The Quest for Purpose: The Collegiate Search for a Meaningful Life

Perry L. Glanzer, Jonathan P. Hill, Byron R. Johnson
Published by SUNY Press in 2017

Perry Glanzer, Jonathan Hill, and Byron Johnson have produced one of the most valuable studies of this generation on the problem of meaning and purpose among undergraduate students. It belongs alongside other books on the subject by Sharon Daloz Parks and Christian Smith.

The book’s first strength—a primary one—is its tight focus on a particular question: What do undergraduate students think about meaning and purpose and about the role their colleges and universities play in helping them find meaning and purpose? The book refers to contemporary higher education theory, but is not theoretical. It does not try to map the broad spiritual and psychological lives of students. Instead, it seeks to explore and expound nuanced, varied answers to that single question. The answers arise in a complex interplay among quantitative surveys, qualitative analyses, and interviews with students from a wide variety of institutions. The results include a clearly written and organized summary of data, useful typologies taken from actual student responses, and a set of meaningful recommendations for institutions of all sizes and missions.

A second strength is the authors’ strong commitment to follow the evidence wherever it leads. This commitment arises from two sources. The first is the move in the social sciences over the past few decades toward the examination of normal, positive human experiences. The studies of psychologists on virtues and economists on human behaviors are two prominent examples. This shift has included a general willingness to accept religious influences as data. The net result here is a project fueled by the writers’ Christian beliefs (for example, that the search for meaning and purpose is a worthy subject), but framed evenhandedly to determine what students actually experience. The second source for this commitment to evidence is the writers’ pointed rejection of Anthony Kronman’s argument and conclusions in Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life: “Kronman maintains that research concerns and political correctness distract faculty and, therefore, universities from helping students in this area” (4). Rather than follow Kronman’s impressionistic assessment of the university’s internal workings, the writers decided to ask students about their searches for meaning and purpose. Again, the result is a balanced assessment of realities.

The nuanced descriptions arising from this assessment count as a third strength. Noteworthy is the need to distinguish the two—meaning and purpose—and the discovery that most students have distinct sources of meaning, but struggle in early adulthood to find purpose. The student samples lead the writers to identify ten common sources of meaning under three types:

Type 1: Self-Achievers
1. Accomplishment in general
2. Career
3. Happiness
4. Experiences
5. Creative accomplishments

Type 2: Relationalists
6. Family
7. Relationships/Friends
8. Service and/or helping others

Type 3: Transcendents
9. God or religion
10. Change the world for good (summarized from pp. 116-117).

They also identify Gary Reker and Paul Wong’s theory of meaning as approximating their empirical findings that meaning is both global and situational, both created through choice and action and discovered through life’s givens and boundaries (133). A dozen identified purposes map adequately on the meaning schema as purpose “ingredients for the good life” (144), with various sociological factors influencing student perceptions of purpose. Students seeking meaning and purpose in college divided between Instrumentalists (in two subcategories, Happiness and Achiever) and Holistics (182-185). These are just a few of the carefully delineated categories drawn from the writers’ empirical research.

A fourth strength is the book’s comprehensiveness. After an introduction on “Searching for Meaning and Purpose in College: A Dying Quest?” a first section explores “the context of the quest”—history, adolescent experiences, and pre-collegiate identity, socialization, and education. Part Two explores student responses about meaning and purpose in general, concluding with a chapter on purposelessness. Part Three treats the university’s place in students’ quests, scrutinizing curricula, professors, and extracurricular influences. This part is most immediately useful for faculty and administrators. It qualifies Kronman’s conclusions, affirms common distinctions among institutional types—such as state universities versus evangelical colleges—and highlights certain unpopular realities—for example that, despite its benefits, diversity discourages the trust necessary to promote quests for meaning and purpose. A fourth part explores the place of religiosity, nontheism, and teleological expectations in the search for meaning and purpose. A tight conclusion summarizes recom-

mendations scattered earlier throughout the book. Multiple appendices explain details of qualitative and quantitative method, complementing initial descriptions in the introduction. The net effect is a clear and complete picture of what twenty-first-century students think about meaning and purpose, as well as the current roles of higher education in finding and promoting them.

