In the course of her inquiry into the character of Odysseus in the Iliad and the Odyssey, Eva Brann makes the following arresting remark. “Learning begins when development ends, for growing into oneself absorbs all of the cognitive energies which, once ‘identity’ is achieved, are free to turn to the world. For how can we learn if it is not we who are there to learn? We either change or grow wiser, but not both.” Though many of us would wish to question Brann’s claim, we probably would not deny the fact that the achievement of identity has been more and more postponed in our time and place here in the United States. Our personality psychologists have, over the course of the last generation, in part discovered and in part invented a new phase of human development called “young adulthood,” lasting roughly ten years from age twenty to age thirty, interposed between adolescence and adulthood. Settling into deep and lasting loves and into serious and productive work, two of the key markers of adulthood, have been indefinitely delayed among many in our society for a variety of reasons. This is perhaps what Eva Brann had in mind when she characterized our age, just before she made the remark I quoted above, as “infantilistic.”
One fact both complicates and constricts further inquiry into the relationship between identity and liberal education. In contemporary liberal democracies, discovering, preparing for, and settling into a way of making a living is an integral part of identity formation. Many students are therefore almost as preoccupied with the question of what they should do to earn a living or of how they should prepare themselves for their livelihoods as they are with erotic longings of one kind or another. And surely both of these things, work and love, are bound up in complex ways with the process of identity formation.
Over the years, much has been written about how we should reckon with eros in liberal education, but friends of liberal education have, I think, been less successful in reckoning with their students’ concern for preparing themselves for work that fits both them and their society. Instead, many educators, including myself, have been guilty of patronizing or denying or diminishing their students’ concern for fitting work, arguing, not without some cogency, that our business is with knowledge for its own sake, not knowledge primarily for the sake of something else and that therefore liberal education and so-called vocational preparation are wholly distinct and sometimes antithetical pursuits.
The logic and force of these and other distinctions between liberal education and vocational training should not be altogether denied. Nevertheless, in today’s educational environment, we should at least wonder about whether and how we can best take full account of students’ preoccupations with finding and preparing themselves for fitting work even as we seek to offer them a genuine liberal education through, for example, thoughtful engagement with core texts and courses. There is a potential for discovering new truths or at least new questions about old ones when we attend to work as a problem for inquiry in the liberal arts. New texts are always welcome. Fresh interrogations of old ones are perhaps even more welcome for the discoveries that they can generate along the way.
Let us consider, for example, two very different texts, neither one of which is primarily about work, in an endeavor to explore this very subject. In the first case, we will discover new ways of thinking about a question that vexes many of us, our students, and our fellow citizens about the proper place of paid employment in a human life well lived. In the second case, we will be shown how we can enlarge the repertory of our moral imaginations in certain ways only through the reading of texts, enabling us to consider questions about work, identity, and learning in a way that we could not if we were simply to attend to the realities of quotidian life.
Recall first the embassy to Achilles in Book IX of the Iliad. Three of the great warrior’s closest friends, Ajax and Odysseus—comrades in arms—and Phoenix, the teacher who trained Achilles in the arts of war and speech, have been dispatched to persuade him to set aside his anger and join them in battle against the Trojans, who threaten to overwhelm the Greeks without him. They make several arguments, endeavoring to move Achilles to do what he was born to do. Or is it simply to move him to do his job? Indeed what is the relationship between who Achilles is and what Achilles does? Is this antique hero’s principal activity, fighting and killing, connected to who he is in the same way as, say, a contemporary physician’s principal activity, healing, is connected to who she is as a human being? Are these two situations—the relationship of Achilles’s work of waging warfare to him and the relationship of the doctor’s work of healing to her—utterly remote from one another or are they akin?
What about the arguments advanced in the scene? The three ambassadors appeal to Achilles’s lineage, to his father’s own expectations of him, to his teacher’s hopes for him, to his loyalty to friends, to how he will be remembered, to the prospect of glory and eternal fame, to divine intentions, to material gain, and to elevation in power and social standing, even including a dynastic marriage, in order to move him to do his proper work or simply to be himself. If we were to listen to parents or teachers today beseeching a young person to undertake this or that line of work we would be hard pressed to find an argument or an appeal that is not included among those of the ambassadors to Achilles.
