There’s a trend right now in universities to emphasize the career training aspects of even a liberal arts education. The whole thing drives me nuts.
Let’s play a thought experiment, shall we? Here’s a passage from Pride and Prejudice with one alteration:
“A lucrative career had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.”
I’ll say that again: “however uncertain of giving happiness.” We all sympathize with plain, practical Charlotte Lucas. And things turn out ok for her, I guess. She marries a foolish man and she’s set up for life. She carves out her own spaces and routines and resigns herself to the comfort that she’s found her “preservative from want.” But is true happiness likely in her choice? Definitely not.
Compare this focus on financial security to Marmee March’s approach in Little Women, where again, I’ve made a few editing changes:
“My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world, hold down a lucrative job merely because it makes you rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for.”
She concludes, “I’d rather see you patching together some gigs, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.”
Do you see what I’m getting at? Just as we naturally root for true love in classic novels and feel at best only exasperated sympathy for characters who cop out and go husband-hunting, so should we feel the same about influences that demand we set the marketability of our (and our children’s) skill sets above all other factors.
Doing the right thing and pursuing virtue in love and career does sometimes financially pay off, of course, as when Amy March lands Laurie, but only after they’ve fallen in love. And more often, we rejoice in characters who abandon their dry, calculating pragmatism in pursuit of true love.
When we first meet Anne Shirley’s future college roommate, Philippa Gordon in Anne of the Island, she declares frankly, “Honey, you couldn’t imagine ME being a poor man’s wife, could you? I can’t do a single useful thing, and I am VERY extravagant. Oh, no, my husband must have heaps of money.” Still, after several years of virtuous living with Anne and their roommates and a thorough education, she eventually engages herself to a homely, poor preacher. Anne teases, “You’ll have to give up a good many things you’ve always had, when you marry Mr. Blake, Phil,” to which Phil retorts simply, “But I’ll have HIM. I won’t miss the other things.”
Her time in the girls’ college cottage, with its domestic pursuits and tight budget, has outfitted her for this new role. She vows, “I shall be poor as gaily as I’ve been rich. You’ll see. I’m going to learn how to cook and make over dresses. I’ve learned how to market since I’ve lived at Patty’s Place; and once I taught a Sunday School class for a whole summer.” Because her time in university involved not just college classes but also the school of love formed by the four girls and Aunt Jamesina, their housemother/chaperone, Phil has been trained to choose the good, rather than simply a “preservative from want.” We cheer for Phil, as “heart-glad” as Anne.
We can prepare our children for the world and for a profession, of course, but time is a limited commodity and it would be wrong to neglect the higher things: a strong moral formation, religious education, a robust relationship with us and each other. As Christie Purifoy says, what you do in your life has so little to do, ultimately, with what you do as paid work. I’ll quote her again because I love it so much:
“It is especially strange that we burden children with this question of what they will one day do when so much of our lives is already prescribed. What will my children do? I can already see most of it. They will sleep. They will eat. They will live in relationship with others. They will celebrate special days and live ordinary days that tick with repetitive tasks. The truly important question seems not to be what they will do but how they will do it.”
We would do well to remember this when we’re sifting through a thousand extracurriculars or opting for just a bit more practice on some weak academic subject. When we stay awake worrying about whether our struggling first grader will ever hold a job that can support his family, maybe we should also ask ourselves if the bigger question is if we are preparing him to support his family in other ways: through his ability to form deep relationships, to manage his mental health and find happiness in difficulty, through his admiration for the natural world and the God who made him.
My husband teaches in computer science, which is the new major for parents to shove talented kids as a guarantee of future employability. (When I was a student in auld lang syne, that major was pre-med.) Many of the students don’t have the skills they need for the major, much less the passion to pull them through programming languages and tedious coding.
Maybe there is a place for mercenary marriages in the pursuit of survival — “Miss Lucas, who took the job solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment” (P&P) — because certainly there is a place for abandoning fluffy “do what you live” sentiments and plugging away at the job that will put food on the table for your family. But that place, I think, shouldn’t be the primary focus of an education.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about since before the coronavirus outbreak, but the idea gains new force in our current climate. If you find yourself frantically trying to check boxes and leave no subject uncovered as a temporary homeschooler, terrified your children will be left unprepared for the nebulous “real world” because of this weird, disjointed season, try to cut yourself a little slack. Remember Marmee’s reminder — “Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for.”