Richard Nelson Bolles' Work What Color is Your Parachute?
A Model for Helping Fulfill the Christian Mission in Higher Education for Adult Students in a Postmodern Environment
Glenn Vestrat, LeTourneau University
Richard Nelson Bolles, author of the famous career change manual What Color is Your Parachute?, provides the instructor of adult undergraduate students in today's postmodern learning environment with a model to effectively present the Gospel of Christ. Bolles presents his faith in a nonpluralistic manner, through a methodology which can be transferred to the classroom. Vital links between the nature of postmodernism and adult education tie key aspects of andragogy together to yield fertile ground for the application of Bolles' emphasis on personal mission and vocation. When employed together,
the results promote not only examination of individual uniqueness but also realization of our mission found within Christ.
A survey conducted in 1986 revealed that 10 million workers changed careers that year. On average this translates to over 27,000 Americans beginning new careers each day. Certainly, both the corporate and worker "employment at will" practices of the 80's and 90's show no sign of abatement. Above this frenzied landscape of occupational transition floats Richard Nelson Bolles' classic career change manual What Color is Your Parachute? The 1995 "Parachute", now boasting a shiny silver 25th anniversary cover, has graced the briefcases, desks, and backpacks of over 5 million job hunters and career builders since its first appearance in 1970, a year made famous again by the release of Tom Hanks' film "Apollo 13."
Since its debut the annually updated "Parachute" has become a contemporary classic, lauded by readers, users, and critics alike. In a work world known for its mercurial management policies, diminished worker/company loyalty, and overarching themes of temporary employee utilization, service industry growth, and corporate correct-sizing, "Parachute" has taken on an increasingly important role in both the discipline of vocational management and the promotion of individual, introspective mission assessment. Bolles' audience is certainly large and his work particularly timely.
In "Parachute's" 377 content pages Bolles speaks a practical, pragmatic language of transferable skills analysis, effective job interview techniques, and salary negotiation. He deftly treats his topics, warmly building rapport and credibility with his reader. Ultimately, in Chapter Ten, Bolles fleshes out his own Christian presuppositional basis. Here at the core of self-analysis exercises, Bolles facilitates the reader in discovering his or her ideal spiritual or emotional work setting by referring the reader to a faith- based epilogue. At this juncture the author blends religious belief with daily work. Bolles accomplishes this union by unbundling one's individual mission in life into three progressive, Christ-centered micro missions, all pointing toward one's consummate earthly vocation. Although each stage of mission development is worthy of independent study, I would like to focus on Bolles' methodology for presenting his beliefs and recognize a link between Bolles' emphasis on discovering personal mission and our mission as professors in Christian higher education. Based on an analysis of the following aspects, I will suggest that Bolles' model for communicating Christ's message to job seekers is also particularly effective with adult undergraduate students in today's postmodern climate and by applying this example we can work in fulfilling the Christian Mission in Higher Education. My understanding of this mission is straightforward; that we, as in Paul's letter to the church at Ephesus, are to be ambassadors for Christ, speaking boldly the mystery of the Gospel.
This paper will begin by briefly investigating the nature of the postmodern climate in which Bolles writes and we teach. Afterwards, I will integrate important features and objectives into the burgeoning nontraditional, adult education environment, the setting in which I teach at LeTourneau University in Dallas, Texas. After looking more closely at the Bolles' method of sharing his faith I will propose ways for the Christian instructor of adults to apply this example in the classroom.
In order to reduce ambiguity and sharpen my definition of postmodernism I rely on James B. Miller's chronological development of this much talked-about current worldview. To lay the foundations of postmodern thought, Miller describes the birth of modernism from within the premodern world, and the subsequent development of the postmodern world from within the modern world, effectually through the eyes of science. In premodernism we see a vertical cosmological dualism stretching from the earthly plane to the heavens. Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican who relied on reason to understand faith revealed by God, stands as the spokesperson for this age. Premodern presuppositions, focusing on organic descriptions of a human-centered cosmos, fundamentally represented a blend of Aristotelian philosophy that reconciled materialism and formalism under a framework that organized reality by four "causes" that explained a thing's existence and its nature, with Christian theology. In a time where authoritative knowledge sprang from tradition, faith and science worked in concert. Galileo, through his astrophysical work, ultimately helped to forever redefine this relationship.