Even so, we should resist any temptation to distort this scene in the Iliad by treating it as though it were a kind of job counseling session. If we are to discover things in this scene that will help us and today’s students today to think well about fitting work and the proper motivations for doing it, we must at every moment retain our sense of wonder at the difference between Achilles and ourselves. Achilles is a hero. We are not and cannot be heroes in the same way that he was. And the world he inhabits is in many respects radically distinct from ours in all kinds of ways that we cannot review here. Moreover, his parents are certainly different from our students’ parents and our own. One of them, for example, his mother Thetis, is a goddess.
Bearing these and other differences in mind, we should perhaps pay special attention, for our purposes here, to Achilles’s own account of how his mother once allegedly framed the alternatives that he faces between remaining at Troy to do battle and abandoning Troy for a life at home. Here is what Achilles says to the ambassadors in the middle of his dialogue with them:
. . . my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly (9.410-11).
Achilles reports this alleged parental discourse, which also happens to be divine discourse, in order to justify his own temporary determination to return to his homeland. And he then proceeds to counsel the three ambassadors to do the same.
Aristotle had no doubt about which of the two alternatives should be chosen by a noble human being. Here is how he put the matter in the Nicomachean Ethics:
It is quite true that, as they say, the excellent person labors for his friends and for his native country, and will die for them if he must; he will sacrifice money, honors, and contested goods in general, in achieving the fine for himself. For he will choose intense pleasure for a short time over slight pleasure for a long time; a year of living finely over many years of undistinguished life; and a single fine and great action over many small actions (1169a).
Again, as with antique heroism itself, Thetis’s alleged discourse about two destinies and Aristotle’s counsel about how the excellent human being should choose between them both seem remote from today’s students and from their concern to prepare themselves for fitting work as a part of achieving their identities. On the contrary, however, I think there is a contemporary, democratic version of this theme that bedevils more and more of us and the young people whom we know and sometimes care for every day. Let me try the slightest variation on Aristotle here: “The excellent human being will choose a single great action, like finding a cure for muscular dystrophy, or writing a multi-volume history of the development of human liberty, or saving a great university from bankruptcy, or serving on the Supreme Court, over many small actions like working concurrently as a medical technician while being a good parent while being a good son or daughter to aging parents while visiting the sick from a local parish while guiding the local school board to approve the best curriculum for students.” So the choice today is often not so much between a short but glorious life of self-sacrifice and a long but undistinguished life of mild enjoyment as it is between a life of single-minded devotion to doing one thing well, often sacrificing or at least jeopardizing the well being of others in the process, and a life of unrecognized service to others at great cost to one’s own ambitions. The enduring popularity of the American film classic, It’ s a Wonderful Life, one of the few films in American culture that is ritually shown every year, may be due in large part to its intriguing exploration of this very dilemma.
Comparing and contrasting the interplay among several terms—activity, identity, sacrifice, mortality, duty, glory, ambition, the home, and the far-flung precincts of high achievement—while foregrounding the problem of work will both bring out for special notice features of a classic text like the Iliad that we might otherwise ignore and enable our students better to think through their own aspirations more deeply, thereby connecting their liberal learning with their preoccupations about work. Many of them already will have witnessed the sometimes terrible consequences of so-called workaholism. Some of them already will have, for better or for worse, curbed their own ambitions for high and fine and glorious achievement for the sake of a life of smaller but multiple and varied proper pleasures. Moreover, students will be eager to learn how, why, and whether the ways in which human beings negotiate among these alternatives differ in our time for men and women, rich and poor, the religious and the irreligious. A focus upon their future work and upon how that work will or should relate to the whole of their lives will, in other words, generate conversations about a whole range of fundamental human questions in a way that responds to one of our students’ primary preoccupations.
But do we and they have adequate moral imaginations and adequate vocabularies for thinking through these issues? And do great texts, more than any other resources we might have—experience, career counselors, development tests, personality inventories— provide singular opportunities for thinking well about the proper place of work in a human life? We come now to the second text, which requires some contextual elaboration in order to demonstrate how it actually did enlarge the moral imagination of an entire community and to cast further light upon the aforementioned modern dilemma of the balanced life versus the single-minded one.
