A monthly publication of Virtues & Vocations, Good Thought pieces showcase scholars from various disciplines reflecting on how issues of virtue and vocation intersect with their work in higher education.

Social Media, Professional Identity Formation, and the Practice of Medicine: To Tweet or Not to Tweet (December 2021)

by Holly J. Humphrey, MD, MACP
President, Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation

Over 10 years ago, educators and leaders in medicine noticed with concern the advent of social media and immediately recognized ways in which physician and medical student use of these applications might undermine the doctor-patient relationship, professional identity formation, and ethical standards. Following the first set of guidelines issued by the AMA in 2010, the American College of Physicians and the Federation of State Medical Boards developed a more in-depth policy statement and guidelines helping physicians and, more importantly, students and residents navigate the opportunities and challenges of participating in social media as part of their personal and professional lives. (1)  These guidelines reinforced an important distinction between the interactions we have with patients and colleagues on an individual basis and our public interactions via social media. Namely, that these interactions are not private, but take place in a public forum; that the boundaries between professional and social spheres blur in ways that can undermine ethical behavior and professional standards; and that the reach of social media is not only far—it is permanent. (2)

How much should we as physicians be concerned? Social media participation among practicing physicians is evolving and not yet ubiquitous. For example, although a recent study of an albeit limited sample of physicians found that 70% of these physicians have a social media presence (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.), 90% of that group posted zero times per month. (3) The study also pointed to where utilization is much higher—namely among female physicians and younger physicians. Interestingly, men in academic medicine were more likely to report professional benefits of social media use—such as invited talks and increased scholarship opportunities—compared to women, who had fewer followers, retweets, and likes compared with their male peers. (4) Increasingly, “altmetrics” of online activity are used as a measure of scholarly impact, suggesting that women are taking on the risks of social media participation without experiencing as many of its potential rewards. (4) For example, social media elicits a range of reactions from those engaged. Different users may interpret the same post in multiple ways and assign meaning perhaps not in the ways that the writer intends. This inconsistency raises the question of is self-promotion on social media helpful in career growth or is it harmful? Does this perception change depending on the identity of the individual doing the posting? For instance, women who engage in career or salary negotiation may experience very real social penalties that men do not. (5, 6)

Students and residents are increasingly using social media to enhance their visibility in the process of applying for admission throughout each stage of the medical education continuum. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when all admissions processes across the continuum were conducted virtually without an opportunity to participate in in-person interviews, the impact of an online presence may have assumed a greater significance, but whether the impact was positive or negative is hard to discern on an individual basis. We know all too well that bias and discrimination in health professions education are real and that learners experience prejudice and discrimination that causes harm and limits their career opportunities. (7) There are reasonable concerns that the perceptions of social media presence may be mediated by the identities of the poster, conferring advantages on some and hurting others.

Unexamined use of social media threatens several of the key roles that medical students and residents must play during the long process of becoming a physician—specifically, self-assessment and managing ambiguity. (8) The dynamic and complex process of taking on the mantle of the profession is mediated by multiple factors both within the formal educational experience and outside of it. Those who reach the highest level of identity formation, known as “interindividual” in Robert Kegan’s seminal framework of personal identity formation and growth, do not perceive themselves as having a single identity and are open to multiple influences. (9) To achieve this, individuals must elevate the interests of others and act on their behalf. To the extent that social media encourages a relentless focus on the self, it threatens the ability of all individuals to achieve this level of growth. (10) In a profession which must be devoted to the needs and interests of those who are sick and suffering, and therefore highly vulnerable, we must take great care that self-focus does not jeopardize the underlying principles of the profession.

Finding the balance between the opportunities and the dangers of social media continues to challenge our profession and our society. Social media plays an important role in building networks, sharing information, and increasing collaborations outside of specialties and institutions. (4) Nevertheless, the profession of medicine should pay careful attention to risks that undermine both the profession and the health of the public. The promulgation of misinformation is the most dangerous. When information posted is not credible and then combined with algorithms used by social media, we are corralled into echo chambers where dissent cannot be heard. This not only limits our opportunities for growth and interaction with people who have different viewpoints than our own, but the misleading information seriously damages the trust on which doctor-patient relationships depend, and public health demands. Recent reports demonstrate that expressing an opinion on social media makes it harder to change our minds by making us less receptive to new information or additional information that suggests we might be wrong. (11) The inability to change our minds undermines our capacity for intellectual humility and realistic self-assessment—key skills that physicians must possess and utilize to effectively care for patients. Above all, cultural and social humility are essential to the health of the public and to the health of our democracy.


  1. Farnan JM, Snyder Sulmasy L, Worster BK, et al. Online medical professionalism: Patient and public relationships. A policy statement from the American College of Physicians and the Federation of State Medical Boards. Ann Intern Med. 2013; 158(8):620-627.
  2. 2. Kind T. Professional guidelines for social media use: A starting point. AMA J Ethics. 2015; 17(5).
  3. Hameed I, Oakley CT, Ahmed A, et al. Analysis of physician use of social media. JAMA Network Open. 2021; 4(7): e2118213. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.18213.
  4. Woitowich NC, Arora VM, Predergrast T, et al. Gender differences in physician use of social media for professional advancement. JAMA Network Open. 2021;4(5): e219834. doi:10.1001/ jamanetworkopen.2021.9834.
  5. Roy B, Gottlieb AS. Organizational culture, practices, and patterns of interactions that drive the gender pay gap in medicine: Second-generation gender bias and other complexities. In Closing the Gender Pay Gap in Medicine, Ed. Gottlieb AS. Switzerland: Springer Nature, 2021.
  6. Bowles HR, Babcock L, Lai L. Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations: Sometimes it does hurt to ask. Organ Behav Hum Decis Process. 2007;103(1): 84-103
  7. Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation. Addressing Harmful Bias and Eliminating Discrimination in Health Professions Learning Environments. Conference Recommendations: February 24-27, 2020. Downloaded from https://macyfoundation.org/ on December 9, 2021.
  8. Cruess RL, Cruess SR, Boudreau D, et al. A schematic representation of the professional identity formation and socialization of medical students and residents: A guide for medical educators. Acad Med. 2015; 90:718-725.
  9. Kegan R. The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press; 1982.
  10. Burnell K, Ackerman RA, Meter DJ, et al. Self absorbed and socially (network) engaged: Narcissistic traits and social networking site use. J Res Pers. 2020 February; 84: doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2019.103898
  11. Lynch MP. Is social media killing intellectual humility? 2020. Downloaded from Big Think: Neuropsych on December 9, 2021

What is Most Essential about a College Education? (November 2021)

by Francis Su
Benediktsson-Karwa Professor of Mathematics
Harvey Mudd College

What is most essential about a college education? As costs rise, and enrollments decline, institutions of higher learning are being forced to answer this question. Some propose trying to do more with less: increasing class sizes, hiring more adjuncts, eliminating humanities departments, pushing to replace education with educational technology. They are effectively saying: “what is most essential about a college education are easily measured practical skills.”