To say that Galileo's heliocentric promulgation and subsequent recantation signaled the end of the premodern era and heralded the beginning of the modern era is an oversimplification. The sequence of occurrences leading up to and following the events of 1616 to 1633 did not take place in an insulated environment, but instead amid religious tumult and among strong personalities. We do, however, see a fissure in the premodern vertical cosmological dualism described by Miller. A thorough treatment of the Galileo controversy is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say Galileo stands with Copernicus, Descartes, and Kant as four catalysts who poured the foundational theological, philosophical, and scientific thought upon which the modern Western world has been constructed.
While Copernicus and Galileo were questioning the Aristotelian geocentric model of the universe, Descartes and Kant began dividing the cosmos and knowledge, respectively, into two mutually exclusive dual categorical systems of understanding. Kant's "phenomena", concepts of which proper knowledge was possible, and "noumena", concepts of which proper knowledge was not possible mirrored the matter and spirit cosmological delineations of Descartes. Kant believed that phenomena were the result of both senses and reason-ordering activities interacting to produce empirical knowledge. Conversely, Kant held that faith was necessary to explain observable characteristics of noumena not linked to the senses. Consequently, while science dealt in an observable sensory world of hypothesis, analysis, and experimentation, the scientist was required to affirm the nonconfirmable notion that the world was a causal whole. Therefore the spirit of the modern thinker was expressed in a horizontal faith/science dualism stretching across the earthly plane.
What distinguishes current postmodern presuppositions from modern worldviews? Turning again to Miller we find four characteristics of postmodern thought rooted in biology and physics. First, the world exhibits an evolutionary nature. Creation is in flux and its process, not product, is emphasized. This notion removes the crown of creation from humankind's head. Second, Einstein's relativity requires a context for understanding all things. No longer do we live in a world of absolutes. On the contrary, as Stephen Hawking has said, the theory of relativity even put an end to the concept of absolute time. In order for understanding to occur, things must be related to each other. The third detractor from modern thought attacks Kant's sense of phenomena, in which the emergence of quantum mechanics and Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principal brings the very nature of a predictable universe into question. The very action of observation causes changes that prevent one's attaining ultimate knowledge. Last, quantum mechanics has fostered the concept that no facts exist insulated from an observer, thus ultimate objectivity is cast aside. These developments leave us with a world of probable, not certain outcomes, regardless of the completeness or correctness of an inquisitor's investigation. In summing up this panorama, Miller describes the postmodern perspective of the world as a ". . . dynamic nexus of internal relatings, actual and potential." These tenets open the door for what Diogenes Allen claims to be four areas in the breakdown of Enlightenment thought, specifically that we do not live in a self-contained universe (the philosophical and scientific bases for excluding God have vanished), that modern thought could not provide a basis for morality and society, that progress in our life is not inevitable, and that knowledge is not inherently good.
The strict defining of postmodern thought via the languages of biology and physics reflects the modern world view's entrenchment in Western, and particularly American, culture and society. Ironically though, scientific advances prompted a new world view in which science itself plays a leading role in defining an age that questions its own reliability. Contained in science was the seed for its own displacement and deconstruction.
Alfred North Whitehead adds another complexity to this postmodern scenario. In an address at the Harvard Business School earlier this century, Whitehead noted that the timespan between the world's important changes has shrunk to less than the span of a human life. In the past, a fixed set of conditions prevailed during a single lifetime. Now, however, multiple popularly-termed paradigm shifts dot the lifetime of postmodern mankind, requiring relearning and re-adaptation, not simply based on the hastened accumulation of knowledge, but instead on entirely different surroundings. We are living in a period, contended Whitehead, in which the assumption that this generation will live substantially under the conditions that governed the lives of those who came before us can not be maintained. Concurrently, we cannot transmit the conditions of our lives to our children and assume their useful applicability. Thus, the rate of change alone is not our primary issue, but the rate of uncoupling world-change events. Based on these underlying presuppositions, how then do Christian educators effectively transmit God's message, revealed through Christ, to a burgeoning population of adult undergraduate students studying in this dynamic, postmodern context?
First we must recognize that adult, nontraditional, education differs substantially from the instruction of youth. Malcom S. Knowles, who uses the word "andragogy" to denote the adult learning experience, describes it as a process of "self-directed inquiry", differentiating it from its descriptive counterpart, pedagogy, the instruction of youth. Through andragogy, the needs and goals of the student, society's institutions, and society itself are simultaneously addressed and satisfied. Instructors of adults particularly need to not only instill the attitude that learning is a lifelong process but also to empower individuals to acquire the skills of independent self-directed learning. These aspects would more effectively equip people living in an age of multiple dramatic changes during a single lifetime. Also in this process learners are helped to become more effective and society's needs are met through equipping its members for change. Through the andragogy experience, doors to students' previously unexplored vistas, including ultimately their search for life's meaning, can be flung wide open.. The increasing importance of equipping the adult learners described by Knowles is born out in recent U. S. Department of Education statistics. In 1980, 22% of students enrolled in higher education were 30 years of age or older, but by 1998 it is projected that this figure will climb to approximately 32%.
