose is demanded of what is all-too-often a dismembered university. The question of what, or who, demands this, and the extent to which this text approaches this question, will be discussed herein. Seeking to address what he calls—borrowing from Immanuel Kant—“the conflict of the faculties” (4), Cunningham presents essays from contributors with a wide variety of academic and experiential backgrounds. As the subtitle of this volume suggests, their proposed solution is employing the language of vocation as a unifying force in higher education. Acknowledging that the differences between the human and the natural sciences—along with all of their attendant subcategories—run deep, the contributors here seek to “consider ways in which deeper and more productive conversations might be fostered among them” (6). The concept of vocation/calling, with all of its accompanying vocabulary (discernment, virtue, wisdom) that the volume suggests, provides a conceptual framework which can transcend departmental divides.

Part 1 of this volume—“Calling Without Borders”—features three chapters covering, broadly, the thematic terms responsibility, conflict, and narrative. These terms, Cunningham argues, are part of the “common language [of vocation] with a specific yet capacious vocabulary” (19). The vocabulary is demonstratively capacious; none of the terms are given a clear definition or understanding common to the volume as a whole—nor, indeed, is vocation itself. Part 2—“Calling in Context”—and Part 3—“Calling in the Future”—both aim to make the case for the ability of this vocabulary to provide meaningful cross-disciplinary conversation (90), and this based on the “future-oriented form of language” it provides (179). Between the contributors of these sections, we are given a strong representation of what a holistic, vocation-based, and future-minded approach looks like—and some chapters make a better argument for it than others. Part 4—“Vocation at Full Stretch”—is concerned with various institutional blocks, both intentional and unintentional, to utilizing this vocabulary of vocation. In a section with many helpful contributions, chapter 12, “Religion, Reluctance, and Conversations about Vocation,” by Mark Edwards, stands out; and it does so by addressing the “elephant in the book.” Vocation, with the terms and ideas surrounding it, has an explicitly theological history, and some individuals and institutions will need convincing to even entertain the vocabulary. While Edwards does not so much suggest a specific solution to this potential disconnect, his acknowledgement of this multifaceted issue, and call for dialogue around it, is much appreciated in a volume that, overall, seems to prefer not to address the “religion,” or, more truthfully, the “God” question.

Throughout this volume, the question of “who does the calling” when one speaks of having a calling is never really addressed in a systematic way. In fact, one’s “religious preference” is presented alongside of questions of occupation, marriage, and family life as constitutive of vocation. This, however, misses a central point: when we ask students “what kind of person they want to be”—which, in the holistic sense, is the general meaning of vocation in this volume—their belief regarding God is primary, not ancillary. How one views themself is necessarily determined by their beliefs regarding God. This is a point made well by Cunningham himself in his chapter in the previous volume of this series (At This Time and in This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, Oxford, 2016). His point is worth citing in full. When looking at the meaning of words like vocation, he writes:

Before very long, we begin to notice that the very grammar of these words involves an action (a call), and that a call would seem to imply a caller. And suddenly we find ourselves swimming in some deep theological, psychological, and existential waters: Who controls our destiny? How much freedom do we have? Is there a God, and if so, to what degree does God shape our lives? If God is not involved, then who does the ‘calling’ that we use to describe our own vocation? (144)

Vocation Across the Academy does not come close to answering—or really addressing—any of the above questions; but of course, it is not necessarily the place of such a text to do so. Still, if the aim of the volume is to argue for a vocabulary of vocation to bridge interdepartmental gaps, then these “God questions” cannot really be ignored—even if, as Edwards acknowledges in his chapter, agreement is not likely to happen. All that being said, this volume is valuable in the wide variety of its contributors and in its overall argument for a holistic approach to higher education. When it comes to trying to understand what, precisely, is meant by vocation, however, this volume does come up a bit short. For that reason, Vocation Across the Academy is most profitable when read, not just as the second volume in a series, but as a veritable “volume two;” this is to say, when it is read in the context of the parameters established by At This Time and in This Place. That volume, while certainly not providing completely satisfactory answers to all the questions around “vocation,” does provide a firm foundation for Vocation Across the Academy. On this foundation, then, the present volume can focus on overcoming the “conflict of the faculties” and giving a unity of purpose to our institutions of higher learning.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brent Gordon is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David S. Cunningham is Professor of Religion at Hope College, where he also serves as Director of the CrossRoads Project and of the Klooster Center for Excellence in Writing. He is the author of five books and editor of three collections on various topics in theology, ethics, and higher education. In 2009, he helped to launch the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE); he currently serves as the Director of the NetVUE Scholarly Resources Project.


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