Is Career Prep the New Marrying for Money?

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.

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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.”

Really Seeing Marmee: Oh, How 'Little Women's' Matriarch Has ...
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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.”

Seven Tiny Book Reviews

In writing my year-end writeup of everything I’ve read, I realized there were a few titles I wanted to revisit with you. Have you tried any of them yourself? What did you think?

  1. A Quiet Life in the Country: Lady Hardcastle and her lady’s maid Flo have retired to the countryside after a life of high adventure at the turn of the century, but things in their new hamlet are not as quiet as they seem. This cozy mystery has deeply delightful banter but I just didn’t care about the mechanics of the storyline, and the only characters with any depth were the two main characters. I almost liked them enough to try another in the series, but I doubt I’ll bother — at least as an audiobook, where it’s particularly difficult to focus on plot details.
  2. Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope: I’ve never read anything else by her, because her name seems ridiculous and her covers are always kind of frivolous and embarrassing. BUT ARE THEY ALL THIS GOOD? For more of my thoughts, check out my year-end reading post.
  3. A Confederacy of Dunces: Ok, so I’m glad to read this one — a bad Catholic book club pick if ever there were one — but I definitely wouldn’t have made it through if the group weren’t led by a medievalist who loved it and whose taste I trust. I just hate the earthiness of medieval stuff, which I think is one of the reasons I struggle with Dante. I know I’m supposed to laugh but I’m grossed out and that makes me feel like a prude which makes me mad. So: knowing that John Kennedy Toole loved Flannery O’Connor helped me through the book, and it ending with some hope and mercy helped a bit, but I’m not sure I’d be able to recommend the book, overall.
  4. The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s: When I was in high school, I believed I was laidback (!!). Later, my boyfriend pointed out that I’m only competitive in arenas where I think I can win, and now I look back and see the marks of perfectionism all over my childhood. I still struggle today, and I often refer back to a favorite line from Anne Lamott: “I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die.” Colleen Carroll Campbell urges us in this book to be gentle with ourselves, to accept God’s love, to trust, to deliberately and diligently root out all the places in our lives where we grasp for control and grow harsh in our striving. A must-read for any ambitious Ravenclaw Catholic.
  5. Underground Airlines: I loved Ben Winter’s Last Policeman series and was fascinated by the premise of this book. This is an America where the Civil War was settled differently, and slavery maintained in certain Deep South states, and here, Victor, an escaped slave, has made a deal with the devil to catch escaping slaves on behalf of the US government. I thought the plot grew convoluted, though, and I thought the optimism of the end and setup for a sequel were both a bit clunky. I don’t think I’ll read any subsequent books in the series.
  6. Waiting for Tom Hanks: Another kind of embarrassing one that I ended up enjoying. I had forgotten how much I enjoy the cringiness of romantic tension, and the self-aware references to favorite films like You’ve Got Mail certainly helped. The plot itself was fairly improbable (as per the genre) and a bit given to wish fulfillment and neat endings, but the characters were relatable and I really loved how — as in movies like the aforementioned YGM and Notting Hill — the community surrounding the protagonists had warmth and color.
  7. Marilla of Green Gables: I didn’t love this one. I felt like the author was imposing too much on the character, refusing to accept her for the rigid but warm person she is in the canon and instead inserting a lot of anachronistic social justice stuff like so many period dramas, which rush to make every character espouse the most progressive views, regardless of their social context.

A Literary Love of Flowers

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So, I think one of the perks, if not one of the outright goals, of educating little kids yourself at home is that you get to choose what to stuff into their little brains. Maybe that sounds nefarious, but aren’t the early years mostly just about learning how to learn, and learning to love learning? That’s why I used a saint-based curriculum this year for Police Preschool and it’s why as the school year winds down we are focusing on nature and birds and most of all, flowers.

Because maybe someday Pippin will be a police officer and Scout will be something totally depressing, like a dentist, but they’ll keep these memories of the difference between a dandelion and a daffodil and the way robins dance beside the turned-up garden soil and how grape hyacinth smells like Concord grapes (and maybe a fact or two about St Thérèse, too).

And on our quest, there are plenty of books to light this love of flowers.

Read More »

Commonplace Book, 43

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • Are you sick of cookies? I nearly am, except these double chocolate crinkle cookies, which I’m looking for an excuse to make again.
  • A couple days before Christmas I embarked on the horror show that is cut out cookies. Why are they just the worst? I love baking with my kids, but the whole process was painful — the rolling out, P’s inability to cut near the edge, the dough getting warm and sticky and tearing. I had such fond memories of baking cut out cookies with my mom, and when I mentioned it and how much I hated it, Mom responded vaguely, “Oh. I think we only did those once. They were so stressful!” So there you have it, folks: cut out cookies, delighting children and enraging adults since at least the 1980s. If you’re more ambitious than I am, these soft gingerbread cookies taste good, at least.
  • Nothing says Christmastime like cookies and cheese. If you’re looking to use up your spare bits of cheese, you might try this template for fromage fort. I made it for a NYE party, but I kind of want to make another batch to serve over pasta. Except I’d make it with blue stilton and then my marriage would be over.Read More »

Commonplace Book 28 (ish)

So, my last Commonplace Book posted, but was backdated, and when I tried to fix it, I deleted it. It was all very livejournal circa 2004. So, picking up where we left off:

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • Sausage barley spinach soup. (Slow cooker, obviously, or are you new here?) You can add the onions and garlic and sausage in raw, but I’ll warn you that the ground sausage will fuse into a strange puck you’ll have to chop haphazardly with a wooden spoon later on, so consider wisely…
  • Scallion pancakes. These are kind of a major pain, but not really hard: just labor-intensive. But the payoff! Almost exactly like the cheap Chinese dive version I love, but with a certain something reminiscent of the hot “chapat” we used to get at the hospital canteen for breakfast in Uganda, warm and wrapped in grease-spotted notebook paper. Is this not helping to sell them? Seriously. Delicious.

