Fluidity and Empathy: The Future as Vocation

Rebecca Chop

Confession: I have a personal aversion to the traditional concept of vocation. In 1974, I had just been ordained a deacon in the United Methodist Church and had just married another minister. Like my male classmates, I asked for a full-time appointment. I had already served three churches part-time. After months of waiting, I got a call from the bishop summoning me to his office – not a good sign.

Tall, stern, and clearly disapproving of my presence, the bishop explained that I could not have a vocation as a minister. So long as I was a single woman, he would allow it, but, once married, in his clear view, it was God’s intended vocation for me to be a wife and mother. He extolled Susannah Wesley (mother of John Wesley) who had followed her domestic vocation – and denied me a job. 

However, I finished seminary at the top of my class and, with much soul-strangling struggle, I was ordained as elder. But the damage had been done: In my experience, “vocation” felt like a confining condition defined and handed down by others. 

But as I have recently discovered, the term vocation is in the midst of tremendous revitalization. The idea of vocation is always contextual. The traditional view (vocation as one’s station in life) and the modern view (vocation as career) represent different ways of ordering self, community, and world in different historical times. Today it is being reinterpreted again. I am intrigued by the work of David Cunningham and others who argue for making vocation more plural, moving from univocity to multiplicity. I adore the notion of vocation as capacious, dynamic, fluid, and elastic. A key point remains: Vocation as a resonating experience that links self, community, and world runs like a deep river through all its historical meanings. 

The shifting nature of vocation relates to the history and aims of higher education as well. In the nearly 400 years since the founding of Harvard, American higher education has changed dramatically – time and again – to better serve the public good by educating individuals in community. Higher education in this country developed as an institution of democracy. Its purpose – its vocation – has always been intertwined with the vocation of individuals in community. 

But contemporary conditions are transforming our notions of vocation for institutions and individuals alike. We could name three such conditions: 

1. We live in radical times. 

In my mind, today is very like the 1860-1890 industrialization age when every single aspect of our society was being questioned. Several mega-forces are transforming ourselves, our communities, our politics: 

• Technology and digitalization are changing how we “know,” how we relate to one another, how we shop, how we access health care, how we form our social bonds. We know the negative side of this. Children can be recruited into the sex trade; young women are recruited as wives of terrorists; illicit drug trafficking gains momentum. I believe, however, despite its risks, technology is a powerful bridge. Technology will continue to change how we customize education for the needs of our students, research, and connection with the world. 

• Cultural disruption, socio-economic divides, and dissolution of community life increasingly characterize our country. There is too great a split between the rich and the poor, too much poverty, too much racism, hatred of others, too much us vs. them.

Crucial to this disruption is the struggle and disappearance of communities. In our democracy, communities have been the basic unit of government where people have been educated, where they work, recreate, and participate as citizens. Michael Sandel has noted how 19th century experience was defined by intimate communities in which your aunt was your first-grade teacher, your neighbor your barber, and everyone had long-term connections with one another.1 In the 20th century, communities became highly correlated to types of professions and work. Doctors lived near each other in a set of suburbs, as did blue-collar workers, as did faculty members.

Now, as Sandel maintains, we need a new type of community – based in values and justice, bringing together people who can connect with one another in a values-based way of living. Today’s crucial question is how we live together in purpose-driven ways, how we serve and rebuild the public good. Community is a must for the individual and for democracy. It is also a must for vocation. 

• In future years, our work lives won’t be eliminated by artificial intelligence, but they will be massively changed by it.2 Approximately 60 percent of occupations worldwide could be automated by 2030. Among millennials, 47 percent are freelance workers. By 2027, more than half of American workers will be freelancing. 

Thus it’s much harder to tie vocation to a single purpose or career. The recent book Humility is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age by Edward Hess and Katherine Ludwig (Berrett-Koehler, 2017) describes the new smart-age skills we’ll need in order to face the unfolding technological tsunami: critical thinking, innovative thinking, and high emotional engagement with others for relationship building and collaboration.

• The future of being human/the future of human being is at stake. I work with students every day. I am so hopeful for this generation, its creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. Yet whenever I ask students, “What’s on your mind?” here’s what they say: When I graduate, will I get my first job? Will I be able to find jobs throughout my life? Will I ever have the resources to get married? Is the US collapsing? Will climate change mean apocalyptic destruction? Our students are hopeful and determined but also anxious and worried.

It’s not surprising that so many young people struggle with mental well-being, given the mega-forces we face – which today’s students will have to fix, endure, or reset. And I am deeply concerned. In 2017, 61 percent of students said they had “felt overwhelming anxiety.”3 The tragic epidemic of mental illness and the lack of good models for redefining mental and behavioral health confront us all. 

These mega-forces have disrupted every single industry. Our institutions have to either reframe their vocation, or die. 

