While speaking recently with William Deresiewicz I recalled a thought I’d had upon reading some of his essays for the first time: his hope that colleges form “autonomous adults” rather than “excellent sheep” turns upon a thin notion of vocation. Having written previously about vocation in this context, and as an interested follower of Deresiewicz’s work and a recent college graduate, I find this shortcoming in his advocacy deeply troubling.

In Deresiewicz’s view there is no “caller” and therefore no proper referent for the “should” of questions like “What should I do with my life?” or “Should I marry?” other than the individual. Vocational questions reduce to a function of self-expression: self-reflection first, yes—which is Deresiewicz’s goal for sheep-like college students—but finally just self-concerned self-expression, what Robert George frequently calls “expressive individualism” and “me-generation liberalism.” This won’t do.

Many of those who typically form Catholic college students’ concepts of calling—youth group leaders, professional speakers, religious instructors, teachers, professors, even priests and vowed religious—acknowledge a caller and a calling, but do not go deep enough into that calling or the circumstances of those called. As they present vocation, God has nothing to say to each person beyond that person’s baptismal call to Christian holiness (which all Christians share), that person’s state-in-life calling (to married life, priestly or religious life, consecrated life, or perhaps single life), and profession or career.

These are valid enough but insufficient to express the thick reality of personal vocation, which involves “all the good choices God would prefer one to make, all the things he allows to come one's way and expects will be handled rightly,” as Germain Grisez, whose work on personal vocation is highly commendable, writes. This is a view of vocation that goes all the way down. One’s personal identity, malleable and potential, is at stake in vocational questions like the ones Deresiewicz lauds. Personal vocation is a corrective to thin Catholic versions of vocation and also to both elite education’s degraded culture and Deresiewicz’s prescription for it.

The impressions imparted by these ministers’ way of speaking are various and all dangerous: that if one isn’t called to priestly or religious life, one doesn’t “have a vocation”; that if one isn’t called to religious life, it’s because she’s incapable of it; that if one seeks after holiness his vocation must be to religious life; that one “resolves” his vocational quandaries once he has decided to marry (or not) and settles into a lifelong career; and so forth. For the Catholic college student in particular, the temptation is to think that “vocational decisions” lie down the road (most students aren’t ready to marry, or commit to religious life, or even know their career opportunities, at twenty) and that in the present he is just “biding his time” until he can carry out God’s will by marrying or by getting the job to which he’s called.

These students, unlike Deresiewicz’s model students, look beyond themselves for answers to vocational questions. They listen for a call, rather than executing a self-made vision. But they too fail to see that their personal vocation is ever “active” and deep, that they are not on “stand-by” and never will exhaust or satisfy their vocation. That misperception is dangerous because their very identities, their discovery of who they truly are and are meant to be, depend up the realization of that deep calling.

John Paul II, a proponent of the thick view of personal vocation, said this memorably at the 2003 World Day of Prayer for Vocations (with my emphasis):

How can one not read in the story of the “servant Jesus” the story of every vocation: the story that the Creator has planned for every human being, which inevitably passes through the call to serve and culminates in the discovery of the new name, designed by God for each individual? In these “names,” people can grasp their own identity.

I think it’s important for every Christian to see vocation this way, especially the ministers who typically form the Christian adolescents who continue on to college in short order, and those who minister to them during those crucial formative years.