Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Educated Choice

There’s an article by Linda Hirshman in this month’s American Prospect that’s been making the rounds among young mothers I know. It’s a dense article, one that I could easily crack open and examine piece by piece, but after subjecting you to a mini-lecture on the Maureen Dowd-ing of single female America the other day, I’m going to keep it relatively short and sweet. But I encourage other to read the entire, entirely thought-provoking, piece and let me know your reaction.

In very brief, Hirshman tackles the idea of whether women truly have a choice about whether to pursue careers or stay home to raise a family. Her premise is that though women now have opportunities in the workplace, we’re still held back by the fact that we’re expected to be entirely responsible for managing the domestic sphere. Her article focuses on the privileged, college (really Ivy League) educated few, and I take exception to her assertion that those women set the trends and therefore merit more attention. But she is shining a light on a problem that affects many of us ordinary folk: the impossibility of juggling it all.

I agree with Hirshman that domestic responsibilities need to be more evenly split, for the good of both genders. But perhaps this cutback on women’s in-house duties isn’t the only thing that has to change. I was struck by how easily Hirshman equated being professionally successful and making piles of money with mattering in this world. Granted those who accrue wealth and power can often be far more influential, for better or worse, than those who don’t. Bill Gates giving away 58% of his net worth is going to have a hell of a lot more impact than me giving away 58% of mine. But Cindy Sheehan isn’t rich and she single-handedly rocked the public perception of the Iraq War. Martin Luther King wasn’t raking in the bucks. Neither was Rosa Parks.

I don’t see paving the way for women to have high-powered careers as the answer. It’s not like men get all the glory because they get to go to the office all day. By now, women should know better than that. Work can be grueling, thankless, torture on the ego – both for hedge fund managers and stay at home parents. When given the choice to leave the corporate killing fields, to “opt out,” plenty of us, male and female, would step up and say “yes, please.”

One of Hirshman’s primary suggestions is to make college education for women more vocational and less, well, educational. She talks about stream-lining women onto business oriented tracks so they have an easier time getting jobs that will earn them actual nest eggs instead of flitting around in fields like art and history. But is the point of education to make money? Isn’t there a larger issue at stake here? Like making us better human beings? Like giving us the knowledge necessary to make choices about our futures and future values? Do we really want to tweak our education system to further enforce the message that money = worth?

It seems that the problem here lies in the fact that there’s so little middle ground, that it’s either sacrifice everything or opt out entirely. What if workplaces treated career and family as something everyone should be balancing in their lives? If hours were shorter, and the cost of living less mind-bogglingly expensive (forgive me but in live in New York city where there’s a $20 toll just to get out your front door)? Idealistic, I know, but I majored in theater, so what do you expect?

Here’s a quote from a speech Toni Morrison made at a Barnard College graduation in 1979:

“If education is to have value as well as price; if it is to have meaning as well as substance, then it must be about something other than careers and power. The pursuit of a liberal education and the pursuit of the arts and sciences cannot be simply about husbanding beauty, isolating goods and making sure enrichment is the privilege of a few. The function of a twentieth-century education must be to produce humane human beings. To refuse to continue to produce generation after generation of people trained to make expedient decisions rather than humane ones. You are the women who will take your place in the world where you can decide who shall flourish and who shall wither; you will make distinctions between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor; where you can yourself determine which life is expendable and which is indispensable. Since you will have the power to do it, you may also be persuaded that you have the right to do it. As educated women the distinction between the two is first-order business.”

Now that’s what I call a noble end.

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