On the other side of the coin, parents grapple with increasing concerns over the rising costs of college, while seeing diminishing returns. They watch as technology and automation decimate their own jobs that once seemed secure, and they harbor growing anxiety about what professions to send their kids into—the so-called ‘jobs of the future’ that none of us can predict. Skill development no longer seems like a wise investment if that training is made obsolete by the next innovation.

Meanwhile, students ask: “why do I have to learn stuff that I’ll never use?” This honest question deserves better answers than the ones we’ve been giving. In my own field of mathematics, teachers and parents often mumble something about learning math to gain skills necessary for careers. Yet much of the math being used in today’s hottest jobs didn’t exist twenty years ago.

If we focus our educational attention solely on practical skills, we’ll completely overlook the broader benefits of education. Math is not just about doing numerical calculations. Writing is not just about stringing sentences together. History is not just about reciting events and dates. Music is not just about performing notes on a page. Artificial intelligence can already do all these things.

In uncertain times, with the future of higher education in doubt, we should double-down on what makes an education truly worthwhile: helping college students become more human—not in the development of skills that a machine can replace, but in the development of uniquely human virtues. When I speak of virtue, I’m not speaking of human dignity that all people possess. I’m speaking of aspects of character and habits of mind that we can all grow in.

For instance, when you to learn to write in a proper way, you develop virtues such as a deep attention to meaning, an ability to craft an argument and organize ideas coherently and concisely. When you study history, you develop the capacity to see narratives underlying historical facts, to assess the strengths and the limitations of various forms of evidence, and to make sense of conflicting interpretations. When you learn to play an instrument, you build the virtues of patience and joyfulness, and develop an ability to synthesize visual, auditory, and kinesthetic information. And as I explain in my book Mathematics for Human Flourishing, the study of mathematics builds—among many other virtues—inventiveness, resourcefulness, habits of generalization, an expectation of enchantment, and an ability to think rigorously.

Rather than reducing education to practical skills in compartmentalized subjects, a proper education should emphasize the development of life-long virtues. An education should invest in the whole person and can be motivated by attending to basic human desires—for exploration, truth, beauty, freedom, and community, to name a few—and address how each discipline meets some or all of these desires. Such an education requires apprenticeship, resources, and time, and it cannot be mass-produced.

So what is most essential about a college education? You don’t need it to survive—not all jobs require a college degree. If a college education only serves to build skills, it may not be worth the expense. Practical skills can easily be outdated: by us, if we switch jobs, or by our employer, if they swap us for a machine. But the virtues built by a deep study in a variety of disciplines will always be in need. Inventiveness, patience, habits of generalization, the ability to assess evidence and organize ideas coherently will serve you well no matter what profession you enter, even if you switch professions. Joyfulness and an expectation of enchantment will make your life richer no matter what you do. These virtues are what’s most essential about a college education. They enable greater human flourishing. You don’t need a college education to make a living, but in a time of great uncertainty, it will prepare you for any future endeavors and help you appreciate what makes those endeavors worthwhile.

What is Higher Education? (October 2021)

by Jennifer Frey
Associate Professor of Philosophy
University of South Carolina

In virtue of what are universities institutions of higher education?  Surely it means more than higher in the number of years in school, more than higher in its demands on student attention and effort, and it certainly ought to mean more than higher in its costs, financial or otherwise. I would hope that a university education is higher in its aspirations and goals, which raises the philosophical question: What is a university education for?

There used to be a distinction that signaled the difference between learning for the sake of acquiring knowledgeable skills (a trade or work) and learning for its own sake, and that was the distinction between the liberal and the servile arts.  For example, Aquinas, in his commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics (a text that begins with a discourse on wonder and the value of pursuing knowledge for its own sake), he calls liberal or free those arts which are concerned with knowledge for its own sake, and servile those arts which are concerned with utility, where the knowledge learned is for the sake of some already determined end.  This distinction has been lost to contemporary discourse, and to the detriment of our understanding of higher education.

The servile arts are necessary and important for human society—we need bright men and women dedicated to practical works like designing and building bridges and running businesses—but we must not lose sight of the fact that such activities are not good in themselves.  Bridges are good insofar as they help us cross bodies of water; business is good for profits and the production of goods.  But what is instrumentally valuable in human life and society is ultimately in service of what is highest or ultimately choiceworthy. Intrinsically valuable goods go beyond the needs of life; they are what we aim at when those needs have been satisfied, such as knowledge, beauty, and friendship.

Of course, there are different kinds of knowledge, and skilled trades are one form of practical, domain specific knowledge. But classical philosophy recognized that knowledge isn’t merely useful or practical, it can and must be pursued for its own sake as a common end in a community of scholars.  Such knowledge is good without qualification because it contributes to human flourishing—it fulfills the natural, human desire we have to know and understand reality that so impressed Aristotle in the opening of the Metaphysics and Plato in his dialogue Gorgias and Symposium.

Even further, the pursuit of knowledge is essential to cultivating the interior freedom that is the foundation of moral and political life.  In order to live well (and not merely work well) we must take the pursuit of truth seriously, because truth is the measure of knowledge, and knowledge of what is true and good are the ultimate basis of practical wisdom and other intellectual virtues, and these virtues are necessary for good practical deliberation in the political and domestic spheres.

An education predicated primarily on the instrumental value of work is sorely lacking, for mere instrumentality has no deeper meaning, purpose, or value.  If we acquire all the necessities of life—health, infrastructure, consumer goods—we are still left with the question: what are we living for?  What makes for a good life and a good society?    If we have no answer to these questions, then we do not know what life’s necessities are meant to secure for us.  If all we have is usefulness, we have carved out for ourselves an empty and vain existence.

If we want more than a futile life of work, then we need to understand what our leisure is for, what our money is for, what our power is for.  And here we do well to remember that the original Greek term for leisure is school, and that a proper education makes us free in a deep and important sense: free to live well apart from the specialized demands of work.

A technocratic approach to higher education understands it as a training for a life of work.  While such an education will always have its place in human society, a university education cannot be reduced to this and remain higher in any deep sense.  A university education must always be focused on what is higher than the space of mere utility.  In its essence, higher education concerns the cultivation of the human mind so that students can become free: free to inquire and to come to know what is true, including what is truly good to pursue, so that they can live well and contribute to a flourishing human society. A technocratic education severs the link between knowledge and virtue; a truly higher education does not.

Can Virtue be Taught? — Practical Wisdom and Engaged Learning (September 2021)

by Jay Brandenberger
Associate Director, Center for Social Concerns
Professor of the Practice, Department of Psychology
Director of Academic Community Engagement, Office of the Provost
University of Notre Dame

We were on the bus at sunrise in Immokalee, Florida —students and a fellow faculty member with migrant workers on the way to pick oranges for the day. We were part of an experiential Migrant Experiences Seminar I began in the 1990s at the University of Notre Dame to experience first hand migrant life and the complexities of our food systems. Careful not to take the place of workers there to support families, we tried to keep pace in the picking. At the end of the day, we donated our meager collections to the workers who picked much faster, and returned to the bus, tired and reflective. Later that week we discussed migrant conditions with advocates from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and with farm owners anxious to have their crops harvested.

