Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, August 16, 2019

College Jitters

For years I've talked and written about how a liberal arts education is worth having for its own sake, regardless of the practical and economic value of a four year college degree. This year our eldest is going into her senior year of high school. She's taken the SATs. We'll be making college visits in the next couple months. It's about to get real. And I confess, I'm suffering from some jitters.

Looking back at my own life, I have no doubts about the value to me of my college experience. There were costs to it, to be sure. Not just the clear cost of tuition, which 25 years ago I was convinced was already at unsustainably high levels. How innocent my shock at those figures looks now when they've about doubled during the intervening years. But I also paid a cost in lost earning for the first 5-7 years out of college. My friends who studied subjects like Information Technology came out and make $40k-$60k/yr. I came out and considered myself lucky to make $14/hr as an office temp. Classics degrees do not, in and of themselves, pay very well. But with sufficient drive and adaptation, I've since made it up. And what I could not have made up since is the chance to spend four years studying deeply on a subject that matters to me deeply: how the people of the past wrote and thought and acted.

And yet, one of the unsettling things about parenthood is that your children are not you. If I had a driven kid who was eager to go get a liberal arts degree and then find a way to earn a good living, I'd have no doubts. Instead I have a child who is different from me in many ways. Rather than the fierce, "I will get a liberal arts degree and then I will show the world I can make it," her response on the college question is more of a, "Yeah, I guess so."

My competitiveness has not always been one of my more likable characteristics, and I was distinctly frustrating as a teenager at times, so I count my blessings in not having a kid exactly like me. But it does leave one to ask: for the kid who would probably enjoy college but doesn't have very specific life plans, is investing the monumental cost of a modern college education worth it? Our own alma mater, Franciscan University of Steubenville is considered cheap for a four year private college, but the total "sticker price" is still over $30k/yr.

For now, my approach is to make it clear that we will support college for those who want to go (whatever the reason) while not pushing people to go who don't want to. We're also getting the two oldest kids started on taking some community college classes this year, allowing them to cover topics that might be best covered in a classroom setting (Chemistry and Statistics for our senior, Spanish for our sophomore) while at the same time getting college credit which should save them time and money at a four year college. I'm also trying my best to get them thinking more about what they want to do with their lives post college, and how going to college will or won't relate to that.

But many seventeen year olds don't have a very clear idea of what it is they want to do with the rest of their lives. Indeed, going to college is one of the formative experiences that often helps with forming such plans. So we're charting the course and hoping for the best, despite the jitters which the very rocky coastline of higher education brings to the heart of those preparing to land on it for the first time.


Amy Welborn said...

The one I'm taking to college is very much a "Shrug, sure, I guess so." Precisely for that reason he's going to school where that figuring out can happen in an consciously Catholic context. More expensive than in state public universities, but, I hope worth every penny. (Benedictine) I hope!!!

Darwin said...


Yeah. When a kid is going off to find himself, you want to make sure he's looking in a good place.

And with our particular college-bound senior, I think that being in an aggressively antithetical culture (which would be most colleges) would cause her to really clam up.

Anna said...

My oldest is still about 6 years away from this, but I'm already stewing a bit over it all. I loved UD and think it's still a solid place and would love for my kids to be able to go there if they wanted to... but I am adamantly opposed to massive debt for undergrad. And room and board alone at UD (this year, not 6 years from now) is $20k.

Daniel Conway said...

I think the economic background for entry level employees today is far far different than in 1985. College costs for education are far different too. Its just a far far more unfavorable environment, with employment instability, excessive college costs, and liekly needs for extensive future training due to the highly specialized nature of any field and the competitiveness of the job market.

As such, I recommend in my household that my sons really re-consider whether moving away to college and paying those expenses is worth it. Second, that one should enter college with a goal for a career. Reality suggests that the economic environment now and for the next generation will be harsher than it is even now.

We have frank discussions about work and life in our family. The workplace is Darwinian and cut throat in many environments, and the gig economy lifestyles are very very hard except for the lucky few.

