Justice Education


Formation for Flourishing in Higher Education

Reimagining Purpose

L. Gregory Jones

Artwork: “Garden” by Heather W. Ernst © 2020

Higher education as an industry needs to be re-imagined. The challenges we face are too numerous to think we are just dealing with a series of complicated problems that can be attacked one at a time. Rather, they are complex problems that require creative solutions. If we assume they are merely complicated, or hard, we will just focus on one without realizing that we are making related problems worse.

We need to re-imagine the purpose of higher education and connect it more explicitly to human flourishing. Doing so will require fewer incremental approaches and more of a transformed vision. To be sure, such a transformed vision should not be nostalgic for some idealized and romanticized past. We need a vision that embodies “traditioned innovation,” drawing on the best of higher education’s past for innovative approaches to current realities and anticipated trajectories.1 This is especially true for professional education and for preparing people for diverse professions.

What might such a transformed vision entail? Three ways of re-framing the imagination for higher education will illumine the outlines of such a transformed vision: (1) A rediscovery of purpose; (2) A holistic approach; and (3) An embrace of perpetual learning across the lifespan to cultivate human flourishing.


A Rediscovery of Purpose

Current headlines highlight a variety of challenges facing higher education. Americans have far less trust in higher education, with a historic decline in just the last decade. Many see faculty as far too politicized, and this criticism seems to be borne out by increasing tensions between state legislatures and public universities. Student struggles with mental health, especially at some of the most prestigious institutions, paint a picture of academia that is more grueling than it is beneficial. These issues, coupled with rising tuition costs, have caused many parents and students to question whether a four-year degree is the best investment.

These challenges have led to piecemeal changes to try to address these issues one-by-one. But such a strategy feels more like playing “whack-a-mole” than making actual progress. And that is because the challenges we face are more symptoms that require a deeper diagnosis than they are isolated problems.

The heart of the deeper diagnosis has to do with questions of purpose: the purpose of higher education itself and the ways in which it can and should help students discover purpose for their own lives and vocations. There is no simple way, either historically or philosophically, to describe the crisis of purpose in higher education. It does not afflict every institution equally, nor is it the case that all institutions are unable to answer questions about purpose. Rather, across the twentieth-century and into the first decades of the twenty-first, higher education has tended to focus more on pragmatic answers of usefulness than deeper questions of purpose.2 We have offered statistics on the economic impact of a college education, we have shown the benefits of our institutions to our local communities, and we have touted our research productivity in achieving breakthroughs across a variety of sectors.

At the same time, though, we have become less articulate about such classical themes as “truth, beauty, and goodness,” and whether our core purpose includes addressing whether there is an “ultimate” Purpose with a capital P for human life, human communities, and the world as a whole. Obviously, this way of framing the issue will be different for those universities that retain a faith-based identity than those that are secular, “post-religious,” or public, but arguably questions about purpose and Purpose ought to be at the heart of any good educational institution. To raise the question of whether there is any ultimate sense of Truth, Beauty, Goodness (and thus Purpose with a capital P) is not to presume a positive answer. But keeping such questions at the center of the conversation will illuminate ways that students can discover purpose in the course of their college career.

This is deeply connected to whether higher education is called to help its students articulate their sense of purpose and help them ask questions about ultimate Purpose. Classically, colleges and universities have understood themselves as helping students discover a sense of purpose deeper than questions about skills and job prospects. Such descriptions often have been linked to language about vocation, calling, and character. And, as courses have cropped up recently in a variety of institutions addressing these topics—from Stanford’s “Designing Your Life” and Yale’s “Life Worth Living” through Notre Dame’s “God and the Good Life” to a course my wife and I teach at Belmont, “What’s Your Why?”—we are re-discovering the strong appetite for such courses.

A Holistic Approach

Making questions of purpose central to higher education also invites a more holistic pedagogical approach. Too often in contemporary higher education we treat students as if they are simply brains that need to download information. But if we are only focused on conveying information or transmitting skills, contemporary advances in technology are rendering us increasingly irrelevant. Young people yearn for more holistic approaches. For example, in 2019, a Gallup–Bates College Study showed a crucial link between purpose and work, along with how difficult it is for college graduates to discover that link. Higher education ought to be leading the way in helping students connect their work with questions of purpose by asking deep questions about a well-lived life and through internships and other extracurricular experiences that put those thoughts into action.

This is even more important given the growing challenges to mental health and well-being. Loneliness, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation among young adults has increased significantly over the last decade. Higher education leaders have noticed these trends and sought to address them, but merely reactive efforts like hiring more counselors do not deal with the deeper issues that can only be addressed by fostering connection and community and addressing deeper themes of purpose and character.

