Commencement-address season is upon us, bringing glad tidings about the power of grads—especially young women–to change the world. We live in a time of great global advocacy for girls’ education, purported to be a game-changer on many grounds. The education of young women is praised for lowering birthrates, for improving health, for advancing peace (girls’ education being the bugbear of underdevelopment and extremism), for helping economies.
This enthusiasm is hardly unprecedented. The history of American schooling counts many champions of female education. Reformers like Emma Willard, Mary Lyon, and Catherine Beecher, proceeding from religious communities, advocated girls’ learning as essential for a growing republic, at once a boon to civilization and an index of it. Nineteenth-century advocates of girls’ education touted it on grounds that mothers had to be able to educate their children—especially sons—for responsible citizenship. Later, Home Economics programs contended that women scarcely could run a home without a college degree, because keeping a household efficiently took scientific expertise.
While education for women may bear many benefits to women and their communities alike, focus on those benefits makes for a reductive and utilitarian approach. The practical returns we now anticipate from women’s learning may sit more comfortably with us than some of the hoary obsolete reasons for it—turning women into more interesting wives or cleverer mothers–but they are still restrictive. Why not let college women just learn, rather than promoting education mostly grounds that it yield broader social returns?
In some respects this is a problem of liberal arts education more generally, for men and women. Liberal arts education can be a great preparation for a future profession, to equip young men and women for productive lives, but it is more than that. It purports to be the sort of learning worth doing just for its own sake. But who can afford to do this? College is expensive. Parents quite legitimately want to know what their daughters, no less than their sons, will have to show for it. Graduates resent repaying loans for an education that does not help them make a better living. But should men or women go to college just for that?
The best candidate for a liberal arts education is one who takes the subjects seriously for themselves, not just for the way they may suit a future job–but for the good of knowing that thing, the way that knowledge helps one understand human life. A young woman with her whole life opening before her, including the time that may be required for raising children, can be that kind of candidate.
For the last decade or so observers have expressed worry (disgust?) over women at prestigious colleges who study hard but plan to “opt out,” to prioritize family life over demanding careers. There may not be that many women now in college who envision their future in family light, and some might be shy admitting it. But their persistence, even in small numbers, could leaven the whole lump. Parenting exists as one of the few respectable adult activities accessible to most people that stands outside of the get-a-job world. Exactly because liberal arts education is so evidently not preparation for parenthood, and because childrearing remains a legitimate use of adulthood, those with family plans (even dim) can cushion education from the compulsion of utility.
We should concede that many men and women who work many jobs after college, even highly remunerative ones, also still find their routine lives “out of joint” with their “training.” Ironically, those who anticipate some time home with children in the future might now be among the best suited to suck the marrow out of undergraduate life, because that “world of ideas” so obviously cannot be reduced to future job payoff.
In fourth grade I made a friend whose house gleamed evidence of affluence, rooms ever neat and smelling faintly of Estee Lauder’s White Linen. The most striking feature was a spoonrest that sat between burners on the kitchen rangetop, adorned with the words, “For this I went to college?” As a child unequipped with irony, I pondered that for a long time. First: a spoonrest? Why couldn’t you just put your spoon down on a plate? But the words themselves confounded. What could that mean? I thought maybe it was meant to be taken straight, admitting that the owner went to college to do this, back in the day when Home Economics still counted as a respectable major. Or it could be taken straight another way, meaning that she went to college to marry a man of sufficient means to outfit her with a standard of living that included a spoonrest. Or maybe some sarcasm might lurk, “for this (this!) I went to college”—I went to college and all I have to show for it is this superfluous trinket of my housewifery.
Probably that last was the intended meaning, and probably the spoonrest was a gag gift. Or a wedding present. But who knows. With transformations underway in both work patterns and fatherhood in America, that spoonrest can serve notice that education is not best evaluated by how it got “used.”