“Useless” (Sunday worship 4/29/12)


John 10: 11-18


If you’ve been following the news in the past week about “the 13 most useless college majors,” then you are probably thinking that I’m a bit peeved because both English (#7) and Religious Studies (#6) are on the list.  You probably aren’t surprised they are on the list; neither am I.  I’m not even all that surprised that such a list exists.  Annoyed, disheartened, and fed-up – those are better descriptions of my reaction.

The first thing you have to ask yourself about a list like this is, “What’s ‘useless’?”  Useless how?  And this should lead to other questions:  What is the point of a college education?  How do we determine when we got what we came for?  Is it a degree?  A certain job?  A certain paycheck?  The ability to balance our bank accounts?  The know-how to navigate an interview?  The wisdom and humility to interact with people you don’t understand?  Meeting and falling in love with someone?  Or something else?  There may or may not be value in lists like this, but in order to determine that, you need to define your terms and assumptions and make sure you are on the same page, the same list, to begin with.

As some of you noticed, I posted the link to the list on my Facebook page and invited people to help me think about this.  (If you aren’t already my Facebook friend, please become one!)  A friend of mine from seminary commented that back in the 1950s when her dad was an English major, and people asked him, “What are you going to be?” he would reply, “Educated.”  I love that.  Of course I do.  Of course I want to say, “Let’s hear it for the English majors!”  But that’s not why I love it.  I would love this answer just as much if he had been an archeology, anthropology, biology, history, or e-school major.  I love it for its idea of education as a means and an end unto itself.  (Which seems pretty Jeffersonian to me, by the way.)  What do you want to be? I would love it if he’d given any of these answers, too: inspired, well-rounded, interested in and curious about the world and human behavior, content, called.

I’m going to tell you what the list says.  I hope you don’t find yourself praying, as Annie Thompson did when she scanned it online, “Please don’t let my major be on there.”  We haven’t defined “useless” yet so try not to put too much stock into this.  Here goes:  (http://www.thedailybeast.com/galleries/2012/04/23/the-13-most-useless-majors-from-philosophy-to-journalism.html#slide1)

1.       Fine Arts

2.      Drama and Theater Arts

3.      Film, Video, and Photographic Arts

4.      Commercial Art and Graphic Design

5.      Architecture

6.      Philosophy and Religious Studies

7.      English Literature and Language

8.      Journalism

9.      Anthropology and Archeology

10.  Hospitality Management

11.  Music

12.  History

13.  Political Science and Government


You can probably tell without further information just how these folks are defining “useless.”  But for the record, they started with about 3 dozen of the most popular majors and looked at four factors for each of them: employment for recent grads, employment for more experienced grads, earnings for each of those groups, and projected growth in the total number of jobs from 2010-2020.  So their focus in obviously on the ease of attaining a job at a certain salary level “in your field.”  I’ll come back to the money but let me note that for each major they list the job or jobs supposedly “in that field.”  For architecture it’s “architect.”  That’s it.  Nothing in design or architecture-related fields and no mention of that fact that an undergraduate degree in architecture is usually followed by a graduate degree in order to practice in that field.  Apparently needing to/getting to go on to further study is useless.  For English majors the job they list is “writer and author.”  Fantastic!  But since most writers and authors work other jobs for many, many years while writing novels or biographies on their own time as they improve and become published, this makes most writers who aren’t John Grisham “useless.”  It also leaves out the fact that there are other things to do with an English major and many other ways to use writing even when you don’t write “author” on your resume – how about crafting a resume or a cover letter or website content for your employer or church?

This silly list is clearly focused on a narrow definition of how to “use” one’s major and how easily you can get a higher-paying job with it.  Is this why you’re here?  Is this how you’ve been choosing classes and your major?  If someone asked you the question they asked my friend’s dad back in the 50s, what would your answer be?

On my way to the airport last week I had a conversation with the taxi driver, who told me the story about his decision to move from New York City to Charlottesville a decade ago.  He is an Indian man and he traveled to Charlottesville to interview for the position of chef at Maharaja.  His interview was preparing a full meal for the owner and several guests and he did such a great job that the owner came to the kitchen in the middle of the meal to say, “You start tomorrow.”  To which he replied that he would start in two weeks.  He needed to go back to New York and give his notice to this current employer before he could begin the new job.  The owner pushed him, trying to convince him to just bag the old job and begin the new one more immediately.  The taxi driver explained to me why he didn’t just capitulate to his new boss.  And this is what he told his boss, too, as he insisted on giving the two weeks to his current employer, “Your credit stays with you longer than the money.”  He told me that – even though the restaurant owner tried to cajole him – once he said this the owner was agreeable and more impressed than he’d already been in offering the job.  Your credit stays with you longer than the money.  Being the kind of person you want to be is more important than the allure of a new paycheck or even a bigger paycheck.  Being the kind of person you want to be is more valuable. Your reputation and character stay with you longer than what you make.

