Pardon me, are you using that education?

Pardon me, are you using that education? April 24, 2013

In The Guardian, Keli Goff has some harsh words for women in my demographic who become stay at home mothers. In “Female Ivy League graduates have a duty to stay in the workforce” she writes:

But in the long run, degrees from competitive institutions should serve as more than modern day charm school or debutante diplomas. Sadly, it appears some women and men see them as such, simply a piece of paper to affirm that a woman is good spouse material for yet another man to use his Harvard Law degree to make partner at a law firm, while his wife stays home, never using hers.

Perhaps instead of bickering over whether or not colleges and universities should ask us to check boxes declaring our racial identity, the next frontier of the admissions should revolve around asking people to declare what they actually plan to do with their degrees. There’s nothing wrong with someone saying that her dream is to become a full-time mother by 30. That is an admirable goal. What is not admirable is for her to take a slot at Yale Law School that could have gone to a young woman whose dream is to be in the Senate by age 40 and in the White House by age 50.

Let me skip past any question about how far below the Ivies you can go before it’s ok by Goff to fritter away your diploma on your family, and go to the more important question: what is education for?  I think Goff and I would agree that you learn to understand the world better and be able to act in it, but the conventional workplace isn’t the only place you can find a vocation.

Goff assumes that women who leave the workforce will cease to use the education that they paid for, but there’s nowhere you can go that learning about beauty and citizenship and character and tradition  aren’t relevant.  The liberal arts are supposed to have taken up philosophy’s mantle as preparation for death — the study of how we should live.

In my senior year at college, I spent about half my coursework on preparation for a Masters of Public Health (which I skipped out on when I got a job offer), and it’s true that I don’t frequently need to refer to the very technical knowledge I learned about which proteins are on the surface of what kind of T-cell.  But every time I’m sick, I can remember my understanding of the immune system and the awe that swept over me at it’s beauty and complexity.  The proteins I kept having to look up; the wonder stayed with me without effort.

The real skill you’re picking up from education is problem solving.  You work in a lot of domains (some that you’re highly fluent in, some less so) and learn what strategies their practitioners have developed and add them to your arsenal or adapt them to your liking.  And, as you learn so many different ways of thinking, you develop a kind of intellectual curiosity and compassion for other minds.

Even if a conceptual framework is poorly suited for the purpose at hand, you can be interested in how and why someone devised it.  The lapses of the past make you wonder about your own blind spots, and the ideas you would have discarded but came to understand and love when you were stuck with them over a semester make you a bit less likely to kick over Chesterton’s fence.

The college grad starting out as a junior staffer or an administrative assistant may not be making much use of the more highfalutin’ skills she picked up, but those ideas and habits aren’t in abeyance until she gets promoted.  They shape her choices outside of work and help her decide what organizations and causes she wants to serve, whether in a highly skilled way or not.  Someone’s occupation shouldn’t be the only domain they expect to think critically in, and our place of employment isn’t the only space for us to give back.

Modern stay at home mothers might struggle to find ways to connect to their communities, but this isn’t because they’ve withdrawn from the workforce, it’s because the workforce is the only broad bond most people experience.   The woman in the workforce and the stay at home mom could both use more Nisbettian communities and opportunities to learn and live well with others.

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  • deiseach

    The big problem with this is that it’s assuming that it’s perfectly fine for a man to have ambitions to be “in the Senate by age 40 and in the White House by age 50” because his wife will be the one to sacrifice her career (if she does see it as a sacrifice) to stay at home and mind the children (never mind that a politician’s spouse is nearly a full-time job in itself).

    Keli, do you think Barack Obama or anyone else would have been perceived as electable if he was single and childless at his age? Do you think Michelle has “wasted” her education by being a mother to two daughters?

    Rather than saying “Women need to be like men in cutting out home life and being totally dedicated to The Job”, why not say “Men should be permitted to take up their part in home life, even if there aren’t any children” because there are always elderly and sick parents, someone needs to stay home for when the plumber calls, and so forth. Until the Brave New World when we grow replacement humans in incubators and everyone can spend every single moment dedicated to The Company and their Career, we need someone to produce and then take care of the new humans being created.

