Choose Your Own Adventure

When you read a number of blogs, you get to a point where you know very well which articles in the mainstream media, especially the New York Times, are going to spawn a frenzied discussion. Then it’s primarily a question of which writer’s initial take is going to shape the debate at its outset.

This time it’s Kieran Healy who kicked it off at Crooked Timber, responding to a NY Times article that suggested that increasing numbers of women at elite universities are primarily envisioning their future in terms of a periodic engagement with the professional job market interspaced with a concentrated period of child-rearing, rather than thinking first and foremost about the most ambitious career trajectory possible and deferring questions about family life.

Kieran complains that this article concedes too much to an ideology of individuation, that we’re being manipulated to respond (and many in the Crooked Timber message threads do) by second-guessing the women’s choices. I actually think Kieran does that himself, though he protests that it’s not really his main point or intent. For Kieran, the real question is a wider social issue about the balance between work and family, and the unjust extent to which the professional classes have choices that the rest of American society does not, because we make no guarantee or provision for opening that choice to anyone but the professional elite.

The problem is that this is a complaint about the entire existence or social condition of the professional class, which I suspect Kieran might cop to. There’s no reason why it should be contained to the work/family problem. There’s no distinction in this sense between an undergraduate who says to me, “I intend to concentrate primarily on child-rearing when the time comes that I have a child, and to do what’s necessary in preparation for that” and an undergraduate who says to me, “I intend to look for a small community where I can find a comfortable and relaxed career path outside of the mainstream” or the one who says, “I intend to live on a lesbian commune in Vermont and grow organic vegetables” or the one who says, “I plan to find a studio in a cheaper city, set up a small loft in the back, minimize my expenses so I can live off my small trust fund and explore my artistic interests”.

Every single one of those plans may run into unexpected real-world difficulties. Every single one of them is a sign of the luxuriousness of being part of the professional class educated at an elite college, of a condition of choice which is unevenly and inequitably distributed that an elite university education exacerbates rather than corrects at the scale of society as a whole. The only reason to react differentially to the women in the NY Times article is in the context of a prescriptive feminist argument about women’s roles and social pressure or a claim that these women are “free-riders” on feminist achievements, precisely the response that Kieran mostly wants to forego in favor of a broader social critique. The broader critique can’t distinguish between the women quoted in the article and any undergraduate at any elite educational institution imagining that they will choose to forego maximizing their income in favor of maximizing other forms of satisfaction and self-realization.

The only meaningfully specific response that I think you can have to the article is about feminism, gender roles, equality and intergenerational values within the professional classes, and here I do think that these women are betraying an awareness of the costs that an ideology of heroic womanhood has imposed on the generation that came before them, and preemptively deciding to avoid that trap. (They may also have a callow lack of awareness of the historical preconditions that have made this a choice rather than a commandment.) They may find themselves in another trap: no generation is likely to find personal utopia just by laying better plans down at age 22. This is the only profitable debate I think relates directly to the content of the article. I don’t see that debate as a distraction or red herring as Kieran does. It may make sense in other contexts to pose this as being about privilege and choice, but that’s a bigger and wider discussion.

Choosing is what the graduates of elite universities and colleges do, period. It is what we commonly urge our students to do, what we promise to them, how we pitch the value of the liberal arts. We efface the directness of a connection between professional ambition (and projected incomes) and the content of a liberal arts education. We talk about the flexibility of critical thought, that it can enhance anything and everything in life: career, family life, individual character. We talk about the realization of a condition of choice.

I think that’s right and proper (here I am echoing some of Margaret Soltan’s take on the issue.) Not just because it’s a good marketing hook, but because it’s the only thing that keeps a liberal arts education from just being a cold-cash transaction, a cynically concocted and cynically desired ticket to a professional class identity, an education whose content or quality doesn’t especially matter. Well, ok, that’s a Harvard undergraduate education, but it isn’t or shouldn’t be what most elite educational institutions are offering. I believe in what we’re doing, and believe that it’s about both concrete skills that have a practical and applied payoff and about values, character and the cultivation of self. Of course that’s a mark of privilege: but we should continue to do it anyway, and believe in doing it. I can’t stand it when my students come to me and start flagellating themselves because they want to live a satisfying life full of deeply personal meaning but woe is me for wanting to make that choice it is so very wrong and unequal I am so privileged I am not worthy forgive me for I am a sinner blah blah blah.

