The Obligation of Perfection by Micah Meadowcroft

This article is adapted from a lecture given by Mr. Meadowcroft to the Fairfield Society.

You all have a vocation. Not just a future calling for future fulfillment. You have a vocation now. And while you each possess a unique vocation, one that you will fail or succeed in fulfilling someday, now, in this time and place, you share the call to be a student. Whatever your plans, hopes, and dreams, by becoming a Hillsdale student you have committed yourself, for a time, to the intellectual life. Whatever God’s calling for your future, his providence has placed you hear, now. Embrace that vocation and work it out with fear and trembling before God.
Plato’s Academy, mural from Pompeii
A French Dominican and Thomistic scholar, A. G. Sertillanges wrote the 1946 book The Intellectual Life, Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. A practical treatise for those wishing to dedicate their lives to scholarly pursuits, those with a vocation to study beyond school, The Intellectual Life nonetheless contains in its text much applicable to the life of the student and invaluable for their edification and encouragement. Read it. It is hard and convicting and will do you good. That book’s pages contain too much meat to digest all of it here; it would be a meal too rich and long for a single sitting. Let us look at a single line of ten words and see what in them we may learn. 
     “To have a vocation is to be obliged to perfection.”
     The vocation to be a student may be a “vocation of the moment”, but it is as real in this moment as any career or call to follow. In setting out on the path of collegiate study, whether called to it or arriving by default, you have declared a goal. A vocation can be defined as, “One’s ordinary occupation, business, or profession,” and so clearly a student has made study his vocation. Yet, even disregarding this definition and considering the more providential, “the fact of being so called or directed towards a special work in life; natural tendency to, or fitness for, such work,” one may consider that one is most fit for the work that he finds before himself.  Rest content in your present state. As you are called student, so you are called to study.
     The vocation comes with an obligation. You have set before yourself a work to complete and an end to fulfill. Proverbs 18:9 says, “Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys.” Here Solomon draws the connection between good work and completion. To work poorly to an end is to never fulfill it, for the end of a thing is in its perfecting. When one sets out to study, to be a student, he rests under an obligation to do his work well, for to not do so would not bring his work to completion. The life of a student bears responsibilities. Only in the striving for perfection and mastery does a student fulfill her vocation. 
     Yet that does not mean that students who fall short of what their professors have classified as the culmination and perfection of their scholastic works fail to fulfill the obligation of their vocation. The end of the student is study, that is, learning and mastery. Grades fulfill an ordering role in that process, measuring the performance of the individual against an ideal aggregate, but they are not themselves the telos of study. The perfection of study is found in the full application of each student’s talents and abilities. The measure of completed study is to each one according to his gifts. To have the vocation of student is to be obliged to the perfection of study with a whole heart to the best of one’s ability.
     You may readily assent to this. The ideal of “one’s best” may be one you hold, like me, unrealized in much of life, but one that you nevertheless cherish. The vocation of the student is under constant attack by the many distractions of life. Many are such as are common to all. Some are particular to individuals and institutions. Hillsdale student’s love of country, a good thing of no negative effect upon the capacity for perfected study, gives rise too often to an unhealthy preoccupation with politics, whether national or state. 
     Notice I say “preoccupation with politics.” This is not a critique of an educated awareness of the political landscape. College students can vote. I hope they know who for, what for, and why. The  preoccupation with politics is found wherever the intellectual eye is turned outward to the cold mechanics of policy and campaign, of ideology and partisanship, rather than inward to its own growth. A mind called to the nurturing of itself, called to study, fails when it occupies itself with the world beyond its present state, beyond its vocation. A focus on politics at Hillsdale, which may very well be a person’s vocation in the longer sense, is, in the circumstance of the student called to study while at school, both irresponsible and indicative of discontent. 

     The studious vocation requires contentment. Only in contentment with present circumstances can studies be brought to a full completion. A student who finds herself at Hillsdale should rest content in the calling to be a Hillsdale student. The responsibility of that student is her obligation to work wholeheartedly and labor diligently in her studies, perfecting and completing her work in the full application of those gifts and abilities she has been given. To become preoccupied with politics is to become unsatisfied with the present life of study before bringing this “vocation of the moment” to its completion. It is to disregard the responsibility to fully commit the self to the obligations of study and to become slack in one’s work — to become brother to one who destroys. It is to not fulfill one’s vocation to be a Hillsdale student. F

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