What did we learn from such engagement? Upon return to campus, students from the course challenged University policies with respect to food purchase, arguing for fair wages for workers down the food chain (prompting the provost at the time to wonder out loud how the students had developed such concerns). Some shared a new personal consciousness about food use and waste, and grappled with their relative social privilege. Perhaps such outcomes were short-lived, though the life journeys of many of the students suggest otherwise. I would argue that these academic community engagement experiences prompted, at least to some extent, the development of practical wisdom.

Too often we promote community engagement and related pedagogies, now visible and supported in higher education, with only a broad sense of the potential outcomes. Such are often left implicit, assumed. Naming clear moral goals or impacts, both personal and collective, while important, can be difficult to negotiate in a politically charged world. But who could be against wisdom?!

The University of Notre Dame, “seeks to cultivate in its students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings, but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice, and oppression that burden the lives of so many” (excerpt from the University mission statement). The term disciplined sensibility is compelling, and when directed toward concerns of justice resonates well with the concepts of practical wisdom, offering a fitting goal in this time of misinformation and ‘truthiness’.

In virtue ethics, practical wisdom (called phronesis by Aristotle) is a macro-level virtue, meaning that it integrates and builds upon other virtues, such as courage, honesty, generosity. Practical wisdom involves both reasoning (an intellectual component) and action (an applied element) in an ethical context. Thus, one adept at fixing things would not be defined necessarily as demonstrating practical wisdom. A person who makes balanced, reasoned judgments in a fluid moral context would exhibit practical wisdom. Such integration of thought and action in an ethical context is precisely what the fields of service-learning and community-based research promote. Aristotle, not just John Dewey, can be seen as an early proponent of community engagement!

Practical wisdom and social purpose dovetail. Ancient writings and modern research remind us that we cannot flourish if we are not part of something outside ourselves, something bigger than our own survival and pleasure (I argue that the same is true for universities, that they need a social horizon to flourish, to animate intellectual and research pursuits). Practical wisdom is directed toward a telos, a goal or outcome that matters, again paralleling best practices in community engagement.

Practical wisdom, then, is a ready and logical framework for envisioning and assessing engagement efforts. (I expand this argument with insights from psychology and neuroscience here). According to Schwartz and Sharpe (2011), authors of a seminal work on practical wisdom, the current complexities of social life and organizations (complicated by globalization and technological change) lead too often to an emphasis on rules or incentives. Schwartz and Sharp make a strong case for emphasizing practical wisdom, which, they note, emerges through both meaningful work and positive relationships (again, elements of sustained engaged learning). We know in our bones that authentic learning requires more than mastery of content or rules to meet grade incentives. That we need graduates who can negotiate complexity, seek equilibrium in contested terrains (such balance is at the heart of all virtues), and foster ethical coherence. We say so in learning objectives, yet are unsure of how to educate for such. “Can virtue be taught”? is a longstanding question, with at least some answering: “No, but it can be learned.” Community-based, relational, and engaged pedagogies provide one of the best ways to prompt such learning.

Does such learning last? Are the students who participated in the migrant seminar noted above leading (at least somewhat) different lives now? Early enthusiasm may fade, and students may take away different lessons than we envision. To explore such questions longitudinally, my colleagues and I followed the Notre Dame class of 1993— surveyed upon entry to the University, at graduation, and a dozen years later— controlling for entry-level dispositions. Compared to students who did not participate in engaged learning, results showed that engagement during the college years had lasting impacts on students’ sense of purpose, integrity, and personal flourishing (paralleling the eudaimonic sense of fulfillment that Aristotle described). Such findings warrant further research, and prompt support for engaged learning across disciplines. Addressing the wicked problems of today will require both expertise and wisdom.


For more on practical wisdom and the scholarship of discovery/application that supports engagement initiatives, see Brandenberger, 2019 (in edited book by Julie Hatcher, Robert Bringle, and Thomas Hahn).

Virtues of the Mind (August 2021)

by Jason Baehr
Professor of Philosophy
Loyola Marymount University

Why do we teach? For those of us involved in higher education, answers to this question are bound to vary. We may teach because we’re required to. Or because we desire to impart disciplinary knowledge and skills to our students. Or because we want to equip them for successful careers.

Our reasons for teaching may also have a more personal dimension. This dimension may be moral or civic in character: we may teach in order to help our students become good, caring, responsible neighbors or citizens. But it may also have a distinctively epistemic cast: we may teach in order to foster a “love of learning” or to help our students become “critical thinkers” or “lifelong learners.”

The latter aims, which are at once personal and epistemic, seem especially pressing in light of our current social and political context. The quantity of information available at our fingertips is staggering. Its quality is uneven and can be difficult to ascertain. Putative experts contradict each other. Public discourse is marked by polarization and tribalism. Trust in mainstream epistemic institutions is plummeting. While there is no single solution to this predicament, of considerable importance are the ways that we are inclined to act, think, and feel while undertaking epistemically-oriented activities such as seeking and evaluating information, asking questions, deferring to experts, and listening to opposing viewpoints. In short, our ability to negotiate the contemporary information landscape depends in no small part on the quality of our “intellectual character.”

Everyone has an intellectual character. Broadly speaking, your intellectual character consists of how you’re disposed to act, think, and feel in the context of information-seeking and knowledge-acquisition.[2] Are you curious? Do you enjoy learning? Can you think for yourself? Are you willing to listen openly to opposing viewpoints? Do you refrain from jumping to conclusions and making hasty generalizations? Are you willing to admit when your evidence is shaky or when one of your beliefs turns out to be mistaken? Do you persist in the face of intellectual struggle? Your answers to these questions say something about the quality of your intellectual character. They indicate whether or the extent to which you possess “intellectual virtues” such as curiosity, intellectual autonomy, open-mindedness, intellectual carefulness, intellectual humility, and intellectual tenacity.[3]

In my work with primary, secondary, and post-secondary educators, I’ve found that the language and concepts of intellectual character and intellectual virtues resonate deeply. They capture what many of us think education is for and the kind of impact we aim to have on our students.

Suppose that helping our students develop intellectual virtues is an important and timely educational aim. What might it look like to align our pedagogical priorities and practices with this aim? This is a question I’ve been pondering and writing about for over a decade. As the director of the Intellectual Virtues and Education Project, co-founder of the Intellectual Virtues Academy of Long Beach, in my scholarly work applying virtue epistemology to educational theory and practice, and in my hands-on work with classroom teachers across the globe, I’ve sought to better understand, articulate, and implement the “principles, postures, and practices” involved with educating for intellectual virtues. These findings are the focus of my recent book Deep in Thought: A Practical Guide to Teaching for Intellectual Virtues (Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2021). While the book is geared more toward secondary teachers, its guidance and recommendations are readily adaptable to many college and university settings.