Eduard C. Lindeman, in his book The Meaning of Adult Education, described on the areas where people search for life's meaning and conveyed that " meaning must reside in the things for which people strive, the goals which they set for themselves, their wants, needs, desires and wishes. " He summed up this pursuit through the fundamental concept that learners want to improve themselves. In addition to an andragogical setting, under what circumstances do people reflect on the meaning of life? University philosophy studies not withstanding, people often seek their life's meaning during the challenge of a job transition. Enter again Richard Bolles' "Parachute" work, with special focus on the Epilogue entitled "Religion and Job-Hunting: How to Find Your Mission in Life." While being courteous to the readers' sensitivities Bolles firmly adheres to a model for discovering life's meaning in Christ. His roadsigns along the path leading to self discovery are distinctly Scriptural, with particular emphasis on the Gospel of John.
How does Bolles convey the importance of a religiously nonpluralistic approach to a career seeker's worldly expectations? Simply put, workers recognize both that they are unique individuals, and in turn that employers invariably hire unique employees incapable of jettisoning their distinctive qualities. A pluralistic approach to faith, particularly as it applies to Bolles' description of life's meaning lived out in a vocation, is really no approach.
Based on both his Christian principles and years of observation, Bolles defines one's mission in life through the following three part concentrically developed theme:
Bolles contends that one's first mission on Earth is shared with the whole human race and yet at the same time is uniquely individual. It is, in the spirit of the Westminster Confession of Faith , to be with God, the One from whom the mission is derived, to enjoy Him for ever, and to see His handiwork in His creation. The missioner thus begins by finding meaning on both a personal and corporate level. Again in the case of the second mission, the missioner shares the mission with all humanity but still lays claim to it as his or her own. This mission represents a call to choose to make this world a better place, following the leading and guidance of God's Spirit, by consistently making decisions that result in increased goodness when faced with life's multitude of options. The third earthly mission, however, is one which is strictly unique to the missioner. It is to exercise that talent which one particularly came to Earth to use. This represents one's greatest gift, which the missioner most delights to use both in the place which God has made most appealing and for the purposes which God most needs accomplished in the world.
The combined effects of adult education in a postmodern climate produce a powerful and dynamic setting, an open window of opportunity for presenting the Gospel message. Whitehead's changing landscape of multiple major changes during one's lifetime, encased in a postmodern shell, mandates continuing education. Bolles' adult job-seeking audience is seeking the results-oriented guidance described by Knowles. They work in an environment of accelerated vocational flux. Now in this postmodern world crowded with religious pluralism, in a world looking for truths, Bolles facilitates the understanding and integrating of the Lord and the job hunt, bridging the gulf created by modern thought's faith/science horizontal dualism.
In a consumerist din of religious choice Bolles develops two themes. First, he clearly communicates the message of finding our meaning in Christ. Step one in the Mission process draws on John 16:28, "I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and going to the Father." To know God is to know the One from whom we have come, and in knowing God, and enjoying Him, we take the first step toward knowing ourselves. Second, he relays this message to the whole job-changing world, not just the subset of Christian job seekers. Newcastle is not the only recipient of coals, but the entire English countryside receives this news.
How can we as Christian educators apply this model in the adult classroom? I propose that based on the Bolles model we as Christian educators focus on being effective and the best that we can be in our vocation. Bolles builds his credibility on his excellence. In addition, we must not be ashamed of the Gospel and instead appreciate the powerful, positive effect our world view has on today's adult student. As Francis Schaeffer described in his book, How Should We Then Live? , early Christians were able to withstand the pressures from the outside Roman world because of the strength of their Christian world view, coming from an infinite-personal God, revealed through Christ, spoken in a language people could understand. Those Christians, and we today, ". . . had the grounds for the basic dignity and value of the individual as unique in being made in the image of God."
Through his individual mission quest format, Richard Nelson Bolles provides us with a powerful combination to go into this world with. He affirms our uniqueness and anchors vocation to Christ's word. Let us prayerfully seek God's guidance to work through us in fulfilling His Mission in higher education.