On 11 August 2004, John Strietelmeier, a former editor of this very journal The Cresset, and a man who was once an exemplary member of several overlapping communities here in Valparaiso, Indiana, died at the age of eighty-four. A few days later, he was buried after a funeral of simple and solemn beauty. During the few days leading up to the funeral and for a long time thereafter, over dinner tables, at pubs, and in the aisles of the local university library, many of us in Valparaiso did what people do everywhere after one of their own has died. We talked with one another. Mostly we shared stories about John. This story-telling was partly our work of grieving, of course. But it was also part of the work of ethical understanding and moral formation, the process by which any community reflects, often in the presence of the junior members of that community, upon its own exemplars, on their life choices, their successes and failures, their loves, their tastes, their aspirations, convictions, habits, and eccentricities, and their best and worst moments. Was there a thread of continuity among all these things? If so, what was it?
Though we in Valparaiso made and continue to make considerable progress in ethical discernment regarding John’s life and work, we have often gone wrong in at least three ways that are instructive for our purposes here. The first of these errors in judgment dramatizes a dark but often humorous side of parochialism. I was present, for example, at a conversation among some of John’s more learned colleagues who were recalling what a fine writer he was. Suddenly “Frank,” who should have known better, assured the entire group that John was indeed “one of the three greatest prose stylists of the twentieth century.” You could almost feel the suppressed thoughts of the others in the room during the silence that followed. “That’s wild,” thought one, “I wonder who, given this bizarre claim, Frank thinks the other two prose stylists were.” Or, I thought, less charitably, “it was fine to honor John by enjoying his favorite drink—the very dry martini—but the drink never impaired John’s judgment in the way that it apparently has impaired Frank’s.”
Of course, once the silence lifted, some did challenge the hyperbole. Soon the judgment was modified to suggest that John had been very much influenced by writers he most admired, like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, and that perhaps one or two of his essays at least belonged in their small but distinguished company. We recalled for each other John’s best editorials, even unearthing some of them to read aloud, and we noted his indebtedness to his own models and mentors. Parochial discourse can be from time to time self-critical and self-corrective.
But why did Frank feel moved to utter such foolishness? A few deluded people in Valparaiso actually believe, of course, that John was a better writer than,say, John Updike or Joan Didion. But others, like Frank, who should know better than this nevertheless maintain it publicly under the mistaken impression that the measure of the quality of both John’s prose and his life as a whole must be some kind of universal standard. In order to justify the esteem in which they hold the man, these folks think that they must be able to show that John was in the very top ranks of a huge population, stretched out indefinitely in space as well as in time. And the error in the claims that are made, the implausibility of the comparisons drawn, stem from an effort to avoid the very problem that gave rise to the claims in the first place. Limited knowledge allows, even encourages, superlatives which are offered up to make positive assessments of moral worth seem more than “merely parochial” admiration.
A second error in judgment that local discussions of lives well lived frequently evince is a kind of opposite twin to the first one. Someone remarked very quickly, “Just think of the mark John might have made on the world if he had not been stuck in Valparaiso.” This is a version of the elegy, made famous by Thomas Gray, in which John is cast in the role of one of the many hypothetical “undiscovered” geniuses, buried in the country churchyard, who was unhappily fated to “waste his sweetness on the desert air. ”According to this analysis and others like it, no one could be truly great in Valparaiso. A larger arena is required for greatness. And indeed, many of my colleagues at Valparaiso University actively have encouraged other colleagues to leave the community on the grounds that they should really be in a context where their talents can be properly recognized and cultivated. There is, of course, in certain cases, much to recommend this latter view, but it is seldom as true as its defenders believe.