Good teaching is and always has been personally transformative. It impacts students at the intersection of heart and mind, will and intellect, character and cognition. More than ever, the world needs graduates who are deeply curious, can form their own conclusions, admit their intellectual limitations and mistakes, listen openly to opposing views, and persevere in the quest for knowledge and understanding. When you think about your discipline, which intellectual virtues strike you as most important? Which of these virtues do you regularly model for your students? Do you provide your students with frequent opportunities to practice and grow in these virtues? Reflecting on these and related questions could inspire some useful adjustments to your teaching practices. It might also help you get back in touch with some of your deepest cares and concerns as an educator.


  1. The title of this post is taken from Linda Zagzebski’s groundbreaking philosophical work Virtues of the Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  2. For a discussion of the nature and importance of intellectual character, Jason Baehr, The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues and Virtue Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  3. For an excellent and accessible introduction to intellectual virtues, see Nathan Kings’s recent book The Excellent Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).


Bad Deaths: An Ounce of Prevention (July 2021)

by Lydia S. Dugdale
Dorothy L. and Daniel H. Silberberg Associate Professor of Medicine and Director of the Center for Clinical Medical Ethics
Columbia Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons

If the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into focus one truth about modern life, it’s that we are more concerned with the quick fix than slow preventative work. We’ll take that pound of cure any day, so long as we don’t have to contribute an ounce of prevention.

Clinicians know this to be the case with routine ailments. My patients tell me candidly that they are keener to take a weight loss drug than to exercise and are happier to swallow a statin than to stop smoking. Everyone wants a magic bullet. And for good reason. They are easier. They require less discipline and forethought.

This “quick fix” phenomenon has played out curiously during the COVID-19 pandemic. It would be easy to point fingers at those who have chosen not to mask or maintain a safe social distance while demanding the proverbial snake oil. But that is not my interest. What I instead find most intriguing about COVID-19 is the expectation that we should all die well without any effort to prevent bad dying. Put another way, if prevention helps to thwart sickness, how then might we prevent the sickness known as death?

The truth is we cannot prevent death. Mortality is 100 percent. It is a uniformly fatal disease we are all destined to catch. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work hard to prevent a bad death. Consider, for example, the person who is genetically predisposed to developing diabetes. I have known such patients. A man is as fit as can be, skinny even, yet suffers from diabetes and high cholesterol. Everyone on both sides of the family has the same. Much as he tries, he develops high sugar and cholesterol. But with good exercise and a healthy diet, he does exceptionally well. Just as there exist better and worse ways to manage disease, there exist better and worse ways to prepare for death. And the worst is when there’s no preparation whatsoever. I’ve cared for such patients too.

Whether diabetes or death, what’s first required is an acknowledgment of the disease’s reality. We must be willing to concede our finitude. But rarely have pandemic headlines reminded readers of their looming deaths and directed them to anticipate and prepare. Despite more than 4 million deaths from COVID-19 worldwide, we continue to pour energy into thwarting the very idea of death and denying the value of preparation.

This wasn’t always the case. After the Bubonic Plague devastated the population of Western Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, there developed a genre of literature on the preparation for death. Known collectively as the ars moriendi, or “art of dying,” these late medieval handbooks held that in order to die well, one must live well. And living well meant cultivating a life of virtue within the context of one’s community. It was prevention, and it took a parish.

As I write in my book The Lost Art of Dying: Reviving Forgotten Wisdom, the earliest iterations of the ars moriendi described five temptations that the dying commonly faced: impatience, despair, pride, greed, and doubt. Going to the grave in abject despair or miserly greed not only threatened to disrupt the art of dying well, but such a person also failed at the art of living well.

The five temptations, then, needed to be mitigated. Early versions of the ars moriendi offered guidance on cultivating virtues both as individuals and as communities in order to combat habituation to a life of vice. For example, to counteract impatience over the slowness of the dying process, people needed to develop the habit of patience. To protect against despair, communities needed hope. The virtue of generosity mitigated greed; humility counteracted pride; and faith remedied doubt.

Cultivating the virtues wasn’t a simple exercise to be carried out as death drew near. Rather, patience, hope, generosity, humility, and faith were meant to be nurtured in communities over a lifetime. As younger or healthier community members gathered at a deathbed, they rehearsed the same virtues that the dying elder herself had spent a lifetime developing.

When I cared for COVID-19 patients at my hospital in New York City in March and April 2020, I was saddened—but not surprised—by the vast numbers of patients who clung to the illusion of invincibility and rejected consideration of finitude. They did this to their detriment, and my colleagues and I tried when possible to engage them in an ounce of prevention.

We live best when we live with a view to the end. We live best when we live examined lives, lives of virtue, lives characterized by a commitment to the good, the true, and the beautiful. This, too, is how we die best.

character journals: reflection as a character development strategy (June 2021)

by Scott Parsons
Character Development Integrator for the Military Program
and Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Ethics,
The United States Military Academy at West Point

Founded in 1802, the United States Military Academy at West Point sits on the banks of the Hudson River about 50 miles north of New York City. West Point is a four-year military service academy. It is a hybrid of higher education and military training. On one hand, it has 13 academic departments and 37 academic majors of study with graduates receiving a Bachelor of Science Degree. On the other hand, West Point trains future Army officers and commissions Second Lieutenants into the US Army upon graduation.

Character Journal and Virtue Reflection
Each summer in late June, cadets arrive to start their 47-month experience. Their time at West Point starts with six weeks of military basic training prior to the start of the academic year in mid-August. We are trying something new at West Point this summer. As the new cadets arrive in the coming days for their six weeks of Cadet Basic Training, we are providing a journal that encourages them to reflect on character and virtue as they relate to their lives at West Point. Additionally, these new cadets have one hour scheduled for reflection after dinner each evening. This reflection hour is facilitated by their squad leader (a slightly more senior cadet).

The purpose of the character journal is to aid the cadet in reflecting on their own character and virtues by observing which virtues were the most influential throughout their day. The character journal provides instructions and a glossary that contains the definitions of 30 specific virtues representing five categories of virtues: moral, intellectual, civic, performance, and military. The instructions recommend that each day the cadets read through the virtues listed in the glossary and decide which virtues were the most important in their experience of that day. There is a table provided in the journal that lists all 30 virtues for each day of the week. For their daily reflection, the cadets simply put a check mark in the boxes on the table that indicate the three most important virtues for that day. At the end of each week, the cadets engage in a more thorough reflection that involves several parts. First, they review their daily virtue table from the past week and select the three virtues that they demonstrated from the entire week which were most important to their success and why. Next, cadets are asked which three virtues they intend to focus on for the next week and why. Finally, there is a section for the cadets to reflect on any virtue failures that week. Cadets are encouraged to write down reasons why they think the failures occurred and consider how they might succeed in the future.

