Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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“I want to found a hedge fund when I grow up.”
The Chicago Tribune published its 2010-2011 Scholar-Athlete Team this past weekend. Twenty young people were featured, recent high school graduates in the Chicagoland area who have achieved distinction both in the class room and on the athletic field. Included in the biographies were the colleges these “best and brightest students” will be attending, their anticipated majors, and their “dream jobs.” It made for interesting reading.
There were, of course, the expected names of elite private and top tier public universities, including seven heading for Ivy League schools. Among anticipated majors, half plan on business, economics, or finance. The other half was divided among mathematics, engineering, and pre-med. The humanities – history, literature, the arts, political science, sociology, religion, anthropology, classics, foreign languages, etc. – were conspicuously absent. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise. These graduates watched the economy collapse during their high school years. If they are at all representative, then getting a high paying job with benefits is not only their parents’ dream, but their own as well. Nevertheless, I found it all a bit troubling.
The dream jobs were intriguing and a little unsettling as well. No one wants to be a public school teacher. I guess that’s not a surprise; most of these students have been watching teacher layoffs occurring all around them and the anti-teacher rhetoric in our culture is endemic today. No one wants to grow up to be the governor of Illinois. Again, not a surprise given the fact that we may be about to have not one, but two former governors in jail. But no one mentioned politics or public service of any kind as a future dream job. What does it say about our political culture when none of the best and the brightest dream of elective office? Equally disturbing was the fact that none of the so-called “helping professions” was named unless you include medicine in that category. No social workers. No community organizers. No non-profit leaders. No psychologists or therapists. No ministers. In fact, of the three classic professions – law, medicine, and ministry – only medicine seems to hold much attraction for this group.
Half of the Ivy League bound see themselves in the business world, including a young man headed for Harvard whose dream job is to become the founding partner of a hedge fund. Huh? Whatever happened to “I’d like to be a fire fighter when I grow up?” I know our economy probably needs hedge funds and that the work is undoubtedly high stakes, high risk, and high excitement. My guess, however, is that the high financial reward is much of the appeal. We can’t all be the next Mother Teresa. But I still yearn for a larger horizon beckoning our brightest high school graduates.
Next year at the Harvard – Princeton game our budding hedge fund founder may bump into a Chicago neighbor whose dreams are to “skydive, write a book, and visit every continent.” That young man’s parents may be wondering with some apprehension how long they will have to support their adventuresome son. But there’s something of his spirit that bodes well for his generation and for those of us who still reach for the impossible dream.
Things will change over the next four to five years for most of these young people. One of them will encounter a poet in a required freshman English class who will unlock a hidden place in their intellect and their soul. One will wander off Harvard Yard to Roxbury in Boston and encounter poverty that threatens the dreams of every child. One will discover through a close reading of history that his wonderful school, Brown, was founded on the profits of the slave trade and that all of us are complicit in some way in the racism that is perhaps reflected by a page of honorees that includes only one African American alongside nineteen white teens. Who knows how each of these remarkable young people will be transformed?
And what of the Spirit? How has faith shaped the vocational dreams of each of these graduates? The Tribune, of course, is silent on that. Churches lament that we lose our teens after confirmation. Perhaps we lose them because our cute children’s sermons and youth group bowling trips fail to help them discern God’s call in compelling ways. Perhaps we lose them because our voice is so conformed to the culture around them that there is no alternative dream to the ones presented in school or in the media. Perhaps we lose them because too few of us have demonstrated that belonging to Christ and living for Christ in our relationships and in our service to others is more determinative of true security than a lucrative career.
All the best to the class of 2015. Whatever your college experience, whatever your dream, may you prosper. More to the point, may your communities prosper because of you.
John H. Thomas