The third error in judgment arises from sentimentalism, the worst aspect of parochialism, perhaps its defining aspect. Instead of exaggerating a person’s virtues and achievements, the sentimentalist exaggerates the significance of the place where he or she lived. Valparaiso quickly becomes on this reckoning a singular school of virtue, the ideal of small town life, which in turn becomes the quintessence of American life at its best. As this edenic view of the town would have it, Valparaiso (which its devotees note means “Vale of Paradise”) has escaped the wickedness and complications of nearby Chicago, has remained relatively religious by comparison to its allegedly pagan surroundings, and has preserved a small town, face-to-face community that is the ideal nursery of human virtue and achievement. Such sentimental mythology can often be pernicious, but when it is retold in the context of bereavement, its intentions at least are benign. One elevates the city in order all the more to praise the citizen.
To recount these errors in judgment is already to diagnose their sources in a general confusion between the consistent display of an exceptional talent or skill and an overall nobility of character. When some Valparaiso folks praise John’s prose or his teaching or his work as a geographer in an exaggerated way, they really mean to be praising John the man. Or conversely, because they so admire John the man for reasons they cannot quite articulate, they tend toward excessive and therefore inaccurate assessments of one or another of John’s particular gifts.
This problem is at least as old as Socrates, who was always reminding his fellow Athenians that what makes for an excellent cobbler or flute player is not the same thing that makes for the excellent human being. On the other hand Socrates, or at least Plato after him, was in part responsible for the idea that still bewitches and sometimes misleads citizens of Valparaiso, the idea that the significance and praiseworthiness of John’s life must finally be understood strictly in terms of an abstract ideal or universal standard. Oddly enough, the citizens of Valparaiso know better, but they know better not when they look about them but when they read, not when they talk or think about “real” people but when they encounter and discuss fictional characters. And so we come, at last, to our second text.
During April of 2002, Valparaiso joined many other cities and towns all over the United States in the practice of reading and then discussing a book. The first “Valpo Reads a Book” selection was To Kill a Mockingbird, and the community rallied to the prospect of civic engagement around a common text. Many townsfolk wore TKM pins. High school students dutifully read Harper Lee’s novel, and several for the first time continued their class discussion about a work of literature over the dinner table at home where their parents were reading the same book. Discussion groups were held all over town—in the local library, in church basements, in university classrooms, and at various businesses and financial establishments.
In the discussion groups I witnessed, everyone without exception held Atticus Finch in very high regard. Several found him to be the most admirable figure they ever had encountered in art or in life. Yet none of the latter group felt moved to compare Atticus favorably to, say, Learned Hand as a legal mind or to Clarence Darrow as a defense attorney or to Thurgood Marshall as a champion of civil rights. Nor did any of them spend any time lamenting the fact that Atticus had been unfortunate enough to waste his considerable talents in Maycomb County, Alabama. “If only Atticus had not had to raise Scout and Jem as a single parent and had been able to move to New York and practice law there! Think of what he could have become!” Such judgments and musings, so often ventured about the real life John, were never advanced about the imaginary Atticus.
People knew better, but not because they had been instructed by professors of English about the dangers of confusing fictional characters with real life human beings or about the impropriety of speculations about incidents in the lives of fictional characters that are not represented in the text itself. Instead, To Kill a Mockingbird just worked its magic upon the citizens of Valparaiso, such that they could not imagine Atticus Finch outside of Maycomb County or Maycomb County without Atticus. Though Atticus was at odds with most of his fellow citizens for much of the story, the man and the community somehow defined each other. Atticus, in Harper Lee’s words, “liked Maycomb, he was Maycomb County born and bred; he knew his people, they knew him, and . . . Atticus was related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town.”
Incident, character, and setting all fit together perfectly. We do not waste our time wondering what Atticus Finch would have been like if his wife had not died before the action of the novel begins, because if his wife had been a character in the novel, Atticus would not have been the same local genius that we grow to admire so much. He would have been a different father, a different neighbor, finally a different character. And conversely the entire moral ecology of the town, especially the Finches’ immediate neighborhood, would have been very different without Atticus Finch. The readers in Valparaiso sensed all of this without any knowledge of literary critical terms like “total functionality” or “organic unity” or “formal perfection.”
