John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Constantly Reassessing Individual Purpose

Any of us who have ever worked with college and university students know that one of the most important things we have to help challenge and support students in is their development of a sense of purpose. Of course, this doesn’t apply just to students. It also applies to us. What is/are our purposes? What drives us? What do we live for? What do we work for?

I find myself constantly asking this, or reasking this with respect to my own work. I am one of the fortunate ones in our society, largely due to my age, in that I don’t have to work, that is I don’t have to work to earn money. I could be fully retired and live comfortably. So why do I keep working?

Well, because like other people, I like to do what I am good at, what I know, what gives me satisfaction, fulfillment, gratification and so on. I also work because there is really nothing else right now I would enjoy doing for a significant amount of my waking hours. In addition to my professional work I do have other interests: hiking, running, enjoying the dramatic and musical arts, friendships, and especially my precious time with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and our respective families.

But about a purpose for my work. Even though it, the work, has had a fairly constant purpose now since about 1974 when I first became Director of the University 101 course at the University of South Carolina, I find that I occasionally refine my mental interior language of how I define my purpose. This has happened again this past week during my visit to South Africa.

One can’t look around him/herself thoughtfully in the US and not be struck by the dramatic differences in wealth of our fellow citizens. And we should be aware that one of the products of our society these days is the output of proportionately more poor, sick people, especially children, and a shrinking middle class. And an American such as myself can’t spend any time in South Africa and realize that they too can be described as characterized by great differences in wealth, the differences between the haves and the have nots. But unlike us, they are gradually growing their middle class. May that trend continue.

As I was leaving South Africa today, the lead headline above the fold in the International Herald Tribune was “The Super-Rich Pull Even Farther Ahead”. The article continued to describe a cross cultural phenomenon,namely, the creation since 1980 of “an international economic elite whose globe trotting members have largely pulled away from their counterparts.” Now we are not talking here about just Americans. This is an international trend manifested in Canada, the UK, Scandanavia, Germany and most impressively in developing countries like India and China.

But, as the Tribune reported: “The trend is particularly stark in the US where from 1980 to 2005 more than 80% of the total increase in income went to the top 1 percent of the population. The gap there between the superrich and everybody else is now greater than at any time since before the Depression of the 1930’s.”

And what does this have with my sense of purpose? This helps me redefine my purpose. I view this extraordinary growth in inequality in my country as a great injustice, a threat to our democracy, a blunting of our world admired civil rights movement. I have long defined my work as an effort to help more Americans join the great American middle class. I still work for that. But I have to look beyond that because so many of our social, economic, governmental policies are making it much harder to grow the middle class. I conclude that I am morally offended by this trend and that my purpose has to be to help my higher education system close this shockingly unfair gap between the super rich and everyone else. I think we all need to continually redefine our purpose(s).

-John Gardner

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