They can write as little or as much as they feel comfortable but must complete the reflection section weekly. Cadets are encouraged to be as open and honest as possible in completing their journals. What they write in their journals is for the cadet’s reflection alone. No one will see their journal unless they choose to share. The journal instructions clearly state, and the squad leaders reinforce, the privacy of the character journals.

Why Journals and Reflections?
There is a considerable amount of academic literature on the importance of reflection in character education and virtue formation. Much of this literature focuses on reflection within the context of higher education. The Jubilee Centre (2020; 8) points out that ‘taught’ and ‘caught’ methods of character education (such as directed habituation and emulation) are important in school aged adolescents, but the “focus at the university level turns to character ‘sought’ through the student’s own critical thinking and reflection.” The Jubilee Centre further points out that, “while habituation is foundational, the emphasis in higher education, where students are mature adults, must be on rational, reflective and self-directed habituation rather than the kinds of copying suitable in earlier years.” Thus, especially when dealing with mature learners, reflection is a critical component because it helps facilitate the process whereby students seek virtue for themselves.

Lamb, Brant and Brooks (2021; 3-4) have identified seven methods of character development that can be applied in university contexts: “habituation through practice; reflection on personal experience; engagement with virtuous exemplars; dialogue that increases virtue literacy; conversations about situational variables; moral reminders that make norms salient; and friendships of mutual accountability.” Of Lamb, Brant & Brooks’ seven character development strategies, the cadet character journal utilizes three: habituation through practice, reflection on personal experience and awareness of situational variables. The Jubilee Centre and Lamb, Brant and Brooks are not the only scholars discussing the importance of reflection in developing practical wisdom. Lamb, Brant and Brooks (2021; 15) cite three psychological models and measures that include the ability to be reflective as “a fundamental dimension of wisdom.”

Using the cadet character journal is new for us at West Point. We hope the journals will provide a strong start to cadets’ education, and support our commitment to integrating cultivation of the five categories of character virtues throughout a West Point education. We are excited to hear what the cadets say in focus groups at the end of the summer, and to build on what we learn.

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and the Oxford Character Project (2020) Character education in universities: A framework for flourishing. Birmingham: University of Birmingham.

Lamb, M., Brant, J. and Brooks, E. (2021) ‘How is virtue cultivated? Seven strategies for postgraduate character development’, Journal of Character Education, 17 (1).

Seeking Forgiveness/Searching for Hope in Our Anthropocene World (May 2021)

by Norman Wirzba
Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology at Duke Divinity School and Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics

When I talk to people about climate change and the multiple forms of eco-social damage that punctuate our world, I now know that I risk inducing the symptoms of what some mental health professionals are calling Pre-Traumatic Distress Syndrome. This form of PTSD happens when people are bombarded, like so many concussive blows, by an unrelenting stream of bad news. They recognize that multiple disasters are here and on the way, but also feel powerless to extricate themselves from the impending doom. It is too much to bear, so they retreat, detach emotionally, and look for ways to shield themselves from yet one more catastrophe. They don’t often want a detailed exposition of what is happening. They want, instead, to get straight to the heart of the matter: are there grounds for hope in a world that is being steadily degraded and becoming increasingly uninhabitable? Young people routinely ask me if they should still plan on having children.

So, how might we speak about the grounds for hope? I propose starting with two principles. One is from Wendell Berry, who says that “hope lives in the means, not the ends.” The second is from Quoheleth, the Sage of Ecclesiastes, who said, “whoever is joined with all the living has hope” (Ecclesiastes 9:4). Together, these two principles suggest that hope resides and manifests itself in a commitment to honor and nurture life with others. It does not depend on having figured out what the future will be. Hope withers when people detach and withdraw from others. Hope grows when people discover and commit themselves to furthering the goodness and beauty they believe to animate this world.

As researchers have considered the hopelessness that people often feel, they have, quite rightly, made grief a focal concern. Expressing grief can help humanize the hard, scientific facts that climate and earth scientists give us. And the experience of collective grief can bring people together, make apparent their shared love and anger, and thus inspire political action. But is it not equally important to learn to confess, repent, and seek forgiveness, especially when we know that so much of the damage is anthropogenic? Ecological destruction didn’t/doesn’t just happen. It is the effect of social/political priorities and economic practices that violate land, water, air, and fellow creatures alike. Clearly, not all people are directly implicated in these practices or implicated to the same degree. Even so, I think practices of confession and repentance are important in our Anthropocene epoch because they communicate that we take some responsibility for our roles in the wounding of our world. I don’t suppose this is easy. Our culture is not good at training people in the arts of confession or apology.

Practices like confession and repentance communicate an earnest desire to be in right, or at least agreeable, relationship with each other. The aim of forgiveness must not be to enable the guilty to live with impunity, since it would be a great injustice to claim that the guilty party did nothing wrong. Nor should it attempt to erase or evade the wrongs that have been done to another, because it is precisely the history of wrongs that needs to be kept in view so that a less violating future can be imagined. This makes forgiveness an uncommon effort. Following Paul Ricoeur, it is important to understand that both the seeking and the granting of forgiveness do not operate on a contractual level. Forgiveness cannot be negotiated or demanded. If it comes at all, it will be as a gift beyond deserving, much like the experience of unconditional love. This keeps the practices of forgiveness at the level of a desire, or in the optative grammatical mood expressing a wish and a hope: “If only…”

A desire for what? Not for erasure or closure. Not even for dissonant-free harmony or wholeness. The desire to be forgiven is fundamentally a desire for the kind of personal and communal transformation in which people are enabled to be in supportive, on-going relationships with others. When people lament histories of wrongdoing, and then commit their efforts to being a helping and healing presence going forward, they also begin to shed the self-justifying strategies that keep them from living peaceably with the wounded. They shed the illusion that they are innocent and exempt from a need to change. Confession and repentance signal the commitment to be open to, and instructed by, the pain and suffering of the past so that people can work together for a more just future.

Seeking forgiveness matters because it communicates a desire to join with the living and contribute to the healing of a world that is both good and beautiful, perhaps even sacred. People who live in hope believe that being joined to others is a fundamental good. There is no hope being alone in a mute, commodified world. There is no hope in an unsympathetic existence. A hopeful life is founded upon resonant relationships in which confession and care are primary practices. If hope presupposes an abiding affirmation of the goodness of this world and its life, and manifests itself practically in a dedication to join with all the living in the work of nurture and respect, then it is clear that the desire for forgiveness registers as the commitment to be in life-affirming relationship with others.

Hear more from Norman Wirzba in this “Facing the Anthropocene” webinar

Crabwalking Towards Purpose (April 2021)

by Christian Ferney
The Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University

Over the past several years, I have developed curricular and co-curricular programming to engage students at Duke in questions of purpose—what it means, why it matters, and how cultivating it can be transformational. Everyone wants a purposeful life; however, wanting purpose is different than cultivating the ability to discern it.

Below are a four things we’ve learned along the way.

