Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Education and Vocation

At Danielle Bean's weekly Coffee Talk post, there have been some interesting ideas exchanged about college, debt, what sort of college a child should choose, and some of the many factors that go into a college decision. I want to start out by saying that these decisions, just like decisions about child spacing or homeschooling or similar issues, are going to vary family by family, and that there's no one right answer for every family in all circumstances when it comes to college.

That said, as I've said here before, I think there's too much emphasis in the middle class today on providing each and every child with a college education, regardless of that child's nature, tastes, inclinations, and possible vocation. There's a presumption that all responsible parents are automatically putting money into individual savings accounts for each child to help defray college expenses, and that parents owe each child at least the chance to pursue a higher education.

And that's where I think our society has gone seriously off the rails.

We're an egalitarian sort of people, you know. The notion that a college education was primarily the path of relatively wealthy people, and then only for their sons, wasn't going to fly for long in the land of opportunity. Women entered colleges; poorer students qualified for scholarships; and pretty soon what was once an indication of one's status became a minimum necessary requirement for anyone who wanted to get a job of a higher level than the proverbial hamburger flipper.

Of course, the privileged classes protect themselves, as always. Today we're starting to hear that the master's degree is the new bachelor's degree, that any serious advancement potential at one's place of employment will only come when one has secured either an MBA or the equivalent for one's profession. And when sufficient numbers of starless Sneetches start showing up with the requisite MBA, who doubts that employees will be told that if they really want to prove their worth, they'll either have a PhD, or multiple master's?

When do we stop? When do we, the descendants of blue-collar workers, small business or small farm owners, or tradesmen or craftsmen from all sorts of professions stop playing the game of minimum corporate requirements? When do we, living on single incomes and dedicating ourselves to the pursuit of a simpler, more basic, more sustainable way of living stop pretending that our children's futures depend solely or even primarily on their acceptance into an expensive private college?

As an amateur home-based education engineer (okay, homeschooling mom), I believe in the value of a liberal arts education. I also believe that Kitten, our oldest, has already begun to encounter this education in her current year of schooling, and that by the time she has graduated from our version of high school she will have read and studied some of the greatest books produced by Western Civilization, encountered the thoughtful analysis of scholars who have commented extensively on those works, and, to the extent of both her tastes and abilities, have learned to analyze and comment on them herself. In other words, making sure that Kitten, and Bookgirl, and Hatchick all experience the benefit of a truly Catholic liberal arts education is my job, and, with the grace of God, I hope to complete that job to the best extent of my abilities.

And after that? What then?

Like most children, my girls sometimes play the game of "When I'm a Grown-Up." It's cute to hear them discuss what they think the life of an adult is really like. It's also encouraging to hear them speculate more about their eventual vocations than their possible careers, though they do sometimes talk about "jobs" too.

And they know that they might be called to the religious life. And they wonder if they'll be called to the vocation of marriage, to be wives and mothers. They all think babies are adorable and that being a mom would be a lot of fun, but they also remain open to the call to be a nun like their aunt, and to serve God in some way they can't even imagine.

One of them is adamant that she does not want to go to college; one is thinking that to study what she likes best she may, and the third is open either way. Just like their speculations about vocations, though, I know that they can't yet tell what they may decide to do; sometimes in some families the child who least wants a degree ends up pursuing one, and the child most intrigued by the idea hears a clear and direct call from God that leads in a wholly unexpected direction.

The important thing, to me, is that Mr. C. and I plan to let them decide--with God's help, and with our advice and input. We're not adamant that any of them must choose college, nor are we--or could we be--establishing savings accounts right now to cover tuition. Like so many single-income middle class families, college tuition is a luxury item that we couldn't afford on our own no matter how much we wanted to; our children, should they pursue higher education, may have to apply for scholarships or work for a couple of years after high school to save money or come up with some financing. But I'll strongly advise them not to take on more college debt than they could pay back in a single year of living at home after school, because more than that would be imprudent.

Because much more important than what they may do to earn money is what God will call them to do and to be for His greater glory. Coveting a prestigious education that they, and we, can't afford is just like coveting anything else: sinful.

As I said at the beginning of this post, though, that's the conclusion the Cardigan family has come to. What your family will do will depend on a lot of things: perhaps you are not middle class, or perhaps you have more than one source of income; perhaps you have parents or grandparents who want to pay for your children's college educations; perhaps you have a child who is so incredibly gifted and brilliant at even a young age that you know he or she will have to pursue a degree in some branch of math or science or some other area of academia, in order to reach his or her full potential. What would be imprudence or covetousness for my family may very well not be for yours, and I respect that.

Still, I think it's time that our society rediscovered a few important truths, which are these:
  1. Not every child is suited by nature, inclination, or talents for college.
  2. Not every child's vocation will be helped to flourish by attending college.
  3. Not every parent has the means or the ability to save money to pay for the college education for each and every child in the family.
  4. Parents do not owe their children a college education in the same way that they are responsible for their educations in general, or for basic necessities like food, clothing, and shelter. College is a luxury, and it can be imprudent or even a temptation to believe that one must provide college educations for one's children.
  5. Parents must make a prudent decision about college as they do about every other aspect of their role as parents and their involvement in their children's lives.


MommaLlama said...


