Although I am a college professor, I must confess that my most important education during college did not come from professors. As an undergraduate majoring in history, political science, and religion at Rice University, I had some great classes with outstanding professors—one even won a Professor of the Year award among faculty for the entire nation during my time attending. Yet, my professors never addressed some of the most basic and vitally important questions about life in a way that shaped and formed me. I actually explored these questions and possible answers to them most thoroughly outside of class with peers and other adult mentors.
What were those questions? Many of them related to identity. Who am I? What are my most important identities (e.g., friend, college student, Christian, son, man/woman, etc.)? What does it mean to be excellent in these identities—such as an excellent friend or a good neighbor? How can I be excellent in my vocation (such as being a good student)? How can I be a good steward of my time, body, and resources? What does it mean to be an excellent man or woman? What does it mean to be an excellent romantic friend? How do I fit all these identities and the pursuit of excellence together in one life? College remains one of the most important times to begin formulating an answer to these questions.
Yet, universities no longer educate professors to teach you how to discover and be excellent in your various identities. Instead, they have been educated to give you a basic conceptual map of a specific subject like psychology, sociology, or biology, among others. Although maps can be helpful in orienting you to a subject, they do not answer the most basic question: How do I find an excellent destination? At best, they teach you how to be a good (and perhaps excellent) historian, accountant, biologist, chemist, musician, etc. Pluralistic universities (i.e., public and secular private universities) condition professors to avoid directly answering questions outside of any identity not related to their profession. In the overall game of life, they primarily teach excellence in one identity area—your future career. General education classes also continue this habit by merely offering conceptual maps of disciplines (e.g., sociology of marriage) instead of exploring a direction, such as, What does it mean to have an excellent marriage? What does it mean to be an excellent father or mother?
Some student affairs staff may claim to help you with your holistic development. Yet, today many of these leaders are mostly consumed with a narrow form of identity development focused on a particular ethnic minority, gender, sexual orientation, etc,. and especially asserting some claim to past injustice and current recompense. Although this focus is necessary for the civic virtue of justice, it often leaves students preoccupied with narrow aspects of their identity and focused on power (or a lack thereof). It also results in student affairs not giving enough attention to other supposedly nonpolitical identities such as what does it mean to be a good friend, steward of your body, steward of money, family member, etc. They focus more on identity oppression instead of identity excellence. As a result, most college students demonstrate little sophistication when it comes to thinking about crafting multiple forms of identity excellence and how those multiple forms can be brought together in a whole.
In addition, even if some students know more and more about facets of who they are over the course of their college career, and develop some idea of identity excellence, they often have little conception of how to answer the third important question: how do these pieces fit together? Without an overarching answer to “who am I?” students are left with no answer as to “what is worth pursuing?” In fact, many students are simply morally adrift. In a recent study of young emerging adults (18-23), Christian Smith found, “Much of life seems to them to be a neutral zone, in which moral goods and bads are absent or irrelevant.”1 He concluded: “they are a generation that has been failed, when it comes to moral formation.”2
Smith placed much of the blame on older adults, “the adult world that has socialized these youth for 18 to 23 years has done an awful job when it comes to moral education and formation.”3 In particular, Smith maintained, “Colleges and universities appear to be playing a part in this failure as well.”4 Overall, he summarized that what college and university students need is, “some better moral maps and better-equipped guides to show them the way around. The question is, do those maps and guides exist, and can they be put into use?”5
Fortunately, those guides and maps do exist. In fact, I personally had guides who helped provide these maps. My peers, older students, staff from the campus Christian group, my parents and brother, and the writings of relevant Christian authors each gave me the education I desired about the good life. For example, I read all the following books outside of class during college that dealt with how to be excellent in my different identities: The Friendship Factor, Knowing God, Master Your Money, The Marriage Builder, and How to Read a Book.
Unfortunately, outside of a Christian context these guides are rarely professors. In my national study of how students discover purpose with Jonathan Hill and Byron Johnson, we found that rarely did students expect or want to learn about life purpose from their professors (the one exception was an evangelical university that is one of Christian Scholar’s Review’s sponsoring institutions). One of the key contributions of Christian university staff and professors should be helping students understand and pursue identity excellence in a way that involves more than their professional identity. In other words, not only should we focus on what it means to be a Christian [fill in the major] or a Christian political citizen, we should provide a general and co-curricular education that teaches identity excellence in a range of essential human identities.
This blog is adopted from Perry Glanzer’s new book, Identity in Action (ACU Press—releasing Feb. 9, 2021). Used by permission.
For more about identity in Christian Scholar’s Review see https://christianscholars.com/identity-and-idolatry-the-image-of-god-and-its-inversion/
As a professor, I want to support students as they perceive and internalize the gravity of oppression and identity-related social injustice, something that the social justice framework doesn’t do well enough, in my estimation. If personal peace requires social justice, then individuals will not be able to be at peace, or happy, ever. It’s important to work for social justice, but hitching our personal well-being to its achievement seems doomed. It’s a question of theodicy – why does evil exit (because of failed politics, yes, but more than that), and how can we live well, as beloved children of God, in a world that is not fully redeemed? I’m concerned about drawing the failings of political systems into the soul, to the level of identity — that seems like a political incursion related to the ubiquity of political news and media. As Thoreau wrote in Walden, if politicians did their jobs well, we wouldn’t have to hear about them so much.