I’m a contemplative academic. But what exactly does that mean?

I have spent nearly two and a half decades in a university setting, either as a student or a professor. But it was only recently that I realized that my vocation, my particular way of being a professor, is to strive to combine the skills of mastering and passing knowledge while also awakening the human desire for truth, beauty, and a joyful life.

The approach I’ve developed arose out of my research on resilience and suffering among young adults, my classes on topics like intentional communities and philosophy of social science, and my mentoring of students through extra-curricular events like intensive summer seminars or long talks over coffee or a meal. My immersion in the lives of so many young people showed me time and again their hunger for discussions about meaning, purpose and love—topics nearly absent from the university curriculum today.

Perhaps it took me so long to see that my calling was to be a contemplative academic because we no longer think of the end of knowledge or the purpose of education as developing the whole person. Too many of today’s classrooms avoid the big questions about meaning and purpose. I studied psychology as an undergraduate student at Yale, and sociology as a graduate student at Princeton. But in those fields dedicated to studying human persons and societies, discussions of truth, love and meaning were practically absent.

Instead, I learned a kind of pragmatic, problem-solving approach to knowledge. We start with a problem that affects people or societies, something like mental illness or economic inequality, and then try to collect data that supposedly will produce findings that to address that problem. The implicit assumption is that we know what a good life is: freedom from pain, greater economic independence, and increasing autonomy to choose whatever we desire.

Although I learned how to keep climbing the ladder of success, I didn’t really know why I was working so hard. So while in graduate school, I went on a couple of Catholic weekend retreats, from which I learned a way of viewing every aspect of our lives from the perspective of a transcendent, eternal being who loves us. As I accepted that love into my life, I realized that a joyful life is not the same thing as a utilitarian calculus of reducing pain and maximizing of pleasures. I sought that joyful presence in my life through the Mass or quiet prayer at home in the mornings.

Once I myself landed a good job as a professor of sociology, thereby acquiring finally some economic independence, I found myself unsatisfied, not knowing how I was really supposed to educate students. Was I just supposed to teach them the theories, concepts and tools of sociology? Was I really supposed to just train other people to become sociologists as a path to their own economic independence?

As I opened myself to getting to know undergraduate and graduate students as people, not just pupils who I had to grade in class, I saw how often they desired to talk about meaning, purpose and love. All of the knowledge, skills and credentials one can acquire in higher education become empty if we don’t know why we are working so hard. As St. Augustine said, what does man desire more deeply than truth, to know the very meaning of our existence.

My view on education began to shift as I realized students desperately wanted a guide for the big questions of their lives. As Pope Benedict explains, the word education comes from educere, to lead. To lead people implies we have a destination. No matter how much we accomplish, our destination as humans is something greater than our resumes. Our fullness, our growth, comes from moving beyond ourselves and embracing all aspects of our humanity. Hence, in my scholarship, teaching and mentoring, I strive for what Pope Benedict called a humanistic synthesis: knowledge that is wisdom capable of directing man in the light of his first beginnings and final ends. (Caritatis in veritate. N. 23)

It didn’t really occur to me until I read the original mission statements and mottos of the schools where I taught and studied that these ideas about a humanistic education which I discovered in the Catholic intellectual tradition were not so far from the intentions of the founders of our great private and public universities. Light and truth; service to humanity; good citizens—all of those ends of education enshrined in mottos and mission statements require much more than tools, skills and credentials.

But the way many institutions of higher education function today have drifted from that mission that grew out of that view of humans: to educate young people in a humanistic, holistic way. Many top universities see themselves as essentially generating a product that directly supports scientific industries in medicine or engineering, or preparing the networks with the market of lawyers and financial managers who support those scientific industries. As important as the technical knowledge for scientific industries is, and as much as we need skillful people supporting those industries by working in fields like law and finance, in the curriculum and classrooms of so many students, today’s greatest scientific pursuits are de facto separated from questions of meaning and purpose. But the classical view of humans was that we are homo sapiens—wise persons—not homo faber—people who make things—or homo economicus—people who maximize personal preferences, whatever they may be.

Students who engage in the very search I was on look for the classical texts from philosophy, theology and humanities that allow them to synthesize knowledge across a variety of specialized fields in a way that contributes to the human good.

Once I embraced the humanistic synthesis of knowledge and growth in wisdom as the purpose of being an academic, my practices began to change. I broadened the audience of my work to include not just the guild of sociologists or academics in other fields, but the general public, such as by writing blogs or talking to a general audience at a church or community group. In my writing and publishing, I embraced a new vocabulary in my writing that includes love, meaning and purpose as central ends of a human life.

I began to see teaching as a calling to be a spiritual mother, accompanying students on their life journeys. I turned back many times to my quiet times of prayer, listening to my own heart, letting my desires be awakened anew. I began to integrate learning and contemplative practices, taking students on trips to monasteries or art galleries, where we had shared experiences of transcendence. Seeking the good life together requires content, but also the right context that fosters intimacy and friendships, and a pedagogy of freedom. Although being a contemplative academic means I spend many more hours with students than I used to, the real impact is when the knowledge and experiences we have shared become their own, through their own search for the truth, done in a contemplative fashion, in a community of friends dedicated to similar ends, where the knowledge they acquire is illuminated by their contemplative outlook, and their contemplation of the world leads to an ever grater desire for truth.