Saturday, September 02, 2006

A bit of folly (women's education)

Last week, I took my youngest daughter to college. She is attending Wellesley near Boston - a fine women's college her oldest sister graduated from last year.

The president of the college gave the usual upbeat speech to the gathered parents, with a special emphasis on the value of women's education.

As she spoke, I was thinking of - G. K. Cheserton.

I remembered a piece by him on the topic of women's education that I had read years ago. As soon as we got home, I dug out "Folly and Female Education" and reread it.

It is as I remembered. I found myself of divided mind about it.

He makes some good points about the poor quality of education in general, and he objects to inflicting the same misfortune on young women.

Of course, as a teacher - and the father of three bright daughters - I am a supporter of female education, even if it has to be the flawed system foisted on boys and men.

Further, he typically places woman on a pedestal - she is a "queen of life."

I love women, but I don't hold them in the same regard. I have met some truly noble queens, but in terms of human relations, I have also encountered several who could rival the queens in Snow White or Narnia.

He even goes on to suggest that women without formal education are actually in a sense more "educated" - a point I can agree with to a degree, and which I think should be equally applied to men. But he says it in a way that I as a man in the 21st Century found condescending, even as I'm sure our "dear" 19th Century Sage would, in response to that accusation, cluelessly sputter and contend that he is merely holding women in high regard.

"There was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the color of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face. To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education; and closest to the child comes the woman--she understands."

"Closest to the child." Indeed.

And on a literary note, he goes on to say that "Jane Austen was stronger, sharper and shrewder than Charlotte Bronte" - perhaps, but I enjoyed Jane Eyre far more than I did anything written by Austen. (Though I agree with him about George Eliot!)

The piece concludes with one of my favorite Chesterton quotations: "... if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."

Couldn't the same be said of even flawed education?

Anyway, I wondered what Madame Wellesley President would make of his essay.


It is the same in the case of girls. I am often solemnly asked what I think of the new ideas about female education. But there are no new ideas about female education.

There is not, there never has been, even the vestige of a new idea. All the educational reformers did was to ask what was being done to boys and then go and do it to girls; just as they asked what was being taught to young squires and then taught it to young chimney sweeps. What they call new ideas are very old ideas in the wrong place. Boys play football, why shouldn't girls play football; boys have school colors, why shouldn't girls have school-colors; boys go in hundreds to day-schools, why shouldn't girls go in hundreds to day-schools; boys go to Oxford , why shouldn't girls go to Oxford --in short, boys grow mustaches, why shouldn't girls grow mustaches--that is about their notion of a new idea. There is no brain-work in the thing at all; no root query of what sex is, of whether it alters this or that, and why,anymore than there is any imaginative grip of the humor and heart of the populace in the popular education. There is nothing but plodding, elaborate, elephantine imitation.

And just as in the case of elementary teaching, the cases are of a cold and reckless inappropriateness. Even a savage could see that bodily things, at least, which are good for a man are very likely to be bad for a woman. Yet there is no boy's game, however brutal, which these mild lunatics have not promoted among girls. To take a stronger case, they give girls very heavy home-work; never reflecting that all girls have home-work already in their homes. It is all a part of the same silly subjugation; there must be a hard stick-up collar round the neck of a woman, because it is already a nuisance round the neck of a man. Though a Saxon serf, if he wore that collar of cardboard, would ask for his collar of brass.

It will then be answered, not without a sneer, "And what would you prefer? Would you go back to the elegant early Victorian female, with ringlets and smelling-bottle, doing a little in water colors, dabbling a little in Italian, playing a little on the harp,writing in vulgar albums and painting on senseless screens? Do you prefer that?" To which I answer, "Emphatically, yes." I solidly prefer it to the new female education, for this reason, that I can see in it an intellectual design, while there is none in the other. I am by no means sure that even in point of practical fact that elegant female would not have been more than a match for most of the inelegant females. I fancy Jane Austen was stronger, sharper and shrewder than Charlotte Bronte; I am quite certain she was stronger, sharper and shrewder than George Eliot. She could do one thing neither of them could do: she could coolly and sensibly describe a man. I am not sure that the old great lady who could only smatter
Italian was not more vigorous than the new great lady who can only stammer American; nor am I certain that the bygone duchesses who were scarcely successful when they painted Melrose Abbey, were so much more weak-minded than the modern duchesses who paint only their own faces, and are bad at that. But that is not the point. What was the theory, what was the idea, in their old, weak water-colors and their shaky Italian? The idea was the same which in a ruder rank expressed itself in home-made
wines and hereditary recipes; and which still, in a thousand unexpected ways, can be found clinging to the women of the poor.