I have no illusions about higher education, its meaning, and its potentially negative fiscal impacts on someone.

Bruce said...

Horribly old fashioned and sexist but I don’t want my daughter to go to college. If I did, it would be to the local junior college for a practical but feminine career e.g. nurse, midwife, etc. while living at home. The colleges are veritable brothels – maybe the Catholic liberal arts colleges are different.
Yes, they have to grow up sometime and make their own decisions and live in this world and that’s what we’ve been preparing them for. Still, unlike Protestants, Catholics don’t just assume the Holy Spirit overpowers them and somehow keeps them from making bad (and sometimes hurtful to themselves) decisions – the circumstances we are placed in sometimes do make a difference.
Anyway, I don’t see why daughters shouldn’t live at home until they get married and then it’s their husband’s duty to take care of them (unless they are led by the Holy Spirit to take religious vows).
For sons, I am recommending they study something inexpensive and useful and consider manual vocations. My oldest is considering the Army.
Hope this isn’t offensive – I have kids growing up too although my older ones are all boys. Eventually I have to face all of this.

MrsDarwin said...

Bruce, your comment at least shows some self-awareness, I'll grant you that. Otherwise, I see nothing distinctively Catholic or even Christian in the plan you've proposed.

I reject this schema entirely for my own daughters because they are complete human beings, with agency and minds of their own, and deserve as much as my sons to flourish to the utmost of the abilities that God gave them. They don't belong to me, to hoard to myself at home in hopes of somehow preserving them from sin. That's a recipe for massive family dysfunction and resentment. Nor is it any preparation for a healthy, mature marriage.

As one who met her husband at college, I shudder in horror at the thought of the meager opportunities for a spouse provided me by my parents' social circle, or the prospect of being unable to escape an unhappy home life at age 18.

Daniel Conway said...

"The colleges are veritable brothels..." This is insulting, but I leave this to the insulted to manage.

"If I did, it would be to the local junior college for a practical but feminine career e.g. nurse, midwife, etc. while living at home." I am unsure if you are exactly aware of the degree of responsibility that the dainty, feminine career of nurse and midwife entails. Your level of intended diminishment of these careers which may one day save your or your family member's life is somewhat shocking and ill-informed.

The control freak issue of purity culture that poisoned Catholicism over the past generation bleeds through. Thanks for the example.

Bruce said...

The Council of Trent says the following of wives:
“To train their children in the practice of virtue and to pay particular attention to their domestic concerns should also be especial objects of their attention. The wife should love to remain at home, unless compelled by necessity to go out; and she should never presume to leave home without her husband’s consent.”
It doesn’t seem absurd that daughters should similarly stay close to home before marriage as after marriage. Trent is distinctively Catholic and Christian. It is unclear to me if this (from a dogmatic council on faith and morals) has been rescinded. But I am still learning how Catholicism works (I am not Catholic).
As far as I can tell, your experience is different than my children’s. Our children are loved and don’t have an unhappy home life -we try to provide them with a broad social circle.
I am unfamiliar with typical Catholic family practices. I know fundamentalists who practice such things and do not have massive family dysfunction, resentment and unhealthy or immature marriages. Quite the opposite -they do very well compared to secular culture – although of course there are plenty of exceptions. It is a difficult time to raise children in and we are all looking for the best solutions to raise happy, Godly children.
Very respectfully.

Bruce said...

The secular colleges are what I said they are– I mean the state universities where I live. I said Catholic colleges might be different – I don’t know. Steubenville might be a wonderful place – University of Florida isn’t – I know firsthand.
I am not Catholic so I didn’t prove whatever point you wanted to prove about the previous generation of Catholics.

Bruce said...

Again, I am an outsider considering the Church. I do not have the impression that control freaks and purity-culture are a huge part of the Church’s problem over the last few decades.

Daniel Conway said...