    And the perfect excuse to quote more Chesterton:



    Form 8277059, Sub-Section K

    I remember my mother, the day that we met,
    A thing I shall never entirely forget;
    And I toy with the fancy that, young as I am,
    I should know her again if we met in a tram.
    But mother is happy in turning a crank
    That increases the balance at somebody’s bank;
    And I feel satisfaction that mother is free
    From the sinister task of attending to me.

    They have brightened our room, that is spacious and cool,
    With diagrams used in the Idiot School,
    And Books for the Blind that will teach us to see;
    But mother is happy, for mother is free.
    For mother is dancing up forty-eight floors,
    For love of the Leeds International Stores,
    And the flame of that faith might perhaps have grown cold,
    With the care of a baby of seven weeks old.

    For mother is happy in greasing a wheel
    For somebody else, who is cornering Steel;
    And though our one meeting was not very long,
    She took the occasion to sing me this song:
    “O, hush thee, my baby, the time soon will come
    When thy sleep will be broken with hooting and hum;
    There are handles want turning and turning all day,
    And knobs to be pressed in the usual way;

    O, hush thee, my baby, take rest while I croon,
    For Progress comes early, and Freedom too soon.”

  • Goff has a brilliant idea that could be the solution to our education crisis here in the US. Before allowing anyone to take a middle school or high school literature course, they have to solemnly promise to continue reading the classics indefinitely. That would clear up crowded classrooms immediately.

    Anyone admitted into algebra class is thereby required, for life, to always work in a job requiring the use of algebra, and on up the ladder. (I’m going to owe a ton — I have an MBA, and in my career as an accountant, I never used statistics *or* calculus, despite taking both in college. I find them awfully helpful background info for being a good citizen, but that doesn’t count, and sadly, most accounting work doesn’t require much beyond 8th grade math. They’re going to have to re-think the degree requirements for professionals, to prevent all this terrible waste.)

    But the real windfall, is that we can immediately collect refunds for all the wasted PE classes, clearly most Americans aren’t using those anymore. I’d better quick go play some volleyball before I get fined.

  • Anna

    Funny how Goff seems to think that checking a box on a college form at 18 will result in that plan actually turning out to be correct. Very few of the “here is how my life will go and when it will go that way” thoughts from my freshman year of college became reality. I also take issue with the assumption that I’m not using my liberal arts degree while raising my own kids, but that I was using it while raising other peoples’ kids in the residential treatment facility where I taught, but that’s almost an afterthought objection compared to requiring college applicants to predict the future.

  • Beadgirl

    Exactly, Anna. Does Goff realize at all that sometimes plans go awry? The economy might tank the industry you are in — that’s happening right now, to hundreds of thousands of young lawyers who expected a fancy, high-paying job to be handed to them. You could spend a couple of years using your Ivy League degree in a high profile career, and realize you hate it, it’s making you miserable and affecting your health. You could suddenly have to step back from your career to take care of a disabled child or elderly relative. You could use the skills you learned at school and in the workplace to achieve something different. Your spouse could die, forcing you to go back to the career you left. Or you could simply *change your mind* about what you want to do with your life (shocking, I know).

  • Hilarious Results

    … but women graduates of non-Ivy schools have no such obligation. Such noblesse oblige! The bigotry is rarely displayed so clearly.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I was offended by Goff’s whole “Yale Law School/Senate/White House” line, which reveals a mindset that makes me uncomfortable; it says “Ivy Law School grads should pursue/deserve to legislate and govern the country” as though it’s a hand-to-glove fit; it’s an exclusionary mindset that makes no room for — for instance — a small business owner who turns into a politician, like Harry Truman.

    Our minds are becoming narrower and “inside the box.” We still tell our kids that “anyone” can grow up to be president in America, but the truth is, unless you’re a glaring exception, like Brian Williams (who went to several universities, none higher tier than CUA, and didn’t graduate from any of them) you’re going nowhere without the ivy degree — preferably from a law school. Goff’s mindset seems to reinforce that, and — more troublingly, to my way of thinking — she seems not to realize that a woman who graduates from Yale Law School and perhaps takes 10 or 15 years off to be a full time mother might actually be a senate candidate (and an eventual presidential one) who KNOWS what it’s like to pump her own gas, deal with parenting in a socially detached age; someone who may actually interact with public-education students and see what they’re not getting. Moreover, she might be someone who knows what it’s like to grow a garden with a little kid who is “helping” and to share some of the harvest with a neighbor. In other words…the Yale Law School graduate — far from being someone removed from everyday realities, might be someone with a deeper and more enriched understanding of the needs of ordinary Americans if she lives, for a little while like, you know…an Ordinary American.