It was the idea I urged in the second part of this book: that the world must keep one great amateur, lest we all become artists and perish. Somebody must renounce all specialist conquests, that she may conquer all the conquerors. That she may be a queen of life, she must not be a private soldier in it. I do not think the elegant female with her bad Italian was a perfect product, any more than I think the slum woman talking gin and funerals is a perfect product; alas! there are few perfect products. But they come from a comprehensible idea; and the new woman comes from nothing and nowhere. It is right to have an ideal, it is right to have the right ideal, and these two have the right ideal. The slum mother with her funerals is the degenerate daughter of Antigone, the obstinate priestess of the household gods. The lady talking bad Italian was the decayed tenth cousin of Portia, the great and golden Italian lady, the Renascence amateur of life, who could be a barrister because she could be anything. Sunken and neglected in the sea of modern monotony and imitation, the types hold tightly to their original truths. Antigone, ugly, dirty and often drunken, will still bury her father. The elegant female, vapid and fading away to nothing, still feels faintly the fundamental difference between herself and her husband: that he must be Something in the City, that she may be everything in the country.

There was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the color of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face. To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education; and closest to the child comes the woman--she understands. To say what she understands is beyond me; save only this, that it is not a solemnity. Rather it is a towering levity, an uproarious amateurishness of the universe, such as we felt when we were little,
and would as soon sing as garden, as soon paint as run. To smatter the tongues of men and angels, to dabble in the dreadful sciences, to juggle with pillars and pyramids and toss up the planets like balls, this is that inner audacity and indifference which the human soul, like a conjurer catching oranges, must keep up forever. This is that insanely frivolous thing we call sanity. And the elegant female, drooping her ringlets over her water-colors, knew it and acted on it. She was juggling with frantic and flaming suns. She was maintaining the bold equilibrium of inferiorities which is the most mysterious of superiorities and perhaps the most unattainable. She was maintaining the prime truth of woman, the universal mother: that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.


Anonymous said...

I agree with Chesterton.

The generalized education (Chesterton didn't advocate illiteracy) of a woman leaves her within her original created ideal (Gods!). The specialized education harms her, making her more manly, which is unlike her original self.

My life experience has backed up this Chestertonian theory.

Have you ever watched a little girl at the shore examine with loving tenderness a tiny sea shell? Contrast her, post-college, as she examines a home by the shore as part of her investment portfolio.

Bring back the queenly women.

Anonymous said...

Last comment left by me, Lily.

A Secular Franciscan said...

Lily - one could argue that specialized education similarly harms men - makes them more "manly" in the worldly sense, but not manly in the sense that God meant them to be!

I have studied things with loving kindness - when I was a little boy, and even now as an adult (one without a protfolio, I might add).

Bring back manly men!

As I said, I am of divided mind abut this essay.

Kyro said...

I think that there is a truth contained here which the words are doing an inadquate job of expressing. Our natural selves sense that there is something wrong in the system, but we cant put our finger on it.

We know that our natures as men and women are different, and our education should reflect this.

We also see how specialized education is inadequate. This is merely one level removed from "heresy" - one idea out of context.

I think Dave Beresford mentioned something at the conference which spoke directly to this issue. It wasnt his main point, but he mentioned something about at the dawn of the industrial revolution it was realized that the skill sets required to be self-sustaining had to be eliminated in order to make workers dependant on wages.

To paraphrase another source from the web which I honestly cant remember, " A man should be able to plan an invasion, fix a staircase, brew beer, raise children, conduct literary criticism, paint a landscape, and sew a button"......source lost in e-hell, but definately right on with general education and not self-identifying with ones profession.

