Vocation and the Student

While many Americans conceive of the average student at an elite university as a wild-eyed leftist, the nation’s best and brightest actually seem to prefer stocks and bonds over socialism. Graduates of such esteemed universities like Harvard, Penn, and Princeton have gone to work in consulting or finance at such high rates (34, 36, and an eye-popping 60 percent, respectively). Color this writer skeptical, but the idea that graduates of elite colleges are drawn en masse to money and business management because of their deep personal call towards Wall Street seems unlikely. It has much more to do with the difference between career and vocation, and the way the former has taken ahold of our worldview.

The word vocation comes from the Latin noun vocatio, meaning a call or summons. The word might sound strange to us; a little oldfashioned or awkward. Certainly no one uses it in casual conversation: “So, what kind of vocation do you want to pursue?” seem like an off-kilter version of the usual questions adults ask college students about their “career.”

Career, however, is a word we are comfortable with. Our high schools host “career days,” colleges send us glossy pamphlets desperately trying to convince us that they and only they will help us on to the most successful career, and once on campus, we have the Office of Career Services. The meaning behind the word is clear as well: almost always something well-compensated, prestigious, or both. Jobs that are neither aren’t mentioned, or seen as a fairly quaint aspiration that young people will outgrow.

Of course, the modern university has been failing to help students in discerning their vocations for a long time. One of the clearest and most incisive indictments of careerism (though he never uses that specific term), was made by W.H. Auden in a speech, “Vocation and Society” to undergraduates at Swarthmore. He only taught here for three years (1942-1945) and had a somewhat ambivalent attitude about the college and the town. His poem about Swarthmore, “A Healthy Spot,” opens with the bland statement “They’re nice”—a fairly damning indictment. However, he remained connected to the college in one way or another for several decades, lecturing, giving interviews, and even donating some of his manuscripts to McCabe. But in his address, delivered in 1943 he outlined exactly what vocation is and how students might seek it.

In the opening of the speech Auden uses the example of the two protagonists from The Magic Flute to outline three types of living: “lowbrow,” “middlebrow,” and “highbrow.” The character Papageno is lowbrow. When asked if he is willing to fight and risk his life for wisdom and love he renounces both, saying he does not desire wisdom and that he would rather keep his life than have a “sweetheart.” His friend Tamino is the heroic highbrow, eagerly putting himself in danger for his love Pamina. The interesting thing, Auden notes, is that both characters are blessed by the gods and find spouses. Tamino’s case is clear-cut. He has a “Passion” for Pamina and is willing to suffer for her. As Auden says, “He must look for her, whether he find her or not, whether he succeed in marrying her or not. He has a vocation.” [1] This is the classic highbrow life. But Papageno, too, has his passion and his willingness to suffer. It is “the passion of remaining immediately alive, even if that means remaining a bachelor,” and the willingness to suffer in a “negative” way, by giving up wisdom and love. The lowbrow, then, with his fear of death and suffering is conditioned by “objects outside himself…conscious of nothing beyond the immediate moment, there is no distinction between object and subject.” [2] It is childlike, but dictated by some necessity and harmonious with nature, at least as Auden puts it.

But if both kinds of lives are somewhat acceptable to the gods, what kind of life is unacceptable? According to Auden it is the middlebrow life, “to exist without passion and without a willingness to suffer.” The middlebrow, when asked whether he is willing to suffer to find love and wisdom, says he is but thinks to himself “I’m smart and modern…I’ll take the trials by correspondence, or buy a bottle of aspirin at the drug store and feel nothing. After all, what are college professors and scientists for?”[3] Leaving aside that aspirin seems to have packed a considerably bigger punch in the forties, we start to see how “middlebrowism” can poison our academic culture. Because ultimately, the middlebrow wants to succeed, will work hard to succeed, but does not really understand what success is. They would rather have a 4.0 GPA than challenging courses, or a prestigious internship instead of one that they love. They take an instrumentalist approach to the whole process of college and the rest of life; everything must be ordered towards “achievement.” But it would be a mistake to pretend that middlebrows are “other people.” Everyone is at least in part a middlebrow because we are shaped by a culture that is fundamentally middlebrow. And that cultural shift has quite a lot to do with the fact that in our educational system, we have lost an understanding or even awareness of the word vocation.

From the beginning, American education is shaped towards the identification of “skills” which then have to be carefully cultivated. The impulse starts in kindergarten with advanced reading groups and the like, but is fully brought to light in high school; look to the barrage of STEM classes and programs designed to put advanced students in touch with employers. This leads to an educational system less oriented towards creating scholars or citizens, and more to creating workers. Again, the language of educational policy betrays these motives. Words like “achievements,” “jobs,” “careers,” and “future” abound. Even worse are the “find your passion, change the world” type of pitches often heard on college campuses, which use the language of vocation to hide a worldview fundamentally based on loosely defined achievement and “success.” A university claiming that it will make you a “young leader of tomorrow” or that it will help you become a world-historical figure is A) selling you a bill of goods and B) marketing ambition more than true passion. These ideas were already rearing their heads in Auden’s time. Progressive educational reformers, objecting to the stifling and didactic methods used in traditional education, advocated for an educational system that emphasized personal expression. Auden said their objections were mainly correct but that their solutions were unsound: “If the traditionalists have caused the child to stumble by putting up a barbed wire fence, then the progressives have equally sinned against him by greasing the floor.”[4] After all, if a system simply makes it easier for someone to cultivate skills, then they will lose out on the struggle which is part of the joy of learning. A child (or college student) may be a gifted mathematician, and therefore constantly nudged by teachers and parents to jump through higher and higher hoops on the way to a good career in engineering. But his skill at math does not necessarily have anything to do with his vocation. He may fall in love with Biology, or Poetry, or Film Studies—though God help him in the latter case. But the “greased floor” of careerist, middlebrow education will simply cause him to slide right by his vocation. This is why Auden calls Vocational Guidance (Career Services to us) a “contradiction in terms.” “The only reasons,” he says, “that another can give me why I should adopt this career rather than another are that I should be more successful or that it pays better, but such matters are precisely what I must not think about.” [5]