These untutored interpretative practices of the “ordinary readers” of Valparaiso indicate a possibility of great promise and importance. People do in fact learn a great deal about how to recognize and understand living and embodied human excellence by thinking about their discernment of imaginary instances of it. Harper Lee created Atticus Finch and fit him for and to Maycomb in such a way that he stood out within it. John fit himself to the contours of the many communities in Valparaiso. His standing in the whole, comprehensive community was his own doing. This work of, shall we say, local genius included John’s patient, uncomplaining care over many years for his invalid wife. It included as well his joint authorship, credentialed with only a master’s degree, of an influential geography text, his twenty-year editorship of The Cresset, his service as an academic vice president, and his authorship of the centennial history of Valparaiso University.
But these achievements are mere items in an obituary listing. John’s real life genius, like Atticus’s fictional one, was a matter of the manner in which these several accomplishments and many others besides were undertaken, woven together, and offered up in service to his community. This involved thousands of decisions about when to yield to the call of duty, when to sacrifice personal ambition and when to pursue it, when to speak and when to keep silent, when to prefer parody and comedy to plain speaking. This pliable resourcefulness, this almost unfailing ability to know when to scold and when to bless, when to conform and when to dissent, this capacity to shape a life in seamless devotion to the tasks immediately to hand: this was a life’s work.
The measure of that life cannot be a brittle yardstick of absolute standards but instead a flexible tape measure that follows carefully all of the contours of that peculiar piece of the Valparaiso puzzle that John was for so many years. Where do we find such a tape measure? We find it in and through the practice of assessing those who come to us ready-made by the Harper Lees of this world. We find it through the practice of reading characters constituted by context.
Entering into the world of Harper Lee’s Maycomb County, Alabama, and living for a time with and through Atticus Finch are activities that enlarge the repertory of our moral imaginations, as the citizens of Valparaiso discovered. If that repertory had included only Achilles and other heroes like him, those readers might not have been able even to see, much less assess, the real-life excellence of a human being like John. If, on the other hand, it had included only the world of Maycomb County, they might never have been challenged by the Aristotelian summons to a life of single-minded devotion to one great and noble action. This much is obvious. The comparisons and contrasts that we might draw in classrooms between Homer’s world and Harper Lee’s will, however, seem like mere literary exercises for our students unless we also enable them to see how different texts like these offer them different vocabularies from their own in which to speak and think about matters like the work they are preparing to do in the world. Students must, in other words, learn to interrogate their own lives and aspirations, including especially their longing and preparation for productive work, with the same rigor and care that they bring to texts like the Iliad and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Most students, if they have a first-order vocabulary for speaking about their future work, probably use the language of authenticity. They believe that in order to determine what they should do and who they should be, they must “get in touch with themselves.” They must, they think, look only within to discover each one of their allegedly unique ways of being human in the world. Expressions that we hear all the time—“do your own thing,” “I know where you’re coming from”—bespeak this way of thinking. And of course this so-called ethics of authenticity has been thoughtfully analyzed and critiqued by many of our best philosophers, Charles Taylor perhaps foremost among them.
Homer and Aristotle will, of course, introduce them to another vocabulary that most of them draw upon as well in a fragmented form, the vocabulary of virtue. Students do, after all, admire and trust and idealize some people more than others on the basis of their characters. And many of them still feel moved by, if not drawn to, lives of significance and substance that are marked by selfless service to the world. Even so, they need to learn to give voice to these often dim perceptions, first sharpening them through the consideration of characters whom they can only discern through reading and re-reading. As the poet Richard Wilbur has written, the reader can have a God’s-eye view of characters in reread texts, for only then, through the activity of rereading can she see “their first and final selves at once.”
A few students will use yet a third vocabulary, the same one that John of Valparaiso used to make sense of his own work in the world. John’s was the language of vocation or calling, borrowed from the Christian reformers of the sixteenth century. And since he was a life-long Lutheran, his primary vocabulary for understanding ethics and the good life was Luther’s own understanding of faith active in love. Over the course of the centuries since Protestant thinkers developed their idea of vocation, and especially over the course of the last decade or so, the notion of a calling has taken on a steadily wider public provenance. Along the way, it has lost some of its specific historical meaning as a divine summons from the triune God of orthodox Christianity, or, before that, a summons from the God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures. But it has nevertheless retained the capacity to describe and to appreciate a wide range of admirable characters. Through the lens of vocation, local geniuses like John, as well as the kind of life that is most fully and ideally exemplified by them, suddenly become visible.