Anonymous said...

Yes, specialization by men within their careers might lead to de-personalization, but that is a natural tendency in man which is alleviated in the home by a woman. Edith Stein spoke frequently of this.
Problems occur when women leave their generalized life (I do not mean or picture a woman who is illiterate, but bright and engaged in life) to specialize in a life at the bank (ie) leaving adrift their children (if they haven't aborted or contracepted) and husbands. The family suffers when the woman (queen) leaves her home (kingdom) to work at the bank (sweatshop).
This is encouraged by educational institutions. The educational institutions see no value in the kingdom of the home and family, but God does. And God intended things to go according to His will.
So we're back to Original Sin. Perhaps since original sin things can't work the way God wanted, thus woman can't be queens. So if it can't be done perfectly, do we throw it out?
And we're back to Chesterton being right when he said:
"She was maintaining the bold equilibrium of inferiorities which is the most mysterious of superiorities and perhaps the most unattainable. She was maintaining the prime truth of woman, the universal mother: that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."

Nick Milne said...

Kyro, the quote you're looking for is from Robert Heinlein's Lazarus Long in Time Enough for Love. To whit:

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

The last line drives it home in a manner similar to a coup de grace.

Paul Pennyfeather said...

I have to agree with Lee, though anything by GKC is always filled with insights.

I have one daughter and another on the way (we're adopting her from China). I consider myself both orthodox in my Catholicism and I tend to view the modern world with a jaundiced eye. But no way will I trust that my daughters will find the right man and never find themselves abandoned; not in this brave, new world.

Don't misunderstand: I love stay-at-home-moms and homeschooled kids. Many of the stay-at-home moms I know have a BA or a MA under their belt.

If a woman gets married straight out of highschool, has ten kids, homeschools them all and never even gets a credit card in her name, that's fine. In fact, God bless her. But I couldn't preach that path for my daughters, lest they end up abandoned. Happens every day.

Is this what Chesterton envisioned, not even a bank account? He took for granted -- perhaps reasonable in his time -- that a secure, faithful, breadwinner was available to most, if not all. Certainly if one went through the Church there was a lifetime mate to be found.

Today's education is SO FLAWED. We should look for ways to circumvent the worst aspects: Christian schools, homeschooling, and a sacramental life that sits at least a little bit outside the normal, noisy, acquistive, modern, suburban stripmall nightmare.

But that lousy education is what keeps many a man from the ravages of day labor or soul-destroying drudgery in a cubicle. Our daughters should at least have it in their back pocket, just in case.

Oh, wait...they'll be wearing dresses, so scratch that last part :)

Michelle said...

I have a BS in Civil Engineering (some jobs do require specialized educations...I wouldn't want just anybody operating on me!), but I stay at home and raise my kids (homeschool too). I was staying at home before my college degree was paid for! (Please note the preposition at the end of that sentence...I earned a BS, not a BA!)

As a mother of daughters, I too am concerned with that fine line between having an education and not wasting money on too much of an education. I would hope that if my daughters got married, they would have children, and if they had children, they would stay at home and raise them. Therefore, I do not want to encourage them to seek a career as a medial professional or in another field that requires spending loads of money on an education.

BUT, what if they do not meet Mr. Wonderful until they are 30? What if Mr. Wonderful dies and leaves her to support her family? What if Mr. Wonderful turns out to be Mr. Notso and leaves her for his boss? I don't want my daughters forced to live at the poverty level because they opted to forgo a good education in order to save themselves for marriage and children.

And even my own unused degree...who knows? Perhaps in 20 years I may use it again for the good of society. Besides, I met Mr. Wonderful at college making it the best $40k I ever spent.

Mean said...

Wow. By all means, lets not waste women with post graduate degrees, medical or engineering degrees - degrees that advance society. I mean, we wouldn't want them to outshine men by doing something useful like finding a cure for cancer or inventing teleportation. HECK NO. Get them back to brood mare status with only the basest of skills to ensure their dreams go unfulfilled. WOO HOO! Yes, siree! That's how I'm going to raise my daughter!! Oh yes. You're job is to lay there and think of England ( or insert any other country)