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.