Students in Marquette University’s English 6820 class spent the fall semester discerning where their educations should take them. (Submitted photo)

With Gen Z-ers poised to become the most-educated generation in modern times (based on high college enrollment and low high school dropout rates), a conversation is arising in academia and elsewhere: What’s the purpose of all this education, anyway?

Does it translate directly to more dollars earned? Does it make for a better economy? A more productive workforce? More satisfying job prospects?

Those are the wrong questions to be asking, says Dr. Elizabeth Angeli — or, at the very least, they’re not the only questions that should concern students and educators in a Catholic environment.

“One of our core principles at Marquette is cura personalis, which is care for the whole person,” said Dr. Angeli, who is an associate professor of English at Marquette University. “We really think about preparing our students for careers, but more importantly, preparing them to be people in the world and people in community.”

In other words, it’s about more than just fulfilling credit hours and passing exams — it’s a process that requires discernment. During the fall semester, Dr. Angeli and a group of eight graduate students spent 16 weeks engaging in that discernment process in an innovative way as part of Dr. Angeli’s English 6820 class.

Far from a traditional literary theory class, this version of the required Studies in Modern Critical Theory course invited students to envision where their degree will take them by first reflecting on the journey that led them to a graduate-level English classroom in the first place.

“I wondered, ‘what if we integrated an element of discernment into this?’ We’re a Jesuit school, and St. Ignatius is kind of the big discernment guy in spirituality,” said Dr. Angeli. “Let’s look at who we are as people, what work we’re being called to and what gifts we have to offer the world.”

The class spent the first few weeks of the semester discussing principles of Ignatian discernment, examining the concepts of consolation and desolation, or the movement toward or away from God’s plan.

This exercise served as a springboard to one of the class’ most memorable assignments: discernment maps, wherein students visually represented the decisions that led to their current course of study.

The discernment maps took on a variety of forms and media — one student even created a board game. Jacob Petrowsky, a first-year graduate student in English, made his discernment map from a combination of photography, creative writing pieces and drawings.

“What really draws me in is the artistic aspect of the humanities. That’s what is life-giving to me — creating something new,” he said of his decision to pursue graduate studies in English.

Adding that the 6820 course had “definitely impacted me in a positive way,” Petrowsky described how “when I graduated undergrad, I didn’t know where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do, but I knew God would always lead me in the right direction.”

“I have a better idea of where I want to go now, and the discernment map has definitely helped with that,” he said. “There was a lot of internal work being done in this class.”

Fellow student Susan Jones-Landwer, a doctoral candidate in English, modeled her discernment map on a “choose-your-own-adventure” book.

“Every slide that I did for my presentation showed a pivotal point in where I wanted to go, whether it was a career after college, grad school or professional opportunities,” said Jones-Landwer, who has a background in sales and nonprofit work.

In recent years, with the growing popularity of STEM education programs, “humanities programs have been shrinking” all over the country, said Dr. Angeli. It is a trend that results in fewer academic careers available to graduate students like those in English 6820.

“But we still have people who want to pursue graduate education in the humanities, and they still should, because it’s a graduate education that prepares students to do a lot,” she said.

Enter the “public-facing humanities” career tracks, positions that require innovation, creativity, analysis, collaboration and empathy. “That’s where we thrive,” said Dr. Angeli. “Humanities work is the invisible work that facilitates all of that.”

In creating her discernment map, Jones-Landwer was able to plot distinctly how her background in English has helped her land jobs that relied on her communication abilities and presentation skills.

“We have big companies who are actively looking for humanities (majors) because we look at things differently,” she said.

Dr. Angeli will offer an undergraduate version of the class in the spring 2022 semester. For her part, she said the 16 weeks spent witnessing her students’ discernment processes was as “transformative” for her as it was for them.

“I feel like I was transformed being in community with these eight graduate students, as much as I have seen them be transformed,” she said. “That, to me, is the power of the humanities classroom — being open to transformation, to building a community. Because I definitely am not in the same place I was 16 weeks ago, in many excellent ways.”