If one group of young women work through what a college or university sets in front of them and decide that they’re going to choose to invest themselves in a life course where family comes first and work comes second, and their status as certified members of the professional classes is what makes that possible, that is not different in kind from the student who wants to be a performance artist or the student who wants to do development work for Oxfam or the student who wants to be a small-town doctor in northern Idaho. It’s only different in substance, and so the only real immediate discussion about whether we want to second-guess (or applaud) this particular substantive choice in the particular terms it presents.

Addendum: I think you can also respond profitably to the article by suggesting that this is more of the NY Times’ typical tendency to assume that a trend they can locate in a very particular subset of a very particular social class is somehow a general social indicator of some kind, that this is just a Brooks-style bit of anecdotal fluff posing as a trend. But ok. That’s almost by definition a diss on all lifestyle journalism, or all claims about trends that don’t come packing major sociological data. Not much to discuss about this observation, though: one simply makes it, sniffs, and walks away.

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15 Responses to Choose Your Own Adventure

  1. kieran says:

    Hmm. Well, I take your point. Though maybe you protest too much. On the one hand you say the kind of critique I offered is true of any case where some people are in a position to make more or better choices than others, and so there’s nothing added by its application here. This leads you to say that all privileged choices are the same, qua privilege, and so nothing much else can be said — except maybe “Shut up already,” to the Swarthmore kids who come to your office agonizing about the lifestyle choices they have to make. Yet, on the other hand, you yourself have a preferred reading of the broader sociological and structural issues that might be behind the trend — if it really is one — described in the article. You’re attracted to a backlash explanation. So you assert that “The only meaningfully specific response that I think you can have to the article” is about feminism, gender roles, equality and intergenerational values within the professional classes.” You make the same move (“You have to talk about it this way or not at all”) in the addendum, saying that if someone wants to criticize the piece as a typical bit of lifestyle journalism this is “almost definition a diss on all lifestyle journalism, or all claims about trends that don’t come packing major sociological data.”

    The article got on my wick in several ways — partly the Brooks-type lifestyles of the rich and happy; partly the context-free “it’s all about choice” rhetoric; partly the “callow lack of awareness” that you mention; and more besides. Your comments here and elsewhere have been helpful to me in sorting them out. But I don’t think my view is too general while yours is just right: in particular, I don’t see myself as rejecting the feminist critique you mention. The general point about having to look at the context of choices is necessary not because it applies across in all cases but because, in this particular debate, the rhetoric of personal choice and individualized tradeoffs (for women) is the main reason why public discussion in the U.S. about child care is so unproductive. I’d also say that gender issues like this are different from the kinds of other choices you mention. Because while no-one thinks that it’s best for everyone to become Doctors in Idaho or workers for Oxfam, even if that’s the choice they make themselves, people are happy to generalize from their own experience or anecdotal observation when it comes to saying what the best way to raise children is.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t know that I’d call what I’m thinking about a backlash explanation in the Faludi sense–e.g., an interested ideological response to feminism designed to check or erode its gains–but yes, I think there’s something experientially specific stirring under the surface of some of what the women in the article say.

    I agree that gender issues are different than the other choices in the extent to which people articulating these choices mean them as a general commentary on everybody else’s choices (and that you’re right to suggest that here, most of all, we ought to be talking about social inequity and not be trapped into advancing our own preferred version of those choices as a counterweight.) Though as a slight rejoinder, I’d say that many progressive students I know *do* think that becoming doctors in Idaho or workers for Oxfam are choices which express a moral preference that ought to hold beyond themselves, not just a “I know myself, and so I know what I need” kind of claim. Just not as strongly as people’s views about children and family tend to.

  3. joeo says:

    The upper middle class is all that really matters to the NYT. That is who buys the paper; that is who they try to keep happy. It isn’t really a brilliant observation about the lifestyle section, but you have to keep it in mind when you are reading the other sections.