The writers’ careful, deliberate efforts to place their analyses, understandings, and conclusions in the context of recent scholarly literature form a fifth strength. The analysis slows at times to consider the relationships of questions and conclusions to the ideas of theorists such as James Fowler and Sharon Parks. These considerations always complement the emphasis on data, but they never replace it. The writers’ sharp focus on student experiences of meaning and purpose remains consistent. Most significantly, although never hesitating to disagree when the evidence suggests, the writers do so respectfully, parsing arguments cleanly and emphasizing positive scholarly insights. The absence of polemic—a quality rare among critical studies of higher education—and the book’s steady tone provide an outstanding example of positive exchange on a crucial subject.

Finally, a sixth strength is the writers’ use of case studies throughout. Often these serve as illustrative “hooks” at the beginnings of chapters. But they also generally serve the dual purposes of simultaneously vivifying and forwarding the analysis. They complement the use of statistical data and qualitative surveys, and they illustrate the people behind the conclusions. In doing so they remind the reader that meaning and purpose pertain to fleshand-bone students, not generalized statistical types.

Ultimately this emphasis makes the book’s substantive conclusions about institutional improvements both valuable and applicable. The writers hold that “simply focusing on students’ meaning and purpose development, while simultaneously acknowledging and educating students about the influence of different faith and philosophical traditions, provides the most inclusive approach to addressing big questions” (324). They take seriously the difficulty of promoting an inclusive diversity while cultivating commonalities that build trust. This approach translates into an openness to both religious and non-religious contributions to conversations about meaning and purpose. But the writers go further, beyond curricular and cocurricular initiatives, to call for “deeper understandings about how one lives out one’s life in light of a particular moral, philosophical, or religious tradition” (332). “‘Good life’ mentoring” has a particularly important role to play (336).

Despite all these strengths and substantive contributions, The Quest for Purpose has two significant omissions: an extensive treatment of vocation, and a consideration of unique disciplinary contributions. Of course, these omissions likely arise from the book’s tight focus and social scientific methodologies, two strengths. The writers do acknowledge the concept of vocation in their discussion of the role of the classroom:

A third group of students experienced life-changing discussions about meaning and purpose in courses that talked about vocation or first-year seminar courses that discussed purpose. These courses were often associated with funding the university received from the Lily Foundation to sponsor the exploration of vocation and purpose. (190)

In a sense, this emphasis on vocation fits in an analysis as just one of many ways students seek meaning and purpose. But I wanted more, in two ways. First, vocation concerns a student’s sense of compulsion, usually generated by internal convictions and external needs. A more thorough consideration of this complex process, perhaps drawn from the growing literature on vocation generated by that same Lily initiative, has a place in a study of students’ search for meaning and vocation. Second, how institutions might best encourage the processes of vocational discernment is itself an important question. The book’s narrow emphasis on what students actually experience does not at times leave adequate space for what they should experience, given social needs and contexts, as well as institutional missions and resources.

Again, the book’s tight focus means the contributions of particular disciplines get treated in aggregate. The writers emphasize the benefits of liberal education in searches for meaning and purpose, and some courses—such as the first-year course mentioned above—stand out. But the analysis would benefit from both a consideration of underlying disciplinary philosophies (for example, “What is history good for?”) and of pedagogies proven to encourage good conversations on meaning and purpose. Similarly, more on mentoring from specifically disciplinary perspectives would help.

Despite these limitations, The Quest for Purpose has provided an invaluable snapshot and blueprint for higher education today. It should remain valuable for years to come, especially with some additional analyses in later revisions.

Cite this article
Glenn E. Sanders, “The Quest for Purpose: The Collegiate Search for a Meaningful Life”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:4 , 466-468

Glenn E. Sanders

Oklahoma Baptist University
Glenn E. Sanders, Anthropology, History, and Political Science, Oklahoma Baptist University.