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Loss of Vocation and the Demise of the University

Our nation’s colleges and universities have been much in the news of late, and little of what’s being reported seems heartening. There have been a spate of well-publicized withdrawals and disinvitations of commencement speakers at institutions such as Haverford College, Brandeis University, and my alma mater, Rutgers University. This is part of a larger trend of “liberal intolerance” that is becoming obligatory at institutions of higher learning, articulated with clarity and boldness by Harvard student Sandra Y.L. Korn, who called for the expulsion of campus conservatives who depart from liberal orthodoxy.

On the other hand, there is a burgeoning crisis in the humanities in particular, and the viability of liberal arts education in general. There is pressure from both Left technocrats—including President Obama—and Right libertarians to de-emphasize traditional liberal arts in favor of education in practical and employable skills. A growing number of colleges have eliminated some humanities positions and even entire departments, while seeking to strengthen offerings in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and vocational training.

These developments take place in the backdrop of punishingly-high costs for college education, now approaching or even exceeding $60,000 per year at a typical university. A growing number of families wonder with justification whether anything but the imprimatur of the most prestigious institutions can justify such an outlay, and have begun in earnest to look at alternatives, including a growing number of online and distance learning options.

There are many plausible explanations for “what happened”—how did the justified jewel in the crown of America’s system of education, its colleges and universities reach this pass? Among the explanations on offer are ones that range from the importation of political correctness from France and Germany (à la Allan Bloom), to the incentivizing of fiscal irresponsibility due to federal financial aid, to inevitable administrative bloat in mature institutions. However, these and other explanations tend only to explain one aspect of the crisis of higher education, without offering an explanation that ties them together and discerns their common source.

When the history is written with the benefit of time and distance, one overarching explanation will stand out with such clarity and obviousness that future historians will marvel at the blindness of our current analyses: The demise of the nation’s colleges and universities began with their disaffiliation from religious traditions, Christianity in particular. Indeed, our inability to see the obviousness of this fact is itself a consequence of this very disaffiliation: The tendency to treat each problem separately as if disconnected is endemic to a secular, even “scientific” way of thinking, and is now the organizing principle of higher education and how knowledge is “created” and parceled.

One sees the consequences of disaffiliation perhaps most obviously in the strange and otherwise inexplicable juxtaposition of the most idealistic commitments of today’s colleges and universities on the one hand—often going under the name “social justice”—and the most crass, selfish, money-grubbing utilitarian approach to education that is rampant among students and administration on our campuses, on the other.  One sees this juxtaposition most evidently in the “geography” of most contemporary campuses, which often have wholly separate offices and staffs devoted to social justice, on the one hand, and career services, on the other. At the University of Notre Dame, for instance, we have a Center for Social Concerns in Geddes Hall, and Career Services, located in Flanner Hall. If one is interested in community service, one can go to Geddes (where its website tells us that about 10% of Notre Dame graduates engage in service after graduation); whereas those interested in money-making should walk a bit further north to Flanner, usually on their way from the #1-ranked Business School (a substantial part of its rankings is determined by amount of income for recent graduates).

This geographic divide on our campuses is more than merely a convenient division of function: it informs and reflects a further juxtaposition that was described, but not necessarily explained, by Charles Murray in his recent book Coming Apart: Those who graduate from these sorts of institutions are likely to be considerably more liberal than the general population, with strong commitments to social justice, while also congregating together in wealthy and prosperous urban areas and living at a gaping socio-economic divide from the rest of the country. These urban and near-urban denizens are wealthy and liberal, and—like the universities from which they graduated—largely keep the two worlds separate. They are fiercely utilitarian in their careers and overcome with sympathy in their politics. They work for success and pity the distressed.

Thus, campuses today, like their graduates are a contradictory mess of conflicting impulses that go largely unexamined. Among the most pervasive ruptures that today mark the daily life of a campus—informing the divides between and even within the disciplines, between faculty and administrators, between student life and academic life, and so on—is the division that we designate between service and career. We put these into separate boxes (or buildings), the one informing our lives as volunteers and voters, the other as economic actors.

But, just as the connections between disciplines, between one’s role as teacher and institutional steward, and the classroom and dorm room, were once fostered within religiously-affiliated institutions of higher learning, so too this contemporary division between “service” and “career” was once understood in fact to be inescapably combined as together constituting one’s “vocation.” Institutions of higher learning were originally organized in the most comprehensive sense around discernment of “Calling”—most fundamentally, man’s call to know God, but also to understand the created order and to discern one’s place and role in that order. One’s work as not divided from one’s study or one’s play, nor was one’s service distinct from one’s job—rather, all these were understood at their most complete to be inextricably connected. For this reason, almost all the callings to which university educated aspired were often in the “professions”—defined especially by service to the community—and were often relatively modestly remunerated. One marked one’s success not by amount earned, but service to community (see: “Graham, Moonlight”). They included work as ministers, doctors, professors, lawyers, nurses, teachers and the like. Some became involved in business or farming, but that was often for firms or farms embedded in communities, and hence also involved a significant dimension of service and the repayment of debt—not in the form of student debt to a distant government, but debts to one’s ancestors. The work of these graduates, within the context of a religiously-informed education centered on the aspirations of vocation, was understood itself to be a form of service, and for many, their eventual philanthropy or public service was just a further extension of their vocation. To work in one’s community was social justice: Social justice was not externalized as pity for the poor, but work as service, service as work.