Technology may be advancing in its ability to process information and write remarkable essays. However, questions at the heart of what it means to be human—including our emotions, our desire for wisdom, our embodied relationships with one another—invite a more holistic approach to character formation and to a discovery of what the New Testament calls “life that really is life” (I Timothy 6:19). One need not be religious to yearn for what Miroslav Volf and his colleagues at Yale call “life worth living.” And nurturing that well requires us to take an institution-wide approach. At Belmont, a focus on “whole-person formation” is one of our five strategic pathways to accomplishing our mission and vision.

Formation for Flourishing

Reorienting our practice around questions of purpose and the life well-lived drives us to a re-imagination of higher education for human flourishing. Most centrally, this invites us to focus on what it means for our students to flourish, both while they are students and throughout their lives.

A re-imagined higher education for flourishing would embrace opportunities and responsibilities to engage people across the life-span, while remaining focused on our mission of higher education. Rather than assuming that higher education exists only, or even primarily, for 18–22 year olds, whom we then seek to maintain relationships with as “alumni,” we would see roles for us in education and formation throughout the lifespan.

Higher education obviously has a stake in the education of people 0–18. They are, to put it in business terms, our “supply chain.” If preschool and K–12 don’t do their work well, it makes it even more challenging for higher education. Rather than engaging in blame games about where the failures lie, we ought to embrace intrinsic partnerships that foster continuities in education and formation throughout life. Less often noticed is that we have a stake in the education and formation of people who are much older than 18–22. This includes opportunities for people who never went to college, or didn’t finish, to complete degrees later in life. It also includes opportunities for college graduates to continue to learn and grow—whether to keep up with changes in professional expectations, re-tooling for new opportunities, or simply to grow in wisdom by learning throughout life.

Underlying this new approach is an entrepreneurial mindset that needs to be cultivated across higher education. Such a mindset includes, but is distinct from, innovation and entrepreneurship as vocations some people pursue. Rather, it is a focus on the future and how we can learn most fruitfully from what has gone before us, rather than an attempt to replicate the past or survive the status quo. Too many of us in higher education think and lead as if we are preparing for 1995 in case it ever comes back. We need to be oriented, and orienting our students, toward a “traditioned innovation” approach to the future that prepares them to think and live entrepreneurially for flourishing.

A flipped approach leads to a framing of higher education’s purpose in provocative ways such as the following: how can higher education, and in particular my institution, equip people with the character, purpose, and skills for them to flourish, to help others in their families and communities to flourish, and to help the world flourish? The ways in which a faith-based institution such as Belmont or Notre Dame might address this question are distinct from an elite research university such as Duke or Washington University in St. Louis, much less from a public university such as Michigan or Cal State–Northridge.

Arizona State University is already providing fascinatingly innovative app­roaches to such a framing, ranging from their work across the lifespan to their engagement with communities near and far. We need to cultivate more examples from diverse institutions, and Belmont is working on such innovation. Rather than the isomorphism that tends to happen in higher education, we need to cultivate institutions doing very different experiments designed to foster purpose, character, and human flourishing for their constituents and broader communities. And those experiments should keep questions of Purpose with a capital P—including those of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness—at the heart of our diverse approaches to “higher” education.

The more we cultivate such diversity among higher education institutions, the more we will re-inspire trust and confidence both in the relevance of higher education and its intrinsic importance. By framing questions of purpose, character, and entrepreneurial mindset more clearly in terms of what it means for human beings, individually and collectively, to flourish, we as higher education leaders may see far greater impact on creating and sustaining the flourishing world at the heart of our own sense of purpose.

  1. For a more extended description and account of what I call “traditioned innovation,” see L. Gregory Jones and Andrew P. Hogue, Navigating the Future: Traditioned Innovation for Wilder Seas (Abingdon Press, 2021).
  2. Amidst an extensive literature discussing these issues, notable is Julie Reuben’s historical account of the marginalization of ethical discussion in the modern research university. See her The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago, 1996). And, given the isomorphism of higher education, intensified by accreditation processes, even colleges and universities that bear little resemblance to a research university such as Harvard or Johns Hopkins have often mimicked their practices and assumptions.

L. Gregory Jones has been the President of Belmont University since 2021, and before that, he served as the dean of Duke Divinity School. The author or editor of 19 books, Greg is a gifted speaker, media contributor and thought leader in higher education, social innovation and theology.

Spring 2024

From the Editor


Suzanne Shanahan

Part I: Pursuing Virtue

Sabrina B. Little

Kelli Reagan Hickey

Blest Be the Ties that Bind: Remembering a Purpose of Religio in Higher Education

Luke A. Powery

Interlude: Purposeful Pursuits

Part II: Pursuing Vocation

James Coleman, Jr.