Thursday, September 05, 2013

Defending Education for Women and Girls

In recent years I've noticed a fringe movement within more conservative circles that seems to espouse the idea that girls who have graduated from high school ought to remain at home until they are married, foregoing a college education. The arguments for this position seem to center on the belief that a woman's sphere of influence is the home and she should focus her energies on preparing to be a wife and mother. Interestingly, a journalist from the left-leaning U.K. newspaper, The Guardian, recently made a similar argument in her piece “Female Ivy League Graduates Have a Duty to Stay in the Workforce.” From a purely utilitarian standpoint, the author Kelly Goff, argues that women who choose to stay at home with their children after receiving an elite education have wasted an opportunity that another woman would have used more effectively. Interestingly, the people who argue that women should remain at home, forgoing college and graduate level education, have something in common with the utilitarian arguments of Goff. Basically both come at their positions through utility arguments: unless an education is going to be used for a career, it's wasted.

Personally I find both positions short-sighted and poorly conceived. I believe that both sides have bought into an educational philosophy that sees education merely as a means to an end. This view of education is one that has permeated our culture over the past century and has resulted in failed educational policies, poorly constructed reform measures, and fed the industrial model of education. When one takes the position that education is the method by which one achieves a career or job, the entire point of education is missed. Yes, being trained in a vocation is a necessary part of education but it is not the end goal. A true education is one that shapes the soul, creates conviction, and enriches one's experience of life. The person who benefits from such an education affects those around him or her in ways that are profound and meaningful. These are not skills that are easily listed on a CV but they are the qualities that give meaning to life. Our 21st century scientific mindset is closed to the intangibles, failing to value human development that cannot be measured by a test. This obsession with quantifiable value has interestingly led to the agreement between more conservative fundamentalist Christians and utilitarian liberals that we see above. And, interestingly, both miss the point, and end up at the same misguided (and sexist) conclusion.

In a refreshing post on the topic, Anne-Marie Maginnis makes a wonderful case defending her Ivy League education and choice to stay at home with her children. She beautifully articulates the frustration faced by many well-educated stay-at-home moms; feeling the need to defend their education is a situation that disproportionately affects women. Men rarely need to defend their educations but women who make the choice to stay at home raising children often do. The very fact that they feel the need to explain why their college or graduate education was useful shows just how deeply we have internalized the idea that education's only purpose is its use in a career.

Maginnis' article also emphasizes the value her education has had in equipping her to impact her children's lives. She's able to introduce her children to the best books, to teach them critical thinking skills, to open worlds that someone less trained would be unable to. And this hints at one of the best arguments for educating women I can put forth. As heirs of a tradition rich in meaning and value, we have a responsibility to preserve that tradition for future generations. Sadly, the past century has seen a marked devaluing of traditions. We've adopted a throw-away culture that values the lessons of the past less and less and thinks little of leaving something for the generations that come after us. The idea of heirlooms is one that seems antiquated. Buildings are built to last for 30 years unlike the sturdy stone structures of yesteryear. And we are treating our cultural inheritance the same way. By arbitrarily stating that it is a waste of resources for a woman to pursue an education past high school, one is effectively eliminating half the population from the task of preserving our past. In her beautiful essay, "The Necessity of the Classics", Louise Cowan speaks of the value of the great books of the West:
"This body of writing, until recently considered the very center of European and American education, has stood guard over the march of Western civilization, preserving its ideals of truth and justice, whatever its lapses may have been. And the later writers included in this remarkable group of texts have continued the unsparing examination of the conscience that the Greeks inaugurated three thousand years ago...To be ignorant of Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles is to be ignorant of the range and depth of human possibility."
The greatest danger I see in taking a stance that higher education is unimportant for women who want to stay at home is an internalization by those women of the notion that great ideas and discussions are unnecessary and unimportant to their lives. Granted, many colleges fail at providing an education rich in literature and historic ideals, but it still remains that for most people it is at college where their first exposure to these essentials will take place. Exceptionally lucky students will be introduced to philosophy and literature in high school, hopefully igniting a passion for these subjects that will carry on throughout their lives. But these are the very few. For the rest of students, male and female, higher education is a unique period of time where one can immerse oneself in the literature and history that shapes us and our culture. To arbitrarily bar one half of the population not only does those individuals a disservice, it threatens our ability to carry on this tradition to the next generation. Yes, some people will be able to educate themselves through independent reading and analysis, but most people benefit from the tools acquired in rigorous pursuit of graduate and post-graduate studies. Good professors provide intellectual stimulation and critical exchange rarely encountered outside the classroom. Logic and critical thinking skills are rarely present at birth, they are skills that are taught and learned through discipline and rigorous study. And in a world obsessed with the frivolous and temporal providing our children (girls and boys) with educations rooted in the eternal and foundational is essential.

This is not to say that a college education is the only means by which one can become an educated person or an agent of cultural preservation. Nor is it a criticism of those women who are doing an exceptional job of educating their children without possessing a degree themselves. It is not the degree that I am defending or advocating for. I simply think that in this time and place it's discouraging that within some circles women are having to justify their desire to pursue higher education. I do not find this to be a reflection of some return to "traditional values" or a position defensible by utility arguments. I simply find it ultimately untenable and threatening to our ability to carry on a tradition of good, true, and beautiful ideas.

Do you have thoughts on this topic? Please feel free to chime in below!