  • Theodore Seeber

    If that’s what the Ivy Leagues bring, I’m damn glad I didn’t get into MIT.

    And I was almost to the point to begin with that to me, having an Ivy League degree should automatically *disqualify* one for any position of power over “normal people”.

    Now aside from that, this goes very well with your last 4 posts- for instance, have you considered the idea that parenthood is indeed a vocation well beyond what sitting in a cubicle is?

    And thus, in no way is being a stay at home mother a waste, *regardless* of what her education is, because being a mother is the best human being she can be?

    This hatred of parenthood is indeed one of my pet peeves.

    • Alan

      MIT isn’t in the Ivy League.

      • grok

        Yeah, yeah, we all know what Ted meant.
        MIT and Stanford are usually considered in the “Ivy Plus” group.
        Also MIT was part of the IVY financial aid system for a while.

        • Alan

          I assume he meant that he has an inferiority complex because he didn’t get into MIT and he covers it up by insisting he is better off for not having to have been exposed to a top rank education.

          I just want to make sure that his inferiority complex is targeted at the right ‘evil’ – and in this case it isn’t the ‘evil’ Ivy leaguers.

          Of course the best part of the post is that he put normal people in quotes – because clearly non-Ivy Leaguers (or non-MITers I guess) aren’t really normal people, they are “normal people”.

          So why don’t you tell me what it is you think we all know that he meant?

          • deiseach

            Alan, I didn’t get into any university. Does this make me normal people, “normal people” or begrudging little inferiority complex people?

            I am also amused to discover that apparently MIT is the equivalent of a “redbrick university”. Tsk, the cheek of those pretenders to try and fool us that they’re a proper university! Why, it puts me in mind of this!


          • Anonymous

            Both of you (Ted and Alan, not deiseach) are performing terrible armchair psychology and making horrible assumptions concerning the value of ranking. I attended two universities – one was a 20-something ranked state school, the other was a top 5 premier research university. I was closely involved with the curriculum at both universities. I will forever assert that (in the time period I attended them) the lower ranked school provided a better education.

            If you mean to say, “Dood, ur just butthurt because you don’t have a top-tier name on your degree,” then that’s acceptable. Ya know, so long as you’re actually qualified to make non-armchair psychological assessments and have acquired the appropriate information. I, for one, am very glad that I got the education I did from the “not top rank educators” while also having a degree with the name of a top rank school on it. These are not the same thing.

          • deiseach

            Anonymous, it was Alan who told Theodore that he has an inferiority complex over MIT; obviously, therefore, I must have an even bigger one because I didn’t even have the chance to turn down or narrowly miss getting into any university, much less argue over what is/is not an “Ivy League” institution.

            Besides, I’m more amused than angered about disputes as to what is or is not a venerable seat of learning when foundation dates only stretch back to the 17th/18th centuries, as the ruins of what was one of the great monastic centres of education remain in my locality; during the 7th century, St. Bede the Venerable notes how many English nobles and kings went to Ireland for learning, and to quote an early 20th century history: “In the Lives of distinguished Englishmen we constantly find such statements as “he was sent to Ireland to finish his education.” ‘


          • Theodore Seeber

            Exactly what I was going for deiseach. 🙂 Thanks for the BlackAdder link.

            My intent is very different. I don’t believe any of the Ivies- or the Ivy plus- actually provide a better education. They’re mainly just a bunch of dating schools for a certain class of Americans who act like they’re aristocrats while claiming not to be. My dig at MIT is because I went to OIT- which also isn’t considered a university.

            Brand name snobery affects everything, and is a replacement for actual thinking.

          • Alan

            deiseach – I don’t know, you will have to ask Ted as it was him who used the scare quotes around normal people. Personally, I don’t differentiate the normalcy of people based on whether/where they went to college – they are all just people. And it was Ted’s opinion that an Ivy League degree should disqualify one from leadership coupled with his insistence that he’s glad he got rejected by MIT that led me to the conclusion he is responding to his inferiority complex by disparaging those top tier institutions that wouldn’t accept him.
            Finally, what is an “Ivy League” institution shouldn’t be a matter for argument – the Ivy League consists of 8 institutions that banded together to formally form an athletic conference in 1936.