Vocation is not merely a gauzy sense of “do what you love,” and this point is where Auden is at his most helpful. He uses psychological terms to define vocation, calling it a state of “subjective requiredness.” It is subjective because it is about only possibility; “never the how, only the why” and required because it the seeker is in it for the duration, success or failure be damned. Auden compares it to marriage vows, saying “No one can hope to have a vocation, in fact, if he makes a private reservation that, should circumstances alter, he will get divorced.” Vocation, then, is no guarantee of success or gratification. One follows their vocation because it allows them live at their most human: full of passion and longing for something higher.

But in what ways is this relevant to Christians, especially Christian students? Auden, second only to T. S. Eliot among Christian poets in the 20th century, certainly saw the pursuit of vocation as grounded in Christianity. He says “It would be dishonest of me to conceal my conviction that the notion of subjective requiredness presupposes a belief that man is born in sin but may be saved through the grace of God.” [6] The whole concept of vocation, that humans face the choice between middlebrow and highbrow life, rests on the Christian belief that humans are both born of dust and contain the divine image. The middlebrow never transcends the dust, focusing on the demands of the world. He merely wants to make his life as pleasant and pain-free as possible by altering the world around him. But the highbrow who has a vocation is constantly striving toward an unattainable, higher, ideal, an experience with obvious echoes in the Christian life. The Protestantized vocation that Auden identifies is an echo of God’s grace, as the act of struggle and passion will, when properly channeled, help the striver hear an even higher call.

In the modern university, the views of students seem to be trending towards the middlebrow. When asked in 1970 what the purpose of education was, 70 percent of students answered said it was most important in “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” In less than two decades, the majority response became “to make more money.” [7] Maybe students now are more prudent, but who ever said Christians should be prudent? Alan Jacobs, in his illuminating book about Auden and his literary peers in World War II (The Year of Our Lord 1943), says a society that encouraged subjective requiredness would serve as the ultimate refutation of Fascism. If individuals could discern vocation and passions for themselves and flourish, the totalitarian view of objective requiredness imposed by the state would crumble. The statist ideologies of the 20th century are (mostly) behind us, but a more developed and more secular United States seems to impose its own objective demands.

To refer back to the beginning of this essay, the droves of students leaving the Ivies for essentially the same jobs on Wall Street cannot all, in the deepest parts of their hearts, feel bound to be bankers. More plausibly, the modern and technocratic education so many college students encounter fails to expose them to passion, so the culture they are formed in imposes its own objective demands. The meritocratic culture that modern universities both create and live off—the complicated ecosystem of SAT tutors, college counselors, application essays, college rankings, Goldman internships, and “summer fellowships”—forms students towards “achievement” as an end in and of itself. When every incentive given to students, starting from an early age, is in the form of supposedly objective measures such as admissions processes, GPA, and the fairly well defined hierarchy of schools and after-graduation jobs, the only thing they know to pursue is achievement. Which is, in their defense, a less risky and complicated path to follow. Landing an $120,000 a year job at Deutsche Bank after graduation is a very clear signal that you’ve made it, and ascending the corporate ladder is a clear next step. Lest it be said that I am only writing about bankers, who are honestly easy targets, this same analysis is easily applicable to all professions: law, government, and academia all have similarly clear markers of status and hierarchy.

This is the middlebrow life Auden warns against. Concerned with only “the immediate being and the actual,” the middlebrow will only ask questions of “the How, never the Why.” [8] Questions of technique crowd out all other considerations. A poem Auden wrote during his years at Swarthmore, “Under Which Lyre,” illustrates a war on campuses between humanist highbrows (“sons of Hermes”) and technocrat middlebrows (“sons of Apollo”). Under Apollonian control “Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge/ He pays particular/Attention to Commercial Thought/ Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport/ in his curricula.”[9] Thankfully, there is enough fight left in the liberal arts to stop these particular courses from encroaching on campus. Not enough, however, to stop the steep decline in humanities majors and the rise of more technical majors like computer science and economics. To demonstrate where this technical, careerist mindset will lead, Auden references Kay in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” into whose eye a shard of glass from a cursed mirror falls and who then only sees things as they are, not how they could be. Faults and mistakes are magnified; roses are only rotten or dying.

So what should Christian students do? Their first step should be to remember that Christians do, in fact, have an objective ideal to pursue that isn’t professional success. It is the example of Christ; the Christian life is a vocational pursuit of this fundamentally unattainable goal. But to focus more narrowly on the educational stage of our lives, it is also to remember that living a life without passion, to be afraid of risk and suffering and to desire no more than comfortableness, leads to spiritual decay. Auden grasped this point fully in his (aptly named) poem, “Like a Vocation:” But politeness and freedom are never enough, not for a life. [10]



1. Auden, W.H. “Vocation and Society.” Lecture, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore PA, 1943.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Schmidt, Benjamin. “The Humanities are in Crisis,” The Atlantic.
8. “Vocation and Society”
9. Auden, W.H. “Under Which Lyre (A Reactionary Tract for the Times).” Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Poem, 1946.
10. Auden, W. H. Collected Shorter Poems: 1927-1957. New York: Random House, 1964.

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