The student who sat in front of me was having difficulty looking me in the eyes as he shuffled his hands. He slowly began to speak. He was a second-year engineering student having second thoughts about his chosen field of study. He knew he liked being creative, but he was becoming increasingly convinced that his gifts and interests were pointing to creativity in some other area. I listened as he gradually shared his story, trying to tell if he was just having a bad week, struggling with a particular course, or if he was genuinely discerning a call to a different area of study. In the end, I decided that his wrestling was due to the last one, and we discussed some different options. I encouraged him to finish the semester but also to pray and speak with others as he explored a new major.

I could identify with his struggle. As a first-year engineering student, I too questioned my chosen area of study. I recall phoning a former high school teacher in my uncertainty, telling him how I had become disillusioned with the grueling schedule and rigor of my engineering classes. My former teacher listened patiently, and when I finished sharing my woes, he gently encouraged me to keep going. In my case, he knew I had the passion and gifts to be an engineer; what I needed was not a change in major but some wise encouragement as I navigated the transition from high school to the demands of university.

Some of the saddest situations I encounter arise when students enroll in engineering or computer science strictly due to parental pressures and expectations. Many caring parents, out of genuine concern for their children, steer them towards areas of study that are “safe” and have good job prospects. This sentiment is captured in the old Latin saying: philosophia panem non torrit (“philosophy doesn’t bake bread”). Unfortunately, this reflects a pragmatic view of education, reducing it to simply a means to make money.

Unfortunately, I have seen firsthand how this can place a heavy burden on students. I have sat in my office with students who are near tears, unable to meet parental expectations in their studies while their hearts long to study something else. One student confided in me that he loved psychology but that his father had made it clear he was expected to pursue computer science. A colleague had another student who was pressured by parents to study computer science, but he really wanted to become a dancer. He was able to join an extracurricular dance guild, but dutifully completed his computer science degree. Another student, pushed into computing by a demanding parent, had to repeat the introductory course multiple times and was tempted to cheat as he struggled to get a passing grade.

As a father of young adults, I understand this parental instinct. Who wants their children living indefinitely in the basement after they graduate from college? The time has long since passed when having any bachelor’s degree was sufficient to ensure gainful employment. A utilitarian view of education has led to ridicule for arts and humanities degrees and has motivated well-meaning parents to push their children towards professional programs. Our own children chose college majors for which there was no guaranteed career path. Although I would have been delighted if my children followed in my engineering footsteps, I encouraged them to study what they loved. My wife and I resolved that our children should become the people that God made them to be, trusting that they will find a way to serve with what they learned. However, practical parenting instincts compelled us to encourage our children to pursue their passion alongside some practical courses so that they would have a “plan B,” just in case.

Professors are naturally passionate about their field of study and will instinctively do all they can to promote their own disciplines. However, as professors we need to ensure that as undergraduate advisors we avoid acting as self-interested sales people by promoting our own guild and recruiting students to guard faculty lines in our own departments. We need to look out for the interests of others (Phil. 2:3), in this case our students, by carefully listening to their stories. Sometime this requires nudging them elsewhere when appropriate.

Indeed, we must avoid elitism and foster a respect for all vocations. In the push for STEM education and training “knowledge workers” we have failed to foster a respect for skilled “blue collar” work. As an academic family (my wife is a teacher and I am a professor), we have been intentional about speaking respectfully about the trades with our children and would not hesitate to encourage them to consider such a vocation. Books like Shopcraft as Soulcraft (written by a philosopher mechanic) eloquently describe the delight of both thinking and doing in a skillful craft.1 The popularity of reality shows like The Great British Baking Show (where they really do bake bread), This Old House, Blown Away, and Rust Valley Restorers have further contributed to a renewed celebration of skilled craftsmanship and trades.

As a side note, our own Christian colleges may have perpetuated some of this dualism between thinking and doing. While most Christian colleges declare that “all things” fall under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the subject areas offered are mostly limited to academic pursuits in the liberal arts.2 Where are the Christian post-secondary vocational and trade colleges in our Christian college landscape?3 The notion that “there exists a hierarchy of professions, such that those occupations which presuppose an extensive liberal arts education are to be more highly regarded than those requiring vocational training” is elitist and “creates a distorted sense of calling and office.”4
I suspect the epidemic of anxiety among young adults can be partially explained by the incredible  pressures to succeed that many of them experience. I have witnessed this pressure firsthand as I talk with students in my office. Os Guinness makes the helpful distinction that our primary calling is not to a career, but to be disciple of Jesus Christ; our secondary callings, which include our studies and careers, ought to flow out of that primary calling.5 As professors, we play a crucial role in encouraging students in their primary calling, and can provide helpful guidance as they discern a direction in their secondary callings – even if it’s not in our own academic departments.

Footnotes

  1. As it turns out, my current auto mechanic studied computer science.
  2. There is much to explore about the faith implications in the trades too. One can imagine a whole new category of faith integration books with titles such as Christianity and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
  3. Some Christian institutions, like Dordt University, have recently moved in the direction of offering some practical professional associate degrees.
  4. John Van Dijk, “Calvinistic Philosophy and the Relation Between Liberal Education and Vocational Training”, Pro Rege, December 1986, p. 11.
  5. Os Guinness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of your Life, Word Publishing, 1998, p. 31.

Derek C. Schuurman

Calvin University
Derek C. Schuurman is Professor of Computer Science at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI.

One Comment

  • Brian Cordell says:

    For most students, “plan b” should be given earnest consideration. I know of too many students who pursued degrees in the arts to find that they are carrying a debt load through much of their adult lives related to that education but are limited in their employment prospects. I took a different path with my children and insisted that they select education to prepare them for gainful work. Trade schools were an option, but not an interest of either child. Since I was participating in their financing, I was in a position to limit their options. My degrees are in business with concentrations in accounting and IT. Neither of our children studied in my areas of concentration; both are gainfully employed. Our oldest child is employed in her chosen field of study. Our youngest attempted a career in her field of study but is now working in retail. Our path did not result in success for both of our children, but it did make a note of the potential burden that studies in areas that have limited commercial potential can have on your life. I do not believe I would have chosen differently in my parenting if I had the opportunity to repeat those choices. However, I recognize that others have chosen differently and with good results. I did want to point out the potential financial impact that certain choices carry.