Even under strictly Christian auspices, both the concept of vocation and other ideas associated with it were remarkably elastic. William Placher has shown how the idea of vocation for the first five centuries of the Common Era referred to a calling out from paganism to a Christian life. Then, for the entire millennium preceding the Protestant Reformation, the idea of vocation referred primarily to the religious life, to a calling to the priesthood or to the life of a monk or nun. With the Protestant Reformation’s development of the idea of the priesthood of all believers came a thoroughgoing democratization of the idea of the calling. All Christians were called by God to lives of devoted service wherever they were stationed in jobs, as parents, as siblings, as citizens, and as neighbors. All were equally “close to God,” and their appointed tasks, their vocations, were simply to do well in whatever legitimate pursuits had been laid upon them so that neighbors would be served and God would be glorified (Placher 2005).
A large number of great books have, since the sixteenth century, analyzed and dramatized the revolutionary implications and consequences of this Protestant insight. Ever since the sixteenth century, the domains of production (work) and reproduction (family) have become the crucial arenas for strenuous and potentially noble endeavor. No longer did the highest forms of human excellence seem any longer to depend upon restricted and privileged theaters of activity—the battlefield, the legislative assembly, the courts, the academy, the laboratory, or the pulpit and altar—to which a select few had access. At the same time that the horizon of meaning and significance expanded to comprehend the legitimate callings of all human beings as parts of a divine plan ordained by God from all eternity for the end of human flourishing, the location for living well and faithfully contracted sharply. The proper precincts of ambition were no longer necessarily far away either geographically or socially. They were near at hand, in the family, the neighborhood, the work place, the immediate community. And the ultimate success or failure of people’s work was finally not in their own hands. Anyone’s daily work might be infinitely significant, for both its ordination and its final consequences were in the hands of God. The foundations for a distinctively modern idea of excellence had been laid: potentially everlasting significance and the prospect of great nobility married to the most temporal, finite, and ordinary locations. We could well call this the ethics of the Incarnation. Considered from such a vantage point, so-called balanced lives might well be equally as choice worthy as, even more admirable than, single-minded ones.
There is yet one more difference between the vocabulary of vocation and the vocabularies of authenticity and virtue that we should note in closing, for it will bring us back to the thought of Eva Brann that initiated this inquiry. Christians believe that their identity is sacramentally bestowed in baptism before it is actively accomplished through a process of sanctification. Many Christians, like Søren Kierkegaard, tend to speak of becoming what they already are. This view of matters complicates and to some degree challenges the idea that, to quote Eva Brann again, “we either change or grow wiser, but not both.” If Christians are right in believing that identity is more conferred or ascribed than achieved and in thinking that the changes in our lives are more worked within us than they are brought about exclusively through our own exertions, there may be a sense in which we can and do indeed change and grow wise at the same time. A part of that wisdom in and through change will come from the repeated discovery and acknowledgement that we are not self-made men and self-made women after all. One need not, of course, be a Christian to reach this latter conclusion.
This is not the place to tarry in the abstract realm of these complicated, rival philosophical and theological claims. We should note, however, that we came to this thicket of fundamental questions by first considering questions about the nature of work and its relationship to identity in a human life. If we were to continue this kind of an inquiry with students in a way that is more sustained and capable than this preliminary discourse, it would be at certain times impossible to distinguish sharply between career counseling and liberal learning, between vocational preparation and liberal education. This modest ambition of conflating two discourse formations that are more often held completely apart would be in these times a significant gain for us, for today’s students, and for their efforts and ours to find both ourselves and our proper work in the world.
Mark Schwehn is Professor of Humanities in Christ College, Valparaiso University. This essay is based on remarks made to the Annual Conference of the Association for Core Texts and Courses in Chicago, Illinois, 18 April 2006.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Terence Irwin, trans. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985.
Brann, Eva. Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad. Philadelphia: Paul Dry, 2002.
Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Richmond Lattimore, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Harper, 2006 .
Placher, William C., ed. Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.