New Horizons

Senioritis at Rutherford College

"Uncle Glen"

Dear James,

I intended to write to you six weeks ago, when you embarked on your senior year at Rutherford College, but time slipped away from me. I hasten to wait no longer, in light of your recent letter that finds you in the throes of the sort of anxiety that besets most collegians as they approach graduation.

As you consider the prospect of taking the GRE and LSAT exams, it is understandable how unpleasant is the thought of pursuing graduate work. Perhaps taking a year off would be helpful, though I do fear that getting off the treadmill of classes would be something you would soon get used to.

Even so, do not despair at the prospect of grad school. You are no doubt aware that most college grads require further training as vocational directions take shape. A liberal arts education is often pre-career education—granted, a discouraging thought when you consider the student loans you will have to begin repaying!

So will your liberal arts degree turn out to be a waste of time and money, as you despaired in your letter? What will it get you, after all? My response is that you are asking the wrong question. The value of a liberal arts education is measured in what it does to you, rather than what you "do" with it.

The first piece of advice I offer as you contemplate life after college is to consider how you think about your future occupation. In your letter, you refer to "career choices," and I realize that this is the common parlance, but consider the value of speaking of "calling" instead of "career." The two words may seem like synonyms, but they really are not. The term "calling" is rich in Protestant history, and connotes a communitarian goal of finding one's station in life from which to glorify God and serve one's neighbor. It assumes that one belongs to, and invests in, the health of a community.

In contrast, the term "career" connotes an individualistic agenda. A career mind-set seeks to enhance self-achievement and promotion, with personal rewards (salary and the accompanying perks) that are not bound by identification with and duties to a community.

The vision of the good life is very different: calling finds fulfillment in serving others, career in gratifying the self. Career-minded people see themselves as "onward and upward" on a ladder of success. Calling embeds one with the lives of others.

Of course, American culture entices us with the geographic and social mobility of "professional careers." As much as watching It's a Wonderful Life has become part of Americans' Christmas season routine, few of us really covet George Bailey's dreary imprisonment in Bedford Falls. But a moment's reflection may help you to see the danger of excessive ambitiousness. Calvin reminds us that calling is God's way of restraining our covetousness by cultivating contentment in our station in life. As you will discover when you get older, contentment can be a very liberating idea.

With regard to your specific question, I cannot offer much wisdom on the prospects of a law or business degree. As you contemplate the options before you, let me alter the stakes a little. Like many of your classmates (and, if memory serves, your father for that matter), you have switched your major a couple of times. When you finally focused on economics, you did not lock yourself into a commitment to work in an economics-related occupation for the rest of your life. Bear in mind that wherever graduate school takes you, you are likely to change your occupation once or more in your working years.

Notice I wrote "alter the stakes" and not "lower the stakes" in the previous paragraph. So here is where I really want to challenge you. Give serious thought to returning to your hometown after graduate school in order to serve those neighbors with whom you have grown up and whose names and stories you know. Do not confuse this suggestion for small-town nostalgia. I am not trying to evoke a Norman Rockwell painting of a bygone era, and I am fully aware of the difficulties in such a proposition. But Christians might want to be resistance fighters here. Consider, for example, how stable our churches would be if our young people did not feel the urge to move so often.

Thus ends my pep talk. Thanks for all your help in acclimating Ben to college life. He seems to have adjusted well. I am glad to hear his reports that you have made good progress on your senior thesis. Above all, I hope that you are genuinely enjoying your senior year.

Warmly,

Uncle Glen

"Uncle Glen" is a pseudonym for two Orthodox Presbyterian elders. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2009.

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