The Catechism of Trent is to be distinguished from the Council of Trent. Since the time of the Catechism of Trent, further magisterially binding catechisms have been published to which Catholics assent. The catechism you quoted is not binding as you would suggest.

Bruce said...

Hi Daniel,
I don’t know how binding it is – there are a lot of things in Catholicism that I do not understand and it is sometimes hard to get clear answers. My point is my original suggestion doesn’t seem un-Catholic or un-Christian given Trent’s teaching. Hopefully my tone doesn’t come off like some tradish troll or something. I am Anglican background if that makes a difference.

Bruce said...

We are all trying to figure out the same thing – happy Godly children. This is my first time raising children to adulthood. My parents made a happy home but there wasn’t any Christian teaching – I am navigating parenthood with examples & experiences that seem to have resulted in a lot of bad problems in the family and seeing a lot of bad results in other families.

Darwin said...


Indeed, we're all trying to figure out the same thing: raising children who will know, love, and serve God and be happy with Him forever in heaven.

I would take the section that you quote from the Catechism of Trent to be an application of Catholic principles to the particular situation that Catholics found themselves faced with in 16th Century Europe. This would make it different from, say, the Council's treatment of the Eucharist or of marriage, which were doctrinal statements in and of themselves.

The moral atmosphere at many colleges is not necessarily good, and this is true in two senses. First and more worryingly in that at many colleges people in authority are teaching to be good things that are bad. Secondly in the sense that many places will be, in that they are mostly populated by people who do not believe in or live according to Catholic moral principles. This can be alarming or just plain wearing (we are meant to be social creatures, and few thrive as an island surrounded by a hostile sea of people with aggressively different beliefs) but although college can be a particularly extreme environment of this due to being populated by young people who have few responsibilities to reign them in, the necessity of living alongside people who have different moral beliefs is going to come up eventually for basically all of us, so one has to deal with it at some point.

One of the reasons I decided to go to Steubenville twenty-five years ago was that having visited several secular colleges I was convinced that the aggressively libertine cultural atmosphere would cause me to be on the defensive all the time. I thought that I could probably stand up to that, but that I'd become a rather unpleasant and defensive person, which I wanted to avoid. Steubenville at least provided an environment in which most people there shared my beliefs about what was right and wrong, even if they didn't always live up to them.

In regards to educational choices for boys versus girls: I certainly would not discourage any of my children who wanted to take the path of learning a trade or going into the military. However, I do specifically think that it's important that girls as much as boys have an education that prepares them to support themselves in whatever way seems suited to their interests and talents. It's by no means guaranteed that a young woman will find a man that she wants to marry, or if she does that she won't find herself widowed or caring for a disabled husband or otherwise in need to providing for herself and her children. So I think even if hoping to become a stay-at-home mother, it's as well for a young woman to prepare to support herself as if she'll have to do that all her life, in case she doesn't meet someone or otherwise has to fall back upon her own resources.

I also don't know that I'd necessarily see health care jobs as being clearly the more feminine options. I've known a share of hard drinking, chain smoking nurses. It's a pretty high stress occupation. And while a hundred years ago nursing might have been seen as particularly feminine, I'm not sure that it's inherently more suited to women than working in an office job or any number of other occupations.

In our own case, we met in college, and many of the interests that drew us together and have contributed to our unity since our marriage have been ones related to our liberal arts education. Not to mention the endeavor of education our own children that we're both engaged in. So at that level, since it's easiest to hope for one's children what one has had oneself, I actually find myself tempted to think of going to college as being a promising way to meet a spouse, so I have to remind myself that if a child wants to stay in town and work some local job, things could work out other ways as well.

Bruce said...

What specific circumstances were different in 16th Century Europe?
The same teaching is found in the NT, by the Prince of the Apostles and the Apostle to the Gentiles. Yes, the private interpretation issue but these are pretty direct, clear statements. Applicable in the ancient church, in the late medieval/early modern church but not in the 20th + century church (coincidently with the ascendency of secular feminism)?
My use of “brothel” may have been unfortunate but the secular colleges are places where a certain class of young men prey on young women – I saw it firsthand and it’s even worse now – there are entire books, website, an entire subculture, etc. dedicated to teaching young men this “art.”
It is easier than it has ever been for a single person, widowed person, etc. to provide the basic necessities for themselves and loved ones. Previous generations, certainly antiquity and 16th century Europe were MUCH less materially insecure than we are. We cannot distinguish our wants from our basic needs.

