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It is a New Year—“Do you need a vision?”

I learned to cook at a Young Life camp in Canada from a dear friend who is an artist by personality, outlook, and talent, and who ran the kitchen accordingly. It was never dull and the food was amazing. One of her hallmark questions to us volunteers in the course of feeding 500 was ‘Do you need a vision?’ No, she wasn’t offering medieval dream visions or hallucinatory experiences. It was her question instead of “Do you need a job?” or “Do you need a task?” Notice the difference? Instead of doling out tasks or assignments, she made sure each kitchen volunteer staff had a vision for what we were trying to do. Once armed with that ‘vision’, we could offer how we might contribute. We may follow with questions (How much honey do we mix into the honey butter?), but we weren’t looking for employment, management, or jobs. Armed with a vision, we could offer our solutions.

This past week the University of Wisconsin was in the news for announcing the end of a number of liberal arts majors, including geography, French, German, and history. The article makes clear the obvious market force behind the decision—students are flocking to degrees that lead directly to employment. Wisconsin state has one of the most inspiring mottos for higher education: “Search for Truth.” Yet, conceding what graduates are searching for instead are jobs, they are putting the liberal arts on the chopping block. As my friend would say, we need a vision.

It is a dangerous and false either/or, to say education must be about preparing for employment or studying ‘those subjective things’ that make us human. The danger is evident when we consider we have the highest employment in 49 years, but an epidemic of loneliness and opioid addiction, and growing trends of anxiety, depression, and suicide. It is evident when we simply read the Technology headlines to realize that STEM without ‘those subjective things’ contributes to the brokenness of our world.

The jobs-or-human-education proposition is dangerous, and also false. In fact, in an age of computing and automation doing increasingly more tasks and assignments that once counted for human work, the liberal arts—the art of speaking well, writing well, and offering solutions to real problems—is downright invaluable, and increasingly rare.

But the problem should be clear—our societal approach to education is deeply flawed. A central idea at Waterloo is that education ought to be centered around the student, and that the student be expected to do something purposeful with what they learn. What does that mean? Most school curricula organizes material from the expert’s perspective. It’s a systematic walk through content, often reduced to an outline, in order to efficiently ‘cover’ the necessary material, standards, and objectives, and then the student demonstrates she learned it on a test. Real learning in the real world rarely works that way. Instead, we learn something when we need it to accomplish something we care about, when it helps us meet a need, when we have a vision and a purpose. Learning that is grounded in the outcome of our ideas, our efforts, and our work makes personal formation more than an add-on to ‘the real school work’—it makes formation integral to the learning itself.

We don’t need to move kids towards employment. We need to help them get a vision for their lives. We need to draw them deeper into the human story, into God’s story, into the problems, challenges, and delights that await them when they come into their own. They might put too much honey in the butter they serve to the guests, but is that so bad?

Craig Doerksen