  4. martinwiener says:

    Everything you say, Tim, is sensible. Just an additional point:
    It seems to me that Kieran is upset because these young women are making choices (and the whole point of feminism was, I thought, to widen women’s choices) he doesnt approve of, and which make the feminist movement look bad. Hey, relax. (and to say they can only make such choices because they’re upper middle class, I reply, “that’s the whole point of being upper middle class” – why do you think everyone – except the truly rich – wants to reach that level? )

  5. Alan Jacobs says:

    Kieran, you describe Tim’s position thus: “This leads you to say that all privileged choices are the same, qua privilege, and so nothing much else can be said.” But I didn’t take Tim to be prohibiting or foregoing critique of people’s decisions; rather, I took him to be saying that if the critique is going to take the *form* yours does — “what’s wrong here is not these choices as such . . . so much as the constant, wilful neglect of anything except that pristine, individual decision and the preferences behind it” — then that critique applies as forcefully to women who choose the lesbian commune as to women who choose child-rearing. If you’re annoyed by “smart, highly-educated people [who] cheerily plan on being out of the workforce in ten years having a grand time at home with the children,” then why aren’t you annoyed if equally smart and highly-educated people opt out of the work force and have a grand time doing something else? You say that you “take Tim’s point,” by I can’t tell from your response whether you take *this* point or reject it. Your CT post gives the impression that you only have a problem with smart women opting out of the workforce if they do so for reasons usually labeled as “conservative.” I may well be misreading you, though.

  6. Eleanor says:

    Heartily agree with your last main paragraph. One of the reasons we work is to be able to afford to do other things with our fleeting and precious time, of which childrearing might or might not be one.

    The lines from the original article which really got up my nose were these: “…will she join the long tradition of famous Ivy League graduates? Not likely. By the time she is 30, this accomplished 19-year-old expects to be a stay-at-home mom.”

    “Not likely.” So the intervening decade before she plans to reproduce, and any years when she returns to work after having kids, will likely count for nothing and she’ll accomplish nothing worth noting? That’s the same assumption as is made by any employer who thinks it’s not worth hiring a woman because she’ll only go off and have kids at some time in the future, thus she can’t possibly achieve anything now. She wants children, therefore she’s not serious, she’s not committed, she’s not really in the world of work because it’s not her sole and overriding interest in life. That’s internalising the “can’t have it all” idea as if one’s only choice were to have either 100% of one thing or 100% of the other, as if the idea of having a percentage of each (in a ratio, moreover, that can change over time) could never be an option.

  7. Timothy Burke says:


    If anything, I think the general critique we should have here is not the critique of choice and privilege, but the critique of the idolatry of productivity in white-collar careers, the notion that allowing people time to balance life and work in cycles related to child-rearing somehow makes them less valuable or productive in an overall sense to an employer. There’s an incredibly short-porch sense of value involved here. Look at the last ten years of top corporate executives getting caught in misconduct: wouldn’t you have rather had men and women in those positions who had a wider, richer connection to their families and communities, the kind of thing that only comes when you live at least a little outside the bubble of work? Making work a total culture isn’t even good for the interests of a company or institution, let alone the wider interests of society.

  8. Eleanor says:

    Some of the big consulting and financial firms have provision for employees to take sabbatical years after a certain period of service: paid leave to go travelling, do volunteer work in the third world, and so forth. OK, it’s only the corporations with money to burn, and their motivation probably has a lot more to do with making sure that itchy-footed staff return to the fold rather than taking all your human-resource investment off to a rival company, but it’s at least an example of a willingness to see the gaining of extra-curricular experience as a payoff to the organisation for working time lost.

  9. mrscoulter says:

    If anything, I think the general critique we should have here is not the critique of choice and privilege, but the critique of the idolatry of productivity in white-collar careers, the notion that allowing people time to balance life and work in cycles related to child-rearing somehow makes them less valuable or productive in an overall sense to an employer.

    Here, here. Nicely said, Tim.

  10. joeo says:

    I did notice that some of the students said they were going to law school. The biggest law firms hire the best students then make 10% of them partner. Planning on working for x years then staying at home with the kids isn’t an unrealistic plan; it is certainly more realistic than counting on making partner. The difficulty becomes getting back into the legal field after the time taking care of the kids.