Darwin said...


I'd say it's arguable that despite huge changes in culture and technology, there was more in common between the worlds of 1580 and 58 AD than there is between 2019 and 1819 in terms of the way that people and the family interact with the economy. At the time of Trent there were very few opportunities for women to support themselves honorably on their own, and the family unit tended also to be an economic unit in which all people contributed work to the maintenance and living of the household as a whole. So an adult daughter living at home was not idle, being kept in storage until she could be handed off to the care of a husband, but rather a part of the overall household economy. Indeed, in older works you sometimes run into fathers expressing hesitation to let a daughter marry off because he'd lose all her contribution to the household.

While there's still a household economy in terms of work around the house and care of children, errands, etc. the household is these days not really an economic unit the way it often was in the past. All the earning in my job comes from my work at the office, the children aren't able to contribute to it, and so they're pushed into the position of being dependents who don't have the inherent dignity of doing work to help support themselves.

Additionally, there are now as many opportunities for women to support themselves in the wider economy as there are for men.

As such, it seems to me that it does a disservice to daughters to think of them as dependents to be maintained at home and then passed to the care of husbands, as if they're incapable of providing for themselves. It denies them the dignity of work and it ignores the fact that it's an uncertain matter when or if one will find a spouse.

Now what's still the case now as it was throughout history is that the primary duty for caring for and bringing up children rests with parents. That's an absolutely key part of their vocation as parents. And I think taken seriously this often requires the full time dedicate of one parent. If one parent is going to be a full time caretaker, it's usually going to make sense for it to be the mother, because she's the one who has to deal with pregnancy, is able to nurse children, etc. So I think that people should think seriously about having one parent full time dedicated to child rearing.

But even if a woman does end up spending many of years of her life rearing children full time, I don't think that having the education and skills that would allow her to support herself well in the world is a waste. Real education is, I think, worthwhile for its own sake. Knowledge fulfills us more as persons, and so pursing knowledge is to be prized. And if someone is going to rear children and run a household, they need much of the same knowledge and skills that would have helped them in the working world as well.

Bruce said...

I do not believe changing economic circumstances altar the basic understanding of men’s and women’s roles as indicated by scripture and tradition– keepers at home has always been understood as meaning what it sounds like. We could have the same argument about obedience/headship,etc. – I don’t think changing economic circumstances changes this teaching – it means what it sounds like it means – we just don’t like it. I do not think dependence is bad – it is part of (or can be part of) the nurturing of real relationships and, in fact, is one of the reasons for the dissolution of many important relationships (not just husband-wife btw).
I do not believe in denying women education for the sake of denying women education-all things being equal, Godly education is good in both sexes. I think U of F is an awful place (for boys too). Steubenville may be a fine place.

Son Mom said...

It is daunting when you are facing college costs, isn’t it? (Our first started last year.) There is a certain fashion in conservative Catholic and Christian circles for denigrating the value of a college education, that I think is the result of two things. The first is that in a group that tends to have larger families, there is definitely a fear factor about being able to afford college for a large number of children. And the second is a fear that the college environment will lead our kids astray, whether by liberal indoctrination or the immoral lifestyle of their fellow students and the permissive environment of the college campus. So arguments that college isn’t necessary (or is only necessary for your sons) can have a certain appeal to conservatives.

Like you, I think an education is of value for its own sake. And I think we do need to take action to control the ridiculous cost of college that has been driven upward by the availability of huge amounts of loans as well as cuts to state funding to universities. But the numbers do still show that a college education is “worth it” economically, or at least that there is definitely a cost to being without a degree: