The Pursuit of Higher Learning

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As another academic year comes to a close, it is an appropriate time to reflect. As a leader within higher education, an important question to consider is what actually makes higher education higher?

Even if you are not connected to, or a product of, this higher learning, there are valuable insights to consider as the themes reflected here may very well connect to other aspects of your life such as the impact of service, vocation, and your relationship with God.

So what makes higher education higher?

On the face value, higher education in a college or university setting is the optional, yet often expected, next level of education after high school. But is it truly leading its students to something higher, something more?

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Universities were initially founded to impact and improve society (although it had its’ severe faults, often limited to only white men, and often practicing Christians, if not ordained religious). Its access to marginalized and diversified groups is more of a recent change, although its jarring history of institutional racism and inequality remains.

So what then makes it higher learning, and is it worth the cost?

This is not a new question and this and related questions will soon gain steam as we near the presidential election of 2020, and in ways it has already started. For one such example, you can read more here.

When I speak of “higher” learning, I would like to consider three unique characteristics of his higher learning.

First, higher education, to be truly “higher,” must benefit all.

Consider that only 6.7% of the world has a college degree. If such a small group receives this preparation of increased education, there must be an eye toward those who are marginalized, those who lack a voice, and opportunity.

195809_hero.jpgAs a proud alum and employee of St. John’s University, a Catholic and Vincentian
institution of higher education that was founded almost 150 years ago to provide a quality of education for the children of immigrants, I speak every summer to incoming first year-students about the responsibility that comes along with their forthcoming educational opportunity. There is a real responsibility of higher education that every member of the community needs to feel and own, even before they take a class.

With this responsibility in mind, the second focus of higher education must be on vocation. Students need time to come to discover who they truly are, why they are here, and what the world needs of them.

College graduates are likely to have at least 12-15 jobs in their lifetime, and this number has increased with each generation. Transferable skills are essential for a college graduate to be successful beyond the campus gates, but so is a deeper sense and desire of the true self.

Understanding one’s vocation may very well be a life-long process, one of consistent discernment and reflection. Higher education needs to provide a skill set, or rather a tool kit, for students to learn how to discern their vocation, not just for their time as a college student, but as a student for life.

Parker Palmer writes:

“Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about-quite apart from what I would like it to be about-or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions…..Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live-but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.”

As students begin to identify their vocation in higher education, they should do so in formation as active global citizens, recognizing the injustices in their society, hearing the cries of the poor not just from a video or article, but from their experiences with and among those on the margins.

“Knowledge of the poor and needy is not gained by pouring over books or in discussions with politicians, but by visiting the slums where they live, sitting by the bedside of the dying, feeling the cold they feel and learning from their lips the causes of their woes,” said Blessed Frederic Ozanam

Academic service learning, faith-based service and justice experiences (often the efforts of Campus Ministry and social-minded faculty), and other spirituality-related programs present these critical opportunities to know those suffering from poverty.

This service must be followed by reflection and prayer, where students can properly respond by utilizing their gifts, talents, and education, to not only benefit themselves and their families, but also those most in need.

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The Vincentian charism offers a model of reflection that asks the following questions when reflecting on service:

  1. What did I see?
  2. What did I hear?
  3. What did I feel?
  4. Where did I see the face of God (this question is adjusted for the preferred language of a student, based on their spirituality)?

For the Vincentians, especially their founder St. Vincent de Paul, the act of service was forever linked with prayerful reflection. God, present in both, moves all involved to a place of conversion, action, and greater justice.

Once this experience and reflection occurs, it is then possible in the higher educational setting that we can animate this familiar, but no less powerful, quote by Frederick Buechner:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

This quote leads us to the third and final point in what makes higher education higher: Where does God fit into higher education?

There must be an invitation to recognize and connect with something higher as in a higher power in higher education.  Call this higher power what is most comfortable (Allah, Abba, Source, Creator, He or She, God, etc.). The point is to recognize that during a time of exploration, an invitation to explore one’s source is necessary.

For public institutions, this may bring some challenges. Faith-based and non-faith-based private institutions may face some of the same, as well as different challenges in this pursuit, including the gentle and intentional approach to respect one’s religious beliefs or no belief.

I am not speaking necessarily of religion here, but that of Spirit. It is spirituality that needs to be at least extended as an invitation for the community to consider in this time of higher learning. While we may not all be religious, we are all spiritual. It is a key component of a holistic education, and of life.

As mentioned earlier, so much of this is accomplished through academic service learning when the connection to God and to one another is made. Whatever terms students are most comfortable to use, and however they wish to shine their light, is up to them. It is making this connection that prepares them for a life of justice and peace. It is what makes this advanced post-secondary education one of truly higher learning, and worth the cost.

Social activist Dorothy Day offers these words as what I believe to be a key goal for all engaged in higher learning (although this was not the specific intention of her reflection).

Day writes:

“What we would like to do is change the world–make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute–the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words–we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.”

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If higher education does not invite and lead its community to change the world, this pursuit is only self-serving and the pebble that Day speaks of never reaches its potential. What our students must come to recognize is that this pursuit is not an individual quest but a collective one, an investment in not their own future but that of those on the margins.

One does not need a higher education to change the world. However, those with the credentials, the proper formations, and the experience, will provide different skills, as they are presented with different opportunities. One is not better than the other, but both are necessary.

The privilege of higher education is a great responsibility: one of service and societal change, one of vocational discernment, and one of spirituality.  May the result of higher learning be just that, always grounded in unconditional love. May it change the world.

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