II. We must reframe higher education to help young people navigate their individual and communal journeys to serve the public good.

It is clear to me the bureaucratized structures of higher education, created around 1890, will no longer support the individual, community, and society – or the link thereof. We need to shake up the model and imagine new ways to deliver learning experiences to students. Let me identify three ways to reinterpret the purposes of higher education:

Purpose 1: Develop the skills, habits, and disposition of the 3D student, the three-dimensional person, the whole person. I like “3D” because it already means depth and breadth in multiple ways, intellectually, emotionally, interpersonally, politically, spiritually.

Today most students must learn something quite different from the old endeavor of mastering a single field: They must navigate the acceleration of change, prepare for multiple careers that require mastery of highly different content and collaboration among changing groups of people.

“In the past, jobs were about muscles; now they are about brains. But in the future, they’ll be about heart,” says Minouche Shafik, director of the London School of Economics.4 The need for heart – an Emotional Quotient that includes humility, courage, empathy, wisdom, among other virtues – will intensify as we strive to address geo-political challenges and renew our culture. 

Purpose 2: Become the laboratory for teaching skills and habits needed for intentional community. Communities are the antidote to the tremendous loneliness we feel in this digitally connected and culturally fractured society. 

In spite of the mega-forces, hope flickers and even shines across our schools and society. As David Brooks recently suggested, we are becoming a nation of weavers, of people making connections in new, substantive ways. I hear students talk about their quest for communities of patience and persistence in order to solve neighborhood or national problems.

Purpose 3: Support lifelong learning platforms and connections. Increasingly, just as vocation can no longer be a one-time determination, higher education must be ongoing, across a life span, ensuring that graduates continually create and recreate themselves and their service to the public good. 

“Life is not about finding yourself,” Emerson wrote, “it is about creating yourself.”

III. We need an expanded vocabulary for vocation.

In his epilogue to the book Vocation Across the Academy (Oxford, 2017), David Cunningham introduces the notion of “vocabularies of vocation.” David persuasively argues that vocation in its many dimensions today requires more than one simple vocabulary. I find his notion quite productive and provocative. Indeed, I am now so engaged with this multi-vocabulary sense of vocation that I’d like to conclude with another one to consider, one I will call “seeing and resonating.”

Vocation, I want to suggest, can be a way of seeing the world deeply, freshly – a way of seeing that constantly creates resonances of self, community, and the public good in the midst of continual change. Vocation that conjures up stations and careers, fixed ways of being, beauracracies – that type of ordering of experience is disappearing. But resonance is another kind of order. Resonating means a sympathetic vibration with other people or values, as in, “that strikes a chord with me.”

Vocation can include the first impulse to wonder, to be curious, to have an attitude of wide-awakefulness, as Maxine Greene says in Landscapes of Learning (Teachers College, 1978). Resonance, in a fully wide-awake mode, means respect for otherness, a capacity for empathy, across a lifetime. Wonder and empathy become the starting points for vocation. 

Another dimension of this is seeing as inquiry, the effort to understand. We spend a great deal of time in education doing this type of seeing with academic subjects, but I want us to inquire into self and world as well – the adventure of lifelong learning, a willingness to learn new habits of seeing “just in time.” This dimension of seeing takes diligence and work, as the artist, the athlete, the scientist, the humanist knows. It invites the quest for self-knowledge, the investigation of our experiences, feelings, and blinders.

The third dimension is seeing as imagination and resonance as vision. Imagination is the ability to see multiple options, different futures, paths to the public good. Vision is the ability to create the story, paint the landscape anew. What I call the beatitude moment is to stand on a mountain or the plains and see the world reborn, see what it could be. This kind of resonating vision is Martin Luther King, Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial envisioning the dream of the beloved community for his children, for others, for his country.

In a day of turmoil around the world and in our souls, when students must create, connect, innovate, and pivot again and again, vocation can be the lens to see afresh the self, community, and world, and imagine all the ways they must connect anew. 

Rebecca Chopp was dean of Yale Divinity School from 2001-2002. She left YDS to become president of Colgate University (2002-2009), then president of Swarthmore College (2009-2014). Since 2014, she has been chancellor of the University of Denver. She recently announced her retirement as chancellor, citing health reasons. Her books include The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, God (Crossroad, 1991; new edition, Wipf & Stock, 2002).


1 See Michael J. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge, 1998).

2 See the “Future of Work” Deloitte series at www2.deloitte.com and “The Future of Work in America: People and Places, Today and Tomorrow,” McKinsey Global Institute report, July 2019, mckinsey.com.

3 American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, Fall 2017 Reference Group Executive Summary, acha.org. 

4 Interview with Minouche Shafik by Alain Elkann, April 1, 2018, at alainelkanninterviews.com.