Serious doesn’t have to mean solemn.
Vocational discernment, and the character development that supports it, are at the core of who we are as humans. It is indeed serious stuff. For students who have already built the reflective muscle necessary to fully engage in this space, posing purpose questions in a straightforwardly reverential may work beautifully. But if students aren’t there yet, a playful nudge can be helpful. Depending on the setting, it might make sense to translate Aristotle into the language of pop culture, suggesting that messages of purpose are indeed all around us. And sometimes, as with Susan Wolf’s Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, funny and accessible questions about whether one can devote their lives to their goldfish come directly from the text.

Committing can be be mildly terrifying.
Many students are invested in the conviction that it is both possible and desirable to be very good at everything. The trouble comes when this ideal is paired with an overly linear expectation of achievement, one that often somewhat magically forecloses no options for the future. Moving into specificity requires opening up the possibility of commitment—both to ideas and to communities of significance—and commitment always removes at least some abstract opportunity from the realm of possibility. Purpose is scary, because it requires letting go of a comforting, if abstract, fiction. We can’t do it all, so what does a purposeful life require of us?

It also won’t be on the test. Yet.
A major hurdle for many of the students I see is that conversations about purpose or meaning can seem ancillary to what they must do on a daily basis. There are always readings to do, problem sets to complete, study sessions to attend—and all of that comes with the weakly coercive pressure of a grade. Grades are legible, nearly universal currency for students in a way few virtues can match. It can be hard to dig into the whys that underpin our decisions when that takes time and sometimes generates discomfort—and that effort won’t directly help them pass their econ midterm. If cultivating purpose is important—and interdisciplinary research strongly suggests that it is—then we help students by dedicating real estate in their schedules for this to happen.

Purpose has to live in this world.
Tips on finding “purpose” are waiting in every airport bookshop across the nation, but the world is a messy place. Given the often-superficial nature of purpose conversations, students may be dismissive of their importance. After all, they still need jobs. But when we combine what philosophy and literature might suggest about a good life with what we know from social history and current social science about the nature of work, the result is more compelling, not less. Understanding the concept of the hedonic treadmill is useful, especially if one also understands something about what we know (and don’t) about how income affects happiness.

How do we move students into conversations that are vitally important for their own growth and development, when in many ways they have come to us ill-prepared for this kind of engagement? We meet students where they are, and we make it fun—even as we acknowledge that purpose is both good and scary. We ensure that there are spaces where these conversations can live, so that they aren’t crowded out by the endless demands on students’ attention. And most of all, we integrate what we know about the world that students are preparing to change. When we do this, we connect in ways that are endlessly rewarding (and fun!) for everyone.

From Purposeful Graduates to Purposeful Colleges (March 2021)

by Tim Clydesdale
Vice Provost, Dean of Graduate Studies, and Professor of Sociology, The College of New Jersey

What happens when colleges and universities invite students to explore of the idea of vocation? I answered that question in The Purposeful Graduate (2015), describing the effects of a $250M Lilly Endowment initiative undertaken at 88 campuses across the nation. But it has been six years, two tumultuous Presidential elections, and one pandemic since that book was released. Much has changed. Might the hearing and telling of vocation narratives now draw a smaller audience than it once did? Might the voices shouting “get a job” have drowned out students’ ability to hear quieter voices or reflect on their interests and values? As I reflect on what I’ve seen and heard since 2015, I want to invite individuals and campuses alike to consider the road less traveled.

To start, some background is in order. Between 2000-2008, the Lilly Endowment funded 88 colleges and universities with $2.5M grants in support of “programs for the theological exploration of vocation.” The Endowment selected campuses with vibrant to dormant church affiliations and from diverse traditions (e.g., Catholic, Pentecostal, Quaker). It moreover refused to define what the “theological exploration of vocation” meant, nor prescribe what “programs for” this effort should be, inviting campuses to devise creative programs that fit with their own institution’s mission. That last part was critical, and I have described how this creativity, along with the idea of vocation itself, generated sizable and lasting effects on students, alumni, faculty, and staff.

Word of this initiative traveled widely, and before it wrapped up, former participating campuses along with a few dozen non-participating campuses joined forces to create a Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE). This network, now in its second decade as a Council of Independent Colleges program, has grown to 270 dues-paying college and university members, and hosts a biannual conference, regional gatherings, extensive online resources, and modest grants ($10,000-$50,000) to support vocational exploration on its members’ campuses.

I have visited 41 of the NetVUE campuses since 2015, often to lecture but occasionally to consult, and met scores of faculty and staff intrigued by the idea of, eager to begin, or actively engaging students in exploration of vocation. Why are so many interested? The answers are many, but among them are 1) the idea of vocation and its value as a meaning-making life narrative, 2) student and employee openness to vocational exploration, 3) the felt effects of declining support for American higher education, and 4) the appreciation for ideas and narratives that unite rather than divide. Reflection and conversation about vocation will not of itself raise institutional funds or unite the nation. But the proactive, meaningful life journey that vocational exploration offers does calm anxious students, reenergize weary faculty, refresh exhausted staff, and boost campus morale, making it feel like a step in the right direction.

Vocational exploration does not appeal to everyone, of course. I have had faculty tell me that they added exploration of vocation to their classes because it helped them engage a wider proportion of their students, even as they personally do not find the idea valuable. I have had development officers relay how vocational programming expanded their donor pool and increased contributions, grinning about the additional giving but uninterested in the actual impact of vocational exploration on their campuses. And I have heard student life staff report how meaningful vocation is to many students and to their own lives yet indicate there are plenty of students with “no interest at all in an examined life.” Vocational exploration is not a panacea for student engagement nor is it a retention strategy. About 1 out of 2 students will be open to the idea nationally, and a program that engages 1 out of 4 students ranks as highly successful.

Indeed, when I first heard about this Lilly Endowment effort, I doubted it would accomplish much beyond attracting dreamy students and converting them into hyper-idealistic and practically useless college graduates. My goodness, was I wrong! On recent visits to institutions that have put vocational discernment into their missions and embedded it into their public communications — where faculty and staff took to the idea of vocation, dug into its rich literature, and coalesced around an institutional mission that put vocational nurture of students at the core — I noticed a palpable and positive energy on the campuses and a renewed sense of institutional calling among administrators, faculty, and staff. These campuses have discovered that purpose is not only enriching for individuals, but transformative for their institutional culture as well. I knew vocational exploration could generate purposeful graduates, faculty, and staff; I am now convinced it can generate purposeful colleges too.

Character, Story, and a Place at the Table (February 2021)

by Daniel McGinty
Director, Dundon-Berchtold Institute for Moral Formation and Applied Ethics
University of Portland

“A priest, a lawyer, and a nursing major walk into a classroom…” While this seems to follow the formula and script for crafting jokes, it also accurately describes the composition of our The Character Project class at the University of Portland. However, I might just as easily have swapped out nursing major and included Division-1 student-athlete, ROTC cadet, future educator, engineer, or business leader.

