Hard as it might be to realize, society benefits when we recognize that there are many ways of being useful members of society, of serving others, and of finding joy in our work. Stay-at-home moms are able to bring a deep focus to the lives of their children and the needs of their community. By sacrificing volume, they are able to serve others in a unique way.
In Dorothy Sayer’s 1936 novel “Gaudy Night,” a minor character refers to the “question of women’s education.” Famous detective Lord Peter Wimsey responds, “Is it still a question? It ought not to be,” and adds, “You should not imply that I have any right either to approve or disapprove” of what women do.
Most progressives today would agree heartily with the first half of his sentiment. Feminists consider it a settled question that educating women is essential to a humane, egalitarian society. At the same time, however, few are quite so restrained as Lord Peter. Most venture to “approve or disapprove” of women’s choices, especially if what a woman chooses is to follow years of education with life as a stay-at-home mom.
Smart, educated women who decide to end, pause, or part-time their careers are often treated as defective parts in the machinery of egalitarian social justice, or as children who have asked for a plate of food and then thrown it in the garbage. The general argument is that an education, like a treadmill or a bag of flour, is wasted if it is not used (the definition of “used” being, “used to make money”).
The thing is, though, anyone who castigates a woman for failing to cash in on her degree reveals a complete misunderstanding of two things. 1. The nature and purpose of education, and 2. The actual needs of society.
Education Is Not Just a Synonym for Job Training
The American founders argued routinely that ordinary citizens ought to be educated. This was not because literacy would help farmers milk their cows more sensitively or because familiarity with Plato would open up additional career prospects for pioneers, but because it would change what sort of people they were internally.
Education is much bigger than any specific field of work. Career coaches recognize this when they tell students that their choice of college major rarely dictates the field in which they will later find employment. Education helps people do a better job at any task by helping them discover how to think, how to learn, and how to exercise the self-discipline necessary for achievement. Educated people know useful facts, of course; but more importantly, they know how to live.
Unless we want a society in which an elite few rule over the wider peasantry, we must recognize that people—men, women, lawyers, mechanics, stay-at-home moms, everyone—benefit when they pursue the learning and wisdom that make them more fully human. To say that moms “waste” education is to show tremendous disrespect for the actual importance of education.
Education Is Supposed to Open, not Close, Opportunities
We tell our children they can become anything they want. On the other hand, when young people aspire to careers that may or may not be achievable—when she wants to major in art, when he thinks he can open his own restaurant—we encourage them to hedge their bets. We talk about double majors, business minors, and back-up plans.
Likewise, many young women hope to eventually become mothers, and many would prefer to stay at home while their babies are young. They, too, are wise to hedge their bets. What if they never meet the right man? What if they do, and illness or disability keeps him from being able to support a family? What about divorce? Hitting pause on a career may still leave them somewhat vulnerable to later financial challenges, but less so than if they possessed only a high school diploma. For them, a degree is a prudent investment regardless of the outcome. It maintains options.
The inflated cost of modern college is admittedly a complicating factor. A debt load that shackles a woman to a particular career path is probably a bad investment for anyone. We should absolutely encourage young people to think outside of the box when acquiring an education. And, of course, universities are not the only places one can become educated.
Society Should Trust Women
Feminists encourage society to trust women in matters like abortion. Yet feminism distrusts females who want to stay home with their children. Perhaps such critics assume that if a woman’s daily work belongs to the domestic sphere, with no raises to compete for and no performance reviews to hold her accountable, she is likely to lounge around in yoga pants while surfing the Internet. That is, they imagine that outside accountability is inextricably tied to meaningful accomplishments.