            Anonymous – I am simply speaking to Ted’s apparent issue with Ivy League degrees and the extent to which is ought to disqualify you from power over “normal people” (again, his scare quotes). Personally, I’ve found the opportunity for education is available at a wide range of institutions from top tier Ivy’s to large state schools to small Liberal Arts schools and everything in between – it is mostly up to the individual to seek it out and take advantage of it.

          • Alan

            Ted – By whom isn’t the Oregon Institute of Technology not considered a University? Certainly is by the state of Oregon and the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges. Unless you meant a different OIT.

          • Theodore Seeber

            More out in the workplace than by the university system itself; I’ve had a few people disparage my degree as “merely from a technical college”. Your response when I mentioned MIT seemed similar to me; MIT isn’t Ivy League because it is merely a “technical school” (they’ve made the same joke on Big Bang Theory a few times).

            Of course, when I was going there, OIT was a tiny single campus in Southern Oregon with a few classrooms rented up in Portland from PSU, best known for a degree in “Diesel Mechanics”- unlike today where it actually offer postgraduate degrees and has campuses all over the state.

            It was accredited even back then though. Go Fighting Owls, even if the best thing about the football games was always the robotics club cheerleading squad and the laser guys playing games with the Navy Pilots stupid enough to buzz campus.

          • Alan

            Oh no, MIT isn’t Ivy League because it isn’t one of the Ancient 8 – just like Stanford or U. of Chicago isn’t Ivy League. MIT is full of Math Geeks and Techies because it is merely a ‘technical school’ and that is either a positive or negative thing based on your perspective

          • Theodore Seeber

            One last response. You can find more about what I’m talking about in the US Constitution, Specifically Article I, Section 9 h. What I really meant is that if the Ivy Leagues are setting themselves up as some kind of aristocracy, in which having a degree from one of those universities is akin to a title of nobility, then I for one am against such being elected into offices that hold power over free men.

  • The real skill you’re picking up from education is problem solving. You work in a lot of domains (some that you’re highly fluent in, some less so) and learn what strategies their practitioners have developed and add them to your arsenal or adapt them to your liking. And, as you learn so many different ways of thinking, you develop a kind of intellectual curiosity and compassion for other minds.

    The trouble is most education does not work this way anymore. It is focused on job preparation. People change and jobs change so it can quickly become irrelevant. Often the deeper intellectual development does not happen. Many programs no longer have room for history or philosophy so we are not training people how to think. This is why our political discourse is at the level it is. It is why Richard Dawkins and Dan Brown are considered brilliant writers even by college educated people. Nobody can spot even the most common logical fallacies.

    • MJP

      Elite liberal arts undergraduate colleges are certainly not focused on “job preparation” (except, perhaps, for a job in academia). You are more correct about such colleges failing to provide a decent background in fields like history and philosophy and to teach people “how to think,” but this is not because students are too busy learning valuable job skills.

  • Emily

    Standing ovation over here. I am sad to see the decline of the idea that education is for creating citizens in favor of the idea that education is for creating workers, so I cheer when people uphold it. It seems like the conversations on education in the US are drifting toward an “every man for himself,” “survival of the fittest” view, when they could just as easily choose to focus on the public good and civil society.

  • Jessie

    Well, I had every intention of using my law degree to accumulate political power and wealth! But, then…babies happened…quite a few. And oddly enough a lot of educated people seem to have no idea how that happens (I assume because they are always asking me if I know how babies happen). I usually oblige by launching into a biology 101 lecture. The other odd thing that a lot of educated people seem ignorant of is the idea that stating something ‘with great emotion’ does not turn it into a ‘fact’ . (Sarcasm)

    In truth, when people say I am wasting my degrees by homeschooling my children when I could be out making money, I point out that very few kids are blessed with having a teacher who both loves to teach, loves to learn, and has the ability to do both…why would I deprive my children of that? And I didn’t really like being an attorney anyway.

    • deiseach

      How do babies happen? That’s quite easy to answer!