    I also often think about what Malcolm Gladwell said about the kids he taught at an elite college:

    >He once taught a course for a bunch of Princeton freshmen. He asked them to look around at each other and see if they noticed anything they had in common. They didn’t. “You’re all most attractive group of kids I’ve ever seen!” he exclaimed. “Don’t you think that has anything to do with why you’re here?” Oh no, of course not, they reply. (Gladwell doesn’t go into this, but this one could run pretty deep. It’s not just admissions officers picking cute kids, it’s professors and students and people who run clubs and things in high school too.)

    These women are not going to have that hard a time getting upper middle class husbands.

    I would like to know why the kids in the elite colleges are so attractive. My bet is subconscious discrimination, but some weird genetic cross-correlation between intellegence and attractiveness is possible.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    Joeo’s point is sort of what I had in mind when I mentioned the finishing-school ideology. Historians who write about the evolution of the “companionate marriage” following the development of ideologies of romantic love from the mid-19th to 20th Centuries have observed how on one hand this put a premium on the idea that a marriage-partner should have an individuality which is compatible or collaborative with one’s own, but also an idea that the income-generating capacity of a partner no longer lay with that person’s kin or inheritance but with their individual ability to make money or to properly reproduce the kinds of middle-class manners and culture necessary for making money.

    So from this relatively detached perspective, one could easily observe that getting an elite education even if one simply plans to marry and raise children is a wise economic strategy, that professional class men largely seek professional class partners (whether they’re homosexual or heterosexual, in fact) and vice-versa for professional working women. That your class-reproducing “marriagability” is just as much a product of your education as your class-reproducing “employability”.

  12. RCinProv says:

    Let me get this straight: those (like me) who have criticized the kind of “lifestyle journalism” that is based on a few examples have made a point so unworthy of discussion that one can only sniff and walk away? Seems like your response is in the same category.

    Are there no distinctions within this type of journalism? Is there nothing between three examples and major sociological data? Seems to me that such articles sometimes actually have evidence beyond the few “cases” — something to support the claim that three examples constitutes a “trend.” I would rather try to hold bloggers and journalists to a higher standard than accept that any example can support a lifestyle article. This expectation does not require a major study for any observation about lifestyles; rather, it expects a real attempt to think beyond specific cases to put them in some larger context.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    No, it’s not unworthy. I just think though that lifestyle journalism is what it is, on some level. A genre like romance novels or what have you. I lose patience with it when it mutates into high-toned David Brookish sociobabble, so admittedly my ability to walk away is also limited. Anyway, I expressed myself poorly on this point vis-a-vis this article: I think you can criticize it as making sociological claims well beyond the extremely bad and thin evidence it has to offer. I just think that once we observe that, the discussion is finished on a note of general consensus: it sucks and that’s that. If we want to talk about anything more (marriage, choice, class privilege) we almost necessarily have to leave the article behind pretty quickly.

  14. RCinProv says:

    Fair enough. I suppose there are better and worse romance novels; then again, from the one person I know who wrote one, there is actually a very rigid formula. The formula for the NYT Mag seems to be: find three people (often friends of the author) and call it a trend. So I’m all in favor of leaving most of these articles behind and then talking about the issue at large. The Times did fairly well with that class series, though, don’t you think? Although I could have done without all the details from Nantucket. And they must have poured a lot of resources into the effort.

  15. scoopstories says:

    I have to disagree with you on this one, Timothy.

    And I say that as someone who has done his share of trend pieces for newspapers. The rule at our newspaper was if we hear of three instances of something that constitutes enough of a trend to be worthy of a story.

    So by that logic this story is truly reporting on a trend.

    But as Jack Shafer has aptly pointed out – as have others – the story is full of what he calls weasel words and what I call wishy washy words, particularly all the uses of “many” to replace the absence of numbers.

    It’s possible to both write about a purported trend and to provide some real numbers too.

    RCin Prov mentions the class series.

    The Times class series did a good job of doing both – writing about trends and patterrns but also providing numbers.

    I expect better from the Times.

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