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Prepare Students (and Ourselves) for Meaningful Work

The EvoLLLution | Prepare Students (and Ourselves) for Meaningful Work
As lifelong learning becomes increasingly essential to successful careers, it’s critical for colleges and universities to ensure they’re not just providing pathways to jobs, but pathways to fulfilling lives too.

Debates continue about the purpose of higher education in both its traditional and non-traditional forms. The Association for American Colleges & Universities says educators should prepare students for life, work and civic engagement. Yet many recent reports, essays and articles about higher education neglect life and civic engagement and reduce the concept of work to jobs.

Preparation for meaningful work—life’s work, in addition to jobs—should be a central goal of higher education.

The work of a whole life far exceeds paid employment, and taking it seriously means thinking beyond how to pay the bills. How then ought we to teach and learn, to educate human beings for life? These questions are urgent as we face a future of radical change, of growing mechanization and fewer jobs relative to the demand for employment. No matter the number of jobs, there will certainly be a lot of work we all need to do. This includes work upon ourselves—considering needs and desires, attitudes and behaviors, expectations and habits—as well as upon our relations with others, with the planet and with the world. Such transformations present new opportunities to think about work beyond jobs. Work should contribute to a meaningful life, allowing us to address broader challenges, care for social and ecological bonds and bring about a better world. These aspirations reflect the purpose of higher education as a public good.

This all sounds laudable, but how do we make it happen? Across higher education there is burgeoning interest in helping students of all ages engage with deeper questions. Among these questions is a sense of purpose in work. Related initiatives include courses on happiness and the meaning of life as well as programs that support students in discerning vocation. The Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE) was created to address this need. Not-for-profits like the Lilly Endowment have supported such efforts. One of these is The Cothran Center for Vocational Reflection at Furman University which, in line with the four-year signature pathway program The Furman Advantage, places reflection at its core. In addition to programming for current students, faculty and staff, the Cothran Center offers annual retreats and pilgrimages for alumni. It is a sign of hope that higher education seems to be reversing a trend diagnosed by Anthony Kronman in his 2007 book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life.

An imperative for all of us—educators and learners alike—is to find space for reflection in our days. One way that we foster reflection at Furman is through upper-level pathways courses. Many of these are intended for students from a specific major, while others have a broader reach. One of the latter is a course I created called “Designing a Good Life.” It uses design thinking principles to help students make good choices for next steps in career and life. It addresses values as well as virtues—that is, the attributes that students must develop in order to live out their values—along with the question of what makes a good life. I have found students hungry for a supportive context in which to discern their values, identify the virtues they must cultivate in order to pursue these values and discuss strategies to lead a meaningful life.

Recently a colleague and I launched an online version for alumni. Mindful of the schedules of working adults, we offered it in a 45-minute webinar format over the noon hour. We framed the course like a cooking show: just as viewers cannot prepare a full meal as they watch, we knew our alumni would not be able to complete their engagement with the questions we asked and ideas we presented during the short span of the webinar. So we encouraged them to take notes and offered URLs and book titles for further exploration of what makes good work and a good life, different variations on their five-year plan and how to build a team to support their life design. We hope that this webinar will become a model for other short courses to support alumni in their ongoing development.

My deep investment in the topic has made both the in-class and online versions of “Designing a Good Life” effective. It is essential in this kind of course to avoid “sage on the stage” teaching and to accompany students as fellow travelers. Student comments and evaluations indicate that some find this the most transformational course they’ve taken. It is certainly one of the most meaningful teaching experiences I have had in 25 years of higher education. We are never more effective than when we, as teachers, walk the walk.

With ever-intensifying scrutiny of higher education and expectations for colleges and universities to deliver on their promises to students, whether they are new high-school graduates or returning adults, few topics are as significant as purpose and outcomes. Surely for the health of society we need to prepare students (and ourselves) not just for a job, but for a lifetime of flourishing through meaningful work.

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