This isn’t a sermon about how money is not important.  This isn’t a sermon about choosing to major in English instead of being in the Comm school.  This is a sermon about being honest about what’s important in life and then trying to live up to it.  Money’s important and being able to take care of ourselves is important but “Your credit stays with you longer than the money.”

This is a sermon about following where God calls and trusting that that will be enough.  This is about focusing on love and passion and building a life.  This is about listening for your calling.

God called Moses to wander in the desert with a bunch of cranky people.  Moses always assumed he’d see the promised land by the end of his wandering and, as it turned out, that’s all he got.  He saw it and died without ever stepping foot in it.  But is that really all he got out of that call?  Who did he become along the way?  What did those wilderness years make of him?  How did he see God in the wandering – in different ways than he saw or knew God before that journey?

If you aren’t convinced yet, remember that there are no guarantees about any of this.  Lists like this purport to offer a formula or a roadmap for where you want to go.  You can pick the most lucrative, “useful” major from someone’s list.  It can be the absolute best prediction of where the money and jobs will be during your career.  And then there’s a recession or depression. Or you get sick or move home to help with someone else who is sick.  Or you hate the soul-sucking job you drag yourself to every day because you chose it off of some list instead of through reflection and discernment and prayer and passion.

Even “useful” isn’t an especially helpful goal.  You can do everything “right” to be the most “useful” person around, and then someone you love has Alzheimer’s and there is nothing to do but feel “useless.”  You can follow the cultural roadmap and end up sitting at the graveside with your friend who’s lost his wife.  What can you say?   What can you do?  How useful do you feel at that moment?

These are the moments for which we prepare.  Without knowing it.  Over time, in the accumulation of daily choices.  Roads taken and not taken.  Character built, brick by brick.

It might be true that following your heart and your call could lead you to a job paying 30k when you graduate, while friends are making double that in their first jobs.  Unless you become the next Oprah, it will certainly be true that there will always be things you want and can’t afford, choices you have to make with the resources at your disposal.  But the biggest of these is the choice about how you spend your life – not your money only – but also your time, love, relationships, community, family, friends, spirit.

Jesus called himself the good shepherd and the first time I went to Israel I sat for a while watching some shepherds tend their sheep in the Wadi Qelt, between Jerusalem and Jericho.  The sheep were agile on their feet, scouring the dry, brown land for any little scrubby piece of something green to eat.  They were so tan in a land so tan that they blended right in.  But their shepherds somehow kept track of them, kept them together and moving on.  The shepherds knew where to find food for their animals, though no green pastures were available for lying down in. As we hiked through the desert, I watched a couple of different shepherds with their flocks, seemingly unafraid to scramble over the rocky slopes where the sheep and goats were scavenging.  They waited patiently while the animals fed, looked out to the horizons, and rang a bell when it was time to get moving again.  They were slow and methodical and their heads were wrapped to keep out the sun; they steadied themselves on the terrain with long walking sticks.  Though we saw a few shepherds and flocks we never saw the shepherds hanging out together, chatting about the shepherding market, like a coffee break at Starbucks.  They were loners – just them and the animals.  They knew their sheep and their sheep knew and trusted them, listened for those bells and the familiar voice of their own shepherd.

True, Jesus wasn’t in a tough job market.  He had a short time and a one-of-a-kind calling.  I’m not sure that made it easier, but at least it was clear.  You don’t have that luxury.  But you do have the privilege of studying in a fine university, among interesting professors and students, and knowing a quality group of fellow pilgrims like those here at Wesley.  Those are the ingredients from which to cook up something wonderful for your life.  Don’t sell yourself short by claiming to be “practical” while ignoring those bells you hear ringing.  Don’t clip your own wings by choosing a major or a job or a path down the hillside just because the other sheep think you should go that way.  Listen.

The recipe of your calling may be one part college major, two parts geography, and a dash of family.  Your calling may have a lot to do with your job, which may have a lot to do with your major.  Or not.  Your calling will most certainly include gobsmacked moments when you bleat to God, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” because you have no idea why you are being pulled in this direction.  Certainly and mysteriously, your calling will encourage you to be more than you thought you were and exactly who you were made to be.

What will you answer when someone asks, “Chemistry?  What are you going to be?”   Why are you headed in this direction?  What voices are you listening to and which ones are you ignoring, as you follow your path?  Do you trust the Good Shepherd to show you the path through the desert – even and especially when it is rocky and precarious and you are unsure of your footing?

Thanks be to God!


©2012 Deborah E. Lewis


Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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