I couldn't agree more! College isn't the only option, and while it works for some - it isn't always the best! I want each of my children to succeed in life, and will help them each reach their goals... be it college, vocational school or some other path... but won't put unrealistic pressure for an outcome that society sees as the best.

Sarahndipity said...

I think there's too much emphasis in the middle class today on providing each and every child with a college education, regardless of that child's nature, tastes, inclinations, and possible vocation.

I agree – not everyone is suited to college. I grew up in an upper-middle class suburb (the DC area, where I still live) where it’s expected that absolutely everyone go to college.

Now for me, personally, being a bookish, hopelessly impractical type, I loved my four years as an English major at a liberal arts school. I think for me, college was a good buffer zone between high school and the real world; I was rather na├»ve and sheltered before college. I met my future husband at college, and I was very involved in the Catholic student group, which strengthened my faith. So college was definitely a good choice for me. Then again, my parents paid for it and I have no loans; I would likely feel very differently if I had had to take loans or had had to work through college. I didn’t realize until after college how spoiled I was, really.

On the other hand, although college was good for me in a spiritual and psychological sense, I’m not sure how good it was for me in a practical sense. I forced myself to be somewhat practical in college by being an editor on the school newspaper and having some journalism internships. I thought I wanted to be a journalist, but that didn’t work out (long story). Now I’m doing graphic design, and I learned almost everything on the job. As it turns out, I’m much more suited to graphic design than journalism, but I didn’t know it until I was actually in the real world and working. I’m not really using my English degree right now. Well, I still write poetry, but I’m not using my degree to make money. I feel like I could have started working right out of high school and still be where I am now. The way the system is set up, it’s a catch-22 because it’s hard to get a job without a college degree, but it’s hard to know what you want to do without any real-world experience. I did have those internships, but I’ve found that internships are nothing like an actual job. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have met my husband if I hadn’t gone to college. God works in mysterious ways.

I completely agree with you that college shouldn’t be necessary for everyone, but unfortunately it is, these days. You’re right about the master’s being the new bachelor’s. My husband and I are already saving for our daughter and any future children we have (though we’ve decided that if they go to college they’re definitely all going in-state). I guess I feel like if you don’t go to college, your options are very limited these days. I wish that wasn’t the case, and I agree that it shouldn’t be, but I guess I’m not as optimistic as you are that people can support themselves without college.

jen said...

I agree that every child must make their own decision about college. I've seen too many kids go to college and party the whole time. Is this really the best use of their time and money? I think not.

On the other hand, my parents paid the 1st 2 years of college and then I was on my own finacially. I have no problem with kids working their way through college. I had a job my entire college career, and the last 2 years of high school too. This provided me with the money I needed once my mom & dad stopped footing the bill. It also taught me respect for money. Trust me, once I was the one paying the bill, partying was the last thing on my mind.

One other point I might add, is that there is nothing wrong with Community Colleges that only take 2years to complete. There are often cheaper and those credits transfer to 4 year colleges easily if it becomes necessary.

I love the thought provoking posts that you provide. You have given me a lot of things to ponder since I first found your blog. Keep them coming! :)

freddy said...

Brilliant, Red! With a high school senior this year these are thoughts that we've been batting back and forth.

We've encouraged our oldest to plan on working for a year or so while deciding if college is his best option. I think boys take longer than girls often do to find their feet in the "real world" and decide what they are called to do.

It's a good point, Sarahndipity, that it's hard to know how to focus your college studies if you don't have the experience to know what you want to do! I, too, got a degree in Literature, then worked as a purchasing agent. Go figure!

However, I'd have to disagree that college is a necessity. My husband does not have a college degree and yet finds both that he likes his job and is able to support a family with seven children. I know others in similar positions. There are options!

Anonymous said...

Red - I read your comment at Danielle's site and I couldn't agree with you more. However, I will encourage all of my children to pursue higher education at whatever cost it may be. I live in the NYC area and face it, you can't get a good job or afford this area if you don't graduate from a decent school. That is my reality. I was an art history major and landed on Wall Street. I always wanted to be a wife and mother, but I didn't meet my husband until I was 27. I haven't worked in 13 years, but I plan on going back at some point. I know that I will be able to re-enter the workforce, albeit at the entry level again, but I can. To me, education is a way to a better life. I have some friends who didn't go to college and they are the first ones to admit that it was a mistake and they will insist that their children go.

La Familia said...

I think instead of college degrees people should be able to show portfolios or even go back to being an apprentice to something you want to do for a few years and then hit those interviews with real knowledge learned on the field rather than from a book. My years leading up to my 1 semester practicum was a total waste of time and mental energy. Everything I learned about my major I learned working with my college guinea pigs (Ahem, I mean clients). My brother went to school and studied Criminal Justice. On the side, he took a job doing his real love of web designing (entirely self-taught) He's now the head web designer for the college he worked at to pay for his Criminal Justice Degree. On the other hand, my mother worked as a secretary under people who had BA's and Masters. I'm serious when I say that she was the brains of that big operation and the people with the degrees looked to her for guidance. She never got paid more then $10 and hour because she did not have her degree. She begged for people to work under her and for a raise and it was not until she left and everything started falling apart that they hired more people. She would tell you that a degree is everything. I don't agree with that but it's easy for me to disagree when I have a degree.