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11 comments:

  1. I believe education is important for everyone, but so many people go about getting it in ways that are going to negatively affect their future. People need to be smart about what post-high school education they will get and how they will pay for it. I have known more than one woman who desired to be home with her children, but oppressive student loan debt kept her in the workforce. If a woman knows that she will marry out of high school or college and it is her desire to stay home with any children she may have, that should be taken into consideration when she is thinking about college classes, student loans, jobs during college, etc.

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    1. Absolutely! The shortsightedness of many young students when it comes to accumulating debt is something to be avoided. Thankfully there are a growing number of options for people wanting to pursue further education and those should definitely be taken into consideration. Thanks for commenting!

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  2. I so totally agree - and also totally don't. It will be interesting to see where education (public, traditional) goes in the future. I have 2 degrees (and the debt). My husband has 3 (2 doctoral level - including the debt). We truly believe in "higher education." But we don't believe in the debt! And I absolutely believe most "higher education" does not educate in the way you are referring to. Today that seems to happen mainly with an individual's motivation and desire to learn - not in any sort of classroom. My 7th grade homeschooled daughter is doing the same type of analysis and thinking I did in college. I'm learning with her - and loving it.
    No I don't think women should be automatically required to avoid higher education (unless by their choice) nor required to get one. But I also don't believe they (or men) should feel the need to "justify" their choices other than possibly to their parents.
    But something must give. Both in k-12 education and higher education. Our system is unsuccessful and unsustainable. Our children and society are not thriving. Our economy isn't making it worthwhile. I believe wiser options will come of this - but it may be a painful road to get there.
    My thoughts are jumbled but this brings out so many points. It will be interesting to see where things land in 10 and 20 years!

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    1. Hi Kori,
      I completely agree with your points. I may write a follow-up on making wise educational choices, especially when it comes to pursuing graduate and postgrad level education. For this post it seemed like too much to get into, but you bring up issues that are worth addressing. One most definitely needs to assess value for money in terms of content and quality of education when making those choices. And you're totally right about the system being broken. The cost of college is out-of-control and that has been enabled by cheap (until now) student loans. Graduating debt free is extremely difficult. Having been surrounded by graduate and doctoral students the past six years (my husband completed his PhD last year), I've seen students accumulate debt in excess of $200,000, and I've also seen students work extremely hard to graduate debt-free. Sure, students could make wiser decisions, but the system is rigged against those who wish to pursue education without debt.

      Thankfully, there are now more options open to students who want to pursue university level educations without having to enroll in an expensive 4-year school. Like you, I am looking forward to seeing where things end up in the next decade or two. The main reason I wrote the post was the disturbing trend I see in conservative and liberal circles arguing for limiting educational choices for women but now you've made me want to look at the issues in higher education that affect both men and women. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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  3. Although I have seen the movement for young ladies to remain at home after completing their formal education, I haven't seen any who have discouraged their daughters from attending college. The shortsightedness may be in this generalization.

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    1. Hi, Thanks for responding. I maybe should have been more specific in naming the movement I was referring to. While it is small (like I said above, a fringe movement), it seems to be growing and has been featured on many blogs and even on Time Magazine's website. It's called the Stay-At-Home Daughters movement and one key aspect of it is forgoing a college education. Many of the girls and young women who advocate for this choice are committed to pursuing education outside of a formal college setting and that is admirable. My concern is that some young women will see this as their only option - and may even find themselves in a situation where someone uses this philosophy to deny them the opportunity to pursue formal education. I hope that explains my stance a little more clearly.
      Thank you for responding.

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  4. Rebecca--I don't think you are short-sighted in what you wrote. There is a huge (IMO) movement out there in the homeschooling circles that teach women should stay at home. Now don't get me wrong, there are things I agree with (I feel that if a married couple--man and wife--want to have children it is best that the mother be committed to staying home and raising them) in their thought process. However, not every single daughter will get married. We all have a different calling. God calls each of us to something different. We have to listen to the Holy Spirit.

    Thank you for addressing this issue!

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  5. Great post Rebecca. As one highly-educated and well credentialed stay-at-home home-schooling mom, I truly value the education I received and am hopefully encouraging my sons and daughters to become well-educated and still keep the home-fires burning. I remember well my own agony about whether it was "right" for someone with my expertise to leave my profession and stay at home. It has now been 16 years of being home based. I still find myself very mindful of staying knowledgeable and competent in my area of expertise, although I'm not sure that I'll ever return to my profession. As for the issue of debt, it seems to me that higher-education is seen by many in this day as something everyone is entitled to and not much if any foresight is given to life (and the means of paying that debt) beyond the ivy (or cinder block) walls.

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  6. Who was it that said, "When you educate a man, you educate a person. When you educate a woman, you educate a family."? I've seen this quote attributed to different people. I agree wholeheartedly with it.
    Although my heart longed to be a SAHM, the thought of not pursuing higher education was mind-boggling to me and my parents. Why would I NOT do that? Now granted, the economy was very different then and I did not accumulate a great debt to obtain that degree. I knew that I needed to be prepared to work to the best of my abilities and talents that God had given me until He granted me the desire of my heart. I also knew that I needed to be prepared to work at something more than a low-paying job should the need arise sometime in life.
    That teaching degree was the best investment of my life. Not only did I have the privilege of teaching elementary students for a few years, I then spent many years in corporate training and was able to travel to many places that I would not have otherwise. God certainly used and stretched me in so many areas. He also saw fit to bless me financially along the way.
    I am now home with two precious children and home schooling both of them. And, no, that teaching degree does not give me a advantage now.

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