Some well-meaning person asks every college student, “What will you to do with that?” The question is meant to open a conversation about career, or sometimes to inquire about the utility of the student’s course of study.
Today the question carries an undertone of doubt, since there is so much skepticism about the value of a college degree and about the existence in the future of today's reliable jobs. If robots get smarter, if automation expands, the concern goes, will your degree still guarantee you a job?
Well-meaning college administrators are at pains to promise that their “that” is good at preparing students to flourish in the future. Community colleges claim they are providing students with “21st century skills;” universities routinely launch programs in “cutting-edge” fields (cyber-security, coding, neuro-everything); liberal arts advocates cite surveys proving that employers want students who can demonstrate liberal arts learning outcomes--critical thinkers who can work in teams, solve problems, and value diversity.
These responses are well-meaning, but they are answering the wrong question. If the question is “What will you do with that?” then the most important part of a college education is the content of the major--the “that”. And in making this assumption you adopt the view that a college education is about assimilating content or skills, and that the job of a college is to predict what content and which skills will be the most useful in an uncertain future. If we are honest we know that we cannot know the future with that level of specificity. And so we admit that the best we can do is hope that we are making good guesses, and that the future won’t change very much, or that our “that” will dominate the future, or that our institution is so prestigious that the “that” hardly matters much at all. And we place ourselves in the position of existing to respond to the needs of institutions whose greatest need is for employees to do their work.
There is a better way to ask the question--with the emphasis on the “you.” “What will you do with that?” isn’t a question about content, but instead about purpose. Asking about purpose requires different assumptions--that all people, college students included, have certain talents, passions, and gifts; that those gifts help shape one’s purpose; that a search for purpose can end up in the discernment of vocation; that an understanding of vocation points you towards certain ways of working in the world; that working in the world is not just about career but also about community; and that a sense of vocation steadies you in the face of change that you can neither know nor fully prepare for.
Let me be clear that I am not arguing college should be primarily about self-fulfillment. (Self-fulfillment is in fact the modern counterfeit version of vocation.) I am not suggesting that students should do whatever they want in college. Nor am I suggesting that learning simply for the sake of learning is the purpose of a college education. For to adopt these views is to agree that the purpose of college is to serve autonomous individuals, out for little more than their own satisfaction.
Instead I am arguing that colleges have an opportunity, or better put, an obligation, to commit to vocational discernment for all of their students. This work--rightly preceding and accompanying the choice of major and the start of employment--connects students both to their own purpose and to a community that can support and sustain them. It supports a moral vision that reminds them of their obligation to others and to the common good. And it prepares them to better flourish in an unpredictable world, both by adapting to change and by defending beliefs, practices, and relationships that are more important than personal or employer desires.
A 2016 study found that about a third of college students would prefer to develop a sense of purpose rather than pursuing a major in college. The proportion may be higher among those not in college. It is enough to make one wonder when colleges will get serious about vocation--when they will put the “you” back into the question, “What will you do with that?”