      When a mummy and a daddy stork love each other very much, they find a gooseberry bush beside a cabbage patch where the doctor can leave his big black bag with the baby in it.

      And that’s where babies come from! Now you can tell them, Jessie 😉

      • Theodore Seeber

        Yep, sounds about like what those people for contraception seem to believe. Sex can’t possibly have anything to do with it, and even when it does, we have to make it so it doesn’t.

    • deiseach

      Seriously, though: if you look after someone else’s children, that’s A Proper Job. If you look after your own, that’s wasting your education? Is it really true that the only measure of whether something is worthwhile is if you get money out of it?

  • Arizona Mike

    Leah is sure posting a lot about marriage and vocations and babies and suchlike lately.

    • Theodore Seeber

      I noticed that but was feeling to polite yesterday to say anything. Given her typical nature of role playing, it could mean absolutely nothing.

      But I might recommend _Chosen and Cherished_ by Kimberly Hahn for her private binary book club.

  • Sarah M.

    As a stay-at-home mom with a PhD, it’s interesting to see people’s reactions to my life choices. Since my husband and I were in the same field, I still occasionally interact with the same people at work/social settings as a spouse rather than a colleague. The giants in the field (predominantly older men) are without exception both supportive and delighted – they recognize the tremendous value of family. The next generation is on average dismissive but not antagonistic, and my generation seems to be split between puzzlement and outright antagonism. In the years to come, it will be interesting to see if that difference is due to age/experience or a change in culture.

    Fundamentally, I think the attitude toward education and family both come down to the purpose of life. I’m of the mind that the purpose of life is to come to know and love God the best that we can. Part of that, IMHO, is to develop our talents and interests and share them others. For me, at one point that meant pursuing my graduate degree. At the moment it’s raising the leaders of tomorrow. Only God knows what will come next!

    The idea that not pursuing work in the field of one’s degree is a waste or worse robbing someone else of that opportunity is not just ridiculous and wrong but is tragically sad in the sense of dismissing the joy and value inherent in the pursuit of higher education.

  • Brandon B

    My dad got a PhD in math and married my mom around the same time (I forget which happened first). He then was an associate professor at a couple of different colleges – but my mom, an engineer, had a much better-paying job, and soon they had four kids, and my dad decided his job was neither enjoyable enough nor well-paying enough to justify paying for daycare. Thus, for most of my childhood he was a stay-at-home dad. When I was in high school, he when back to school and got another PhD (in financial economics) and now he’s a working as a web developer. He’s still hoping to move to a job that lets him use one or both of his PhDs, but I don’t think he would trade his years at home with us kids for anything. My mom has had the same job all the while, and she’s noticeably better paid than he is, though she only has a Master’s degree.

  • jose

    Today, women are powerless and economically dependent on men out of discrimination. In the world of tomorrow, women will be powerless and economically dependent on men because they chose to be so out of their own free will. Hooray. Let’s all celebrate the end of sexism. The women are already making all the sandwiches for the party.

    Why those totally free choices that the women freely choose resemble so uncannily the social order we had before sexism was officially over? Maybe God really liked the 50s?

    • Theodore Seeber

      Your world of tomorrow came about 1980. Where have you been the past 33 years?

  • Brandon

    There’s nothing wrong with someone saying that her dream is to become a full-time mother by 30. That is an admirable goal.

    I don’t agree with this in the first place. I think it’s a concession made by the author that she clearly doesn’t actually buy.

    • Brandon B

      Is it something YOU think is false, something you the AUTHOR thinks is false, or both? Your first sentence indicates the first, and the second sentence indicates the second, but the way you transition from the first sentence to the second seems to imply that the second is logically connected to the first, which it’s not.

      • Brandon

        A bit of both – I don’t personally buy the claim, and I don’t think the author does either. I think it’s a throwaway line, and the context of it in the original article makes it seem clear to me that the author doesn’t actually think being a stay at home mom is particularly admirable goal.

        • Theodore Seeber

          And that, in and of itself, is quite sad.

          Last night on Catholic Answers I heard an interview with a woman who, 34 years ago, survived an abortion attempt on her life. She pointed out that the abortion evil is now affecting multiple generations- as she is now a mother herself. Not only have we lost the 55 million that have been directly killed by abortion, we’ve also lost all the children THEY would have had by now.