For the previous eight spring semesters, I have team-taught a class with University President, Fr. Mark L. Poorman, C.S.C. I make sure to share with students that I am a “father” of a different sort. Other than being a husband and dad to two young daughters, teaching The Character Project class is one of the most fulfilling personal experiences I have had. Over the years, our teaching teams have also included six other collaborators (three of whom were the aforementioned colleagues with law degrees from my joke’s opening line).

Fr. Poorman earned a Ph.D. in Christian ethics, and my doctorate is in education. While we have taught this as an upper-division theology course, it has quickly become one of the most popular classes at the University. As a course, The Character Project allows us to wrap our arms around the three core themes of our University Mission: Teaching and Learning, Faith and Formation, Service and Leadership.

At its heart, The Character Project is about story—the many stories that each of us has and the unique story that each of us is. As students engage in different levels of moral discourse and reflect upon personal practices, they develop a vocabulary to help pose questions and pursue answers to understand better not only who they are but also who they want to become.

Following three months of readings, conversations, agreements/disagreements, case studies, and wrestling through the thorny terrain of values, decisions, conscience, habits, virtues, and vices, each student and each professor is given the floor to share a personal story of change in one’s life—a story of moral formation or moral transformation.

This culminating experience for the course is framed by having read the Gospel of Luke and the chapter “Finding a Story Worth Handing On” in Paul Wadell’s Happiness and the Christian Moral Life: An Introduction to Christian Ethics (2016). Through the series of parables and encounters in the Gospel of Luke, students may see that they are part of a story that is much larger than their own. Wadell invites us to consider the importance of narrative ethics as we seek to make sense of the stories swirling about us and to see where we belong in them.

In her previous Good Thought piece, Suzanne Shanahan reminds us of the importance of the principle of being with. Pope Francis names this as pursuing moments of encounter, accompaniment, and dialogue. We seek to engage with students where they are, as if we were continuing conversations that they might have had with friends over a meal.

So, The Character Project gathers once-a-week, for three hours on Monday nights, and includes dinner. I am sure we can all agree that college students will do just about anything for a free meal. However, it is beautiful to watch formal class discussions continue as informal conversations when students and my fellow team-teachers make their ways through a modest buffet line, then enjoy a short break for dinner in groups of two or three or four.

This emphasis on being with students generates remarkable cohesion and vulnerability, and it seems to create space for a predictable, critical moment. About Week Three of the semester, the tone changes when it is broadly understood or when a student actually utters aloud in front of priest/President, professors, and peers, “Oh. You want to know what I really think…”

It is a privilege to walk with students from the start through the conclusion of our semester together. And it is a joy when they ask to remain connected and return for mini The Character Project reunions, share life updates and milestones, and suggest/ask for readings for personal continuing education. Now our graduates are living their vocations as registered nurses, professional athletes, military officers, teachers, problem solvers, innovators, and entrepreneurs in our community and in your communities.

While The Character Project is a course that concludes at the end of each spring semester, former students have described the class as an experience that endures. Of course, we still want to know what our students-now-graduates really think. At the end of 2020, we created an additional platform for private reflection and public sharing of some of these tender moments from our lives. We invited members of our University’s many communities to share with us Glimpses of Character and Ethics in 2020. Six former students from The Character Project are included among the contributors of these little time capsules and insights into some of the moral moments they experienced during the past year.

Especially In A Pandemic (January 2021)

by Suzanne Shanahan
Professor of Sociology, Duke University
Nannerl O. Keohane Director, Kenan Institute for Ethics

I am a walker. I walk just about everywhere I need to go. It is not a virtuous position: it is neither an environmental stance, nor a healthy choice. I am simply a horrible driver. I live in a neighborhood close to Duke’s iconic East Campus where people know each other if not by name then by face. It is a strong norm for walkers to acknowledge and even stop to chat briefly with those you pass when walking. The presence of dogs (or the occasional cat) increases the anticipated friendly banter. This albeit superficial friendliness has always comforted me. Since last March, walker norms, like so many other things, have changed significantly. Each time a passersby steps into the road to avoid coming too close, I appreciate the courtesy. I also feel a small sense of loss. The loss is magnified by the lack of acknowledgement, the absence of knowing eye contact, or a simple smile. Masks make it easy to avoid the humanity of another. And so masked, we walkers pass like we really don’t know or care to know each other, like we don’t actually share the same sidewalks and the same community.

This loss is certainly a trivial one when there are so many more significant, profound losses. And yet as the director of an ethics institute that calls itself a think and do tank, where we emphasize everyday ethics and the prosaic dimensions of what is means to live an ethical life and to be part of a community, this loss is not in fact inconsequential. Much of our programming in the classroom and in the community is inspired by Sam Wells’, The Nazareth Manifesto (2015), and in particular the principle of being with, so I do worry about the impact of social distancing in the short and long run on rituals of community big and small. Life’s small kindnesses and connections do matter — especially in a pandemic. For all its wonders, Zoom does not easily spark moral imagination or afford that same deep sense of togetherness and common purpose that we have long cultivated at the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

In both Tattoos on the Heart (2011) and Barking to the Choir (2017) Greg Boyle introduces the interrelated principles of boundless compassion and radical kinship to explain the success of Homeboy Industries and gang member rehabilitation. For Boyle, there is something almost magical but surely transcendent in a space of complete acceptance of another person. Together with Wells’ work, Boyle’s perspective has long offered the Institute a way of thinking about our purpose, our commitment to human flourishing, as well as how we work to achieve it—both in the community and at Duke. They encourage expansive empathy. Boyle encourages us to come to our work at the Institute with community members as well as fellow faculty and students without judgment or reproach whatever the intellectual, cultural, religious, racial, socio-economic or ideological differences might divide us. It offers a space of common purpose. Virtual empathy seems to offer far less. I remain skeptical that establishing radical kinship is achievable over email or Zoom.

Last weekend, I went to the supermarket with my teenage daughters. While strolling the aisles, I bumped into a student. I had last seen her in person on the day Duke closed its doors last March. At that time, we had just spent the week working along-side each other, together collecting life story interview data from survivors of domestic child sex trafficking for a new research project. We heard the news about Duke’s closing its doors indefinitely together. It was a surreal and overwhelming moment. The summer before, we had spent a month together doing research in Rwanda. Day after long and challenging day, we sat on roadsides in small villages across the country interviewing refugees from Burundi and the Congo. The interviews were at turns humorous, heartwarming, and heartbreaking. It is fair to say I know her well.

You can’t work that closely with someone on these sorts of projects and not share something significant—an understanding, a set of values, a common purpose, a respect, even a love. We are friends in the Aristotelian sense of friendship of the good. When seeing her for the first time in more than 10 months, and forgetting all the new norms, we did what friends do: I hugged her and she hugged me. As we hugged there in the supermarket, my children gasped, the friend she was with gasped, strangers who shared the cereal aisle gasped. One shopper even made a most unkind remark. Brazenly we had violated the new rules of human interaction. We were in that moment marked as bad people. But in that instant, she and I both laughed, sharing a moment of joyful kinship that has over the past couple of years made both our work and our personhood possible in ways the others could not quite understand. Indeed, we reveled in the banality and comfort of this simple gesture. As I reflect on that moment, I can’t tell which is the greater misfortune: that this once commonplace exchange was somehow a public transgression or that the others could not understand how foundational kinship is to who we are, what we do and how we do it—especially in a pandemic.