Without being embedded in one’s work, social justice becomes an externalized cause without moderation and limit. Without being embedded in social justice, one’s work becomes merely money-making. The separation of these two spheres on today’s college campuses underlies the pathologies of each: illiberal liberalism and cut-throat instrumental rationality. They are not a contradiction—they are the result of a pathological separation wrought of widespread religious disaffiliation.

Today’s students, like most children, learn from what they see. They embrace the language of social justice and concern for the poor, while they are burnishing resumes for corporate jobs in one of a half-dozen desirable cities in the world. Our institutions of higher learning trumpet their commitments to social justice while ensuring prospective students and their parents that as graduates, they will be will be among the shrinking number of economically successful. They will be economically detached but socially-concerned. More often than not, they have learned that their service work helps their college-entrance and job prospects; even one’s service can help the bottom line!

Today’s universities have become simultaneously bastions of political correctness—social justice as private voluntarism and government policy—and intense and deepening utilitarianism. They are places disproportionately populated with liberals who decry income inequality, yet have become the most effective institutions in the history of the world at fostering and perpetuating these very inequalities. One might attribute this divide to guilty conscience, but most of its denizens fail to reflect on their connection—they are mostly too busy praising the virtues of “critical thinking.”

These institutions are undergoing accelerating self-destruction, not because of one ground or the other—but most fundamentally, because they have put asunder what God meant to be together. A more vicious and de-humanized society awaits, soothed with the self-congratulation of socially-concerned utilitarians.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • John Médaille

    When we established our undergraduate program in business at the University of Dallas, we sought to overcome this gap. Not only do our business students take a full course of philosophy, theology, and literature, they are also required to take a course in Social Justice, which relates the Social Encyclicals of the Church to problems of business and economics. It is my honor to teach this course. It is worth noting that when I started, I could locate no textbook that bridged the gap, and was forced to write my own, The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace.

  • Jay

    It reminds me a lot of the juxtaposition that can be found in the message of Christ and the lifestyles of Catholic cardinals and bishops. It is a difficult mixed message to have to reconcile, or psychologically untangle, when the “flock” are told to give to the needy as the pope or cardinal retreats to their mansion and fleet of servants.

  • Paul Roese

    it shouldn’t be forgotten that not that long ago college was only an option for the wealthy and some professional groups like doctors and lawyers. one would think traditionalists and conservatives would be happy to see a return to those golden days of yesteryear. how many working class or poor children graduated from Catholic or Christian colleges in say 1914? 1928? 1938? how many from any college? how was it when God and man were at Yale and the rest of higher education JIm Crow was still the law in many parts of the country? there was no right of workers to collectively bargain? anti-Semitism was widespread? all the while college men (and it was mostly men) went to chapel?

  • psgrenier

    Terrific article and analysis. Key point for me: your observation regarding secular reasoning — one is tempted to say technological reason — and its inability to see the complexity of life, of anything it examines (cf. a very nice meditation on a similar theme in David C. Schindler’s chapter on misology, in his book on Plato’s Republic). This narrowing and oversimplification necessarily follows from divorcing the university from a sacred context. And from this initial error follows everything else, the utilitarianism, the divisions and bifurcations, exactly as you state.

  • Margaret Kelly

    It may be the case, historically, that the decoupling of social utility and economic growth/success/career followed the “disaffiliation” of higher education, but does the former necessarily follow from the latter? If so, why? Couldn’t we in principle have a wholly secular institution in which social utility/service is integrated with growth, success, prestige, security, a good career? My sense is that many students and teachers at secular colleges and universities are trying, however imperfectly, to work towards this ideal. And when they fail, they often do so not because they and/or their institutions have lost their mission (although that happens, of course!) but rather because other forces make this mission prohibitively difficult. Maybe lots of Secular Idealistic Millennials (SIMs?) just end up getting corporate jobs and neglecting service (except via lip-speak and liberal politics) in order to make their parents happy, support their families, pay off student loans.

  • WolfBoy

    social justice… there is no such animal. another idol amongst a million others. found only in the minds of the deluded and Godless. (Hello Catholic Church academics)… Another form of self worship. Look at me! I care! Same as it ever was. Read the Bible. Read the words of Jesus.