          All because being a “stay at home mom” is no longer an “admirable goal”.

  • Mike

    It’s too bad that smart hard working young women are expected to feel bad about wanting to forgoe a professional career at high throttle for the simple pleasures of starting a family. And here I thought feminism was about liberating women from “societal pressure”. It seems to be having some unintended consequences.

    You can always go back and impress co-workers with how brilliant you are, but the biological clock waits for no one.

  • Yvain

    I don’t know. I have no clever Social Policy Solution here I would be comfortable with, but it does seem like there’s a lot of waste if society has only a hundred spots in the How To Cure Cancer class with the brilliant professor who can lucidly explain the cutting edge of the field, and half of them go to people who have no intention of ever using that knowledge for cancer research. Sure, the other fifty people will learn a little about “how to think”, but they could learn that in Philosophy 101.

    The relevant concept here seems to be Opportunity Cost; the slot in the Curing Cancer class going to the person who just wants to feel like a better citizen isn’t completely wasted, but the opportunity cost is someone who might become a better citizen and try to cure cancer.

    And tied into that idea, it can’t possibly be good value for anyone to go to a $100,000 college + $200,000 law school in order to learn to be a better citizen with more problem solving abilities. That’s $300,000 the person is going to have to spend the rest of their lives paying back; money that they could spend on their family or on their homes or even give to charity. I mean, I’m not even convinced that it’s good value to do that to practice law, but those people don’t have another choice. The person who just wants to be a good citizen has no such excuse.

    I worry that even people who don’t believe what you’re saying at all are forced to do this just in order to gain social status as a person who might be worth associating with (and/or marrying). If this article makes you less uncomfortable complaining about the culture where that’s necessary than about the people who choose to do it, I don’t think that would be too different a reading.

  • Mike

    Where did the comments go?

    • tedseeber

      They’ll come back someday. Maybe Monday.

  • adrianratnapala

    …the next frontier of the admissions should revolve around asking people
    to declare what they actually plan to do with their degrees.

    Ha! A nice dose of student debt will do that job nicely!

    • tedseeber

      Before the real comments come back…I agree. Perhaps if people are really worried about this issue, financial aid departments should be putting forth truth-in-lending statements:
      This is your tuition per year
      These are the grants and loans we expect you to get to pay for it
      If you make all your loan payments on time, this is the year you can expect to pay it off and this is what it will cost you in extra interest.

      The sticker shock alone would limit the number of people applying quite severely.

  • Master of Public Administration here. I was in city management and climbing the political ladder, at least here in my state, and I had huge ambitions to become the first woman this and the first woman that. Then something happened at the age of the 32 that turned my world upside down. I gave birth to my first child, and by the time she was 2 1/2, I had retired my suits and heels in order to stay at-home full time. When Goff states, “There’s nothing wrong with someone saying that her dream is to become a full-time mother by 30…”, in my twenties, full-time mommyhood was the farthest thing from my imagination, yet there I was, a full-time at-home mom by the age of 35. My experience really isn’t all that unique. I’m sure plenty of female Ivy leaguers experienced a similar change of heart when God gifted them with the vocation of motherhood.

    Is there no space, no freedom, to allow life to unfold and reassess the career/parenting balance over time rather than being completely shut out? Who says one of these Yale-educated at-home moms won’t run for and successfully win a bid for the senate at the age of 40?

    Funny thing, I recently recognized that I’m still using a ton of my professional community building skills. My husband and I are working on developing a Catholic new media group, similar to Austin Catholic New Media, for our city/state of Des Moines, IA. We’re striving to build the Catholic community here, and watch out, there’s a group of on-fire Catholics who are are going to take back our city. Hey, this might be some of my best “city management” work yet. 🙂

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    Many people have the experience that actually being pregnant, or actually having a child , effects them in unexpected ways. Sometimes having children changes what kind of professional career they want – and then some Betty Crocker types who thought they wanted to just bake cookies and take the kids to the park realize that life isn’t fulflilling the way they thought it would be. I’ve seen it go different ways.
    One thing is clear – the higher the level of education of the mother, the better the children fare in health, education, and all other factors of well being. Am I the only person who found a competative education helped me do everything better, including be a mother?