What I’m reading:

  • Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter and MeThis one is doubly personal for me, because a.) I am an Anne devotee and b.) I married into a family that also includes an adopted mother and adopted Korean little sister. I had expected to love the reflections on Anne but often I find them prone to dull summary, which may just be loyalty or jealousy  — I can nearly quote the original. But parts of the personal storytelling ring like Shauna Niequist’s essays, which is never a bad thing: sensory details and bustling families and warm, intimate friendships.
  • Dumplin‘: I had read a recommendation for this from, I think, Annie of The Bookshelf in Thomasville, Georgia (who I knew casually in high school, and who is now a real-like Kathleen Kelly), and audiobook is definitely the way to go on this. J doesn’t like the profanity emanating from my iPhone as I wash dishes in the evening, but the narrator, a prickly, overweight teenager from rural Texas named Willowdean Dixon reminds me of some of my favorite Southerner college friends.
  • Someone tell me if it’s worth reading all of The Well-Trained Mind right now all at once. I’ve made it to middle school and I’m losing steam because my oldest child is, in fact, four. But I’d like the big picture! Please advise.

Marilla of Green Gables

So, my mom made me promise I’d wait until I was home for Christmas to watch the Gilmore Girls reboot with her, so instead I’ve been watching PBS’s new L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I am the only Anne girl of my generation who’s neutral at best on the Megan Follows Anne but I know the book almost by heart, and I love West Wing-era Martin Sheen devotedly so I had high hopes.

And I thought this version was…ok. I didn’t love the casting of the girl playing Anne and I thought the whole production was a little rushed and saccharine. I’d show it to Pippin, I guess, but found myself bristling at cheesy additions like pig-chasing and thin ice drama.

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But I think that’s because the original novel works simply because of Marilla. Anne is wonderful, but she can be a little hard to swallow. (Could many actors deliver those lovely lines in a way that isn’t completely sickly sweet?) A careful reading of the novel, though, reveals that much of the humor comes from Marilla’s perspective.

The new movie gets some of this right, shuffling plot lines with wild abandon to make Marilla’s realization of her love for Anne the central conflict, but I don’t think we get enough of early Marilla, prickly but prone to unholy laughter, to make the victory truly sweet. It’s like a romantic comedy where you want the delightful heroine to get her 2D hero just because that’s what she wants.

I love that the new movie includes a noncanonical reference to Marilla being short for “Amaryllis” — an allusion perhaps to hidden depths of feeling and beauty in practical Marilla Cuthbert that only Anne can draw out. But it feels like a wasted opportunity. While I never loved the old Canadian Anne movies (and stuanchly refuse to watch the weird WWI installment), that version got the casting for Marilla right: exasperated, amused despite herself, completely unaware she is falling in love with this strange little girl.

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I propose that it is the story of Marilla, transformed by (untraditional) motherhood that makes Anne of Green Gables so much stronger than its sequels, when Anne leaves the safety of Green Gables and Marilla’s wry and watchful eye and heads out into the world. Anne Shirley (or later Anne Blythe), undiluted by the contrast of Marilla’s pragmatism, is all fancies and rainbows and ultimately too light, and bright, and sparkling. It’s a difficult feat in a film to capture Marilla’s perspective, but ultimately in the new L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, no amount of breathtaking island vistas and homey fiddle score can make up for its absence.

Learning to Love Housekeeping (Snippets), 4


Pippin the Worm Tracker. Spring has sprung! Rejoice to the fullest while you start to tackle the muddy fingers and tracked-in sand.

Things I’ve been fixing lately:

  • Dark Molasses Gingerbread Cake (I love me a cake you can make in a loaf pan; it just seems more manageable and everydayish; you can make this in that size by halfing it and following the directions at the bottom of the page.)
  • Slow Cooker Mashed Potatoes (for the days when you need your stovetop free and your taters ready to serve)
  • Pot pie. I made my first two ever in the last two weeks. I’ve had to cook up chicken both times, but just used whatever roast vegetables I had on hand. This time, my mom made the crust for me because she’s wonderful and pie crust is my Waterloo. I use this recipe as a template, although I deviate pretty widely on fillings.

Things I’ve been thinking about lately:

  • As I start to think about packing to move (ugh), this guide to implementing Konmari with kids is inspiring. (Right after reading it I snuck the books of Pippin’s I hate most into the charity shop bag, so win!)
  • Look! There are other people as obsessed with thank you notes as I am!
  • From Rainbow Valley, which I’m rereading at the moment:

“On the right the lights of Ingleside gleamed through the maple grove with the genial lure and invitation which seems always to glow in the beacons of a home where we know there is love and good-cheer and a welcome for all kin whether of flesh or spirit.”