The Difference Calling Makes (December 2020)

by Bryan J. Dik, PhD
Professor of Psychology, Colorado State University
For educators, cultivating a sense of vocation among students is a deeply meaningful goal—one that imbues our own work with purpose. But what do we know about the difference it makes for students and workers who experience their education and careers this way? Within vocational psychology and organizational behavior, more than 600 studies—nearly all of them published within the last 15 years—have investigated this question by studying perceptions of work as a calling, a term often used as a synonym for vocation. This rapidly growing body of work is yielding results that can inform the way we think about how vocation functions in people’s lives. For example:

  • A sense of calling is surprisingly prevalent. One recent (pre-pandemic) study using a stratified national sample discovered that 42 percent of U.S. adults responded “mostly true” or “totally true” to the item “I have a calling to a particular line of work.”[i]
  • A sense of calling is linked with positive career development outcomes. People who feel they have a calling, compared to other people, are more confident they can make good decisions about their careers, more committed to their jobs and organizations, more motivated and engaged, and more satisfied with their jobs.
  • A sense of calling is associated with general well-being. Compared to other people, those with callings are happier, more satisfied with life, cope more effectively with challenges, and express a stronger sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.
  • It’s not only about having it;it’s about living it. People who feel they have a calling are happiest, most committed, and experience the most benefit when they are working in a role that enables them to live out their calling.
  • A sense of calling can have some drawbacks, too. People willingly make tough sacrifices to pursue their callings, and pursuing a calling can also sometimes make people vulnerable to problems like workaholism, burnout, poor work-family balance, and exploitation by unscrupulous employers.

These results affirm the value of fostering a sense of calling among students and workers, but suggest that thoughtfulness and nuance are needed in this task. For example, the evidence suggests that attention must be directed beyond discerning a calling toward finding or creating opportunities to express it in the “real world,” which is where the real benefit lies. Similarly, active steps toward striving for balance in living out multiple callings in life is an essential strategy for warding off the “dark side” of callings. These implications, and more, serve as important “grist for the mill” in the virtues and vocation conversation.

[i] White, M., Marsh, D., & Dik, B. (under review). Prevalence and demographic differences in work as a calling in the U.S.: Results from a nationally representative sample.

Bryan J. Dik, PhD, is professor of psychology at Colorado State University, and co-developer of the PathwayU online career assessment platform. His books include Redeeming Work and Make Your Job a Calling.

Race, Character, and Education (November 2020)

by Mari Jørstad
Research Associate, Kenan Institute for Ethics
What kind of character traits should education seek to form in children and young adults? More specifically, what kind of virtues do students need in order to get the most out of their education? These are two of the questions considered by Willie Jennings, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University, in his book After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, and Candace Owens (an author and political activist), in her book Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation. Jennings is writing specifically about theological education, but his book is also a general critique of Western education. Owens is focused on K-12 public school education in the US, though she also touches on affirmative action in university admission programs.

Jennings and Owens come to the question of virtue in education with widely different commitments and they do not agree on much, but they agree that something is wrong with our current educational system. They also agree that the wrong-ness of the system is especially harmful to Black students and teachers.

For Owens, the main problem with education is that less is expected of Black children than of white ones. “I believe that the reason Blacks continue to lag behind whites in terms of educational achievement is due to a culturally widespread belief that we [Blacks] should not be made to put in the same effort because of our earlier oppressive circumstances” (84). Rather than emphasizing to students their abilities, creativity, and intelligence, “today’s curriculum overemphasizes the role that others play in our success,” and so “systematically [disempower]” students (87). For Owens, the solution is hard work, individual effort, and school choice. Parents should be free to choose academically demanding schools for their children, and children themselves need to cultivate the virtue of industriousness.

For Jennings, the problem with education is not that less is expected of Black students, but that Black minds and bodies are seen as largely irrelevant to the academy. European colonialism bequeathed to Western education the idea that Europe “spoke the truth of peoples more accurately than peoples’ own accounts of themselves” (19), and that this was “key to forming institutionalizing processes that were crucial to global well-being” (137). This too leads to low expectations for Black students. If Europe has the answers, then the best answers are white. This, Jennings argues, turns educational material “toward a Black lack” (109). Repeated exposure to Black lack leaves students feeling like they are not “smart enough, mature enough, prepared enough” – they come to experience what Jennings calls “academic despair” (56).

When it comes to solutions, the common ground between Owens and Jennings disappears. As a system of personal formation, Jennings argues, Western education aims to create the self-sufficient man, “his self-sufficiency defined by possession, control, and mastery” (6). Owens’ solution, self-sufficiency achieved through hard work, is Jennings’ problem. Instead of more effort on the part of students, Jennings wants education to “cultivate belonging” (10). His hope is for a form of institutional life that makes it possible “for everyone [to] feel at home in the work of building, sustaining, or supporting an institution without suffering in a tormented gender performance bound up in racial and cultural assimilation” (18). For Owens, the character traits students need are primarily individual: individual work ethic and making good choices. For Jennings, the most important virtues are communal. His question is not “how do you solve this problem for yourself,” but “how do we build a different community.”

I don’t know how to square the circle of Owens’ individualism and Jennings’ focus on community. They are, in many ways, incompatible. I am also hampered by my own biases; my sympathies are all with Jennings’ argument. Still, when I step back, what I see is that both authors speak to the pain of being part of a system which does not take you seriously, which expects you to contribute nothing of importance. They speak of the love of learning and of ways in which that love turns to disappointment and shame for students. They speak of forms of education that leave students with despair instead of courage and creativity.

Maybe we can build something from that. What if we start the conversation around education not with the things we can’t agree on, but with students? What if we ask students, Black students in particular, about conditions that make virtue formation possible? What makes you feel valued, what makes you feel trusted, what makes you feel challenged? What makes you feel disempowered, what makes you feel underrated, what makes you feel overlooked? When is hard work satisfying and when does it feel useless, a road to nothing at all? What motivates you to work hard and who motives you to work hard? What aspects of education are important to you, what makes you feel passion, drive, and purpose? When do you feel like you belong?

Owens and Jennings agree that if our educational system consistently produces better results for white students than for Black students, that means something is wrong. Perhaps we can build something from that agreement, from that small overlap between two thinkers who otherwise see eye-to-eye on next to nothing. And it isn’t next to nothing, to agree that education should serve Black and white student (and all the students who fit into neither category) equally well. That is quite a lot, and something to take hope from. We are not all suddenly going to agree, and yet we need each other in order to create thriving communities. How do we become the kind of people who can build such communities out of our disagreements, rather than let our disagreements become reasons to despair of change?

Jennings, Willie. After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2020.

Owens, Candace. Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation. New York: Threshold Editions, 2020.