Higher Education – For Girls?
Once upon a time this was a serious question. Today you might laugh to find it a question at all. But a hundred years ago university education for women was a subject that generated quite a lot of heat. People worried about it overtaxing young women’s physical and emotional strength, doubted their ability to cope with its demands, and frowned disapprovingly at the prospect of educated, bossy women losing their femininity. Some people were convinced that higher education would be good for women, and good for society, while others feared it would undermine women’s great contribution to home and family.
Well, clearly, the advocates of higher education for girls won the day, but it was a while before it caught on to the level we see today. Women like my husband’s maternal grandmother, who completed an M.A. in mathematics at Otago in the very early years of the twentieth century, were most unusual. Even in the 1950s, many women hesitated to take up the opportunities that were there. In the postwar years people were in a hurry to marry, have children and start family life. Delaying all this by years spent at university seemed senseless. In addition, some bright young women asked themselves, would a man want to marry a ‘bluestocking’ (a woman who was over-educated)? I remember my aunt discussing this with me when she was explaining why she didn’t go on to do a post-graduate degree in the early ‘60s. (I think she always regretted it.) But today, in the wake of the feminist movement of the 1970s and beyond, we see women attending university in numbers equal to or even greater than men. They study every discipline, and go on to pursue every career open to men. Indeed, the question of higher education for girls is a question no more.
The Benefits of a Good Education
In many ways I’m glad about this. Not for feminist reasons, but because I believe a good education does benefit women, their families, their churches, and wider society. Young women who take the opportunity to develop their powers of analysis and communication, and who learn to understand the way their world thinks by means of a course of university study, will bring a great deal to marriage and to motherhood. But then, of course, there are also women whom God calls to a life of service as single or childless professionals. These Christian women are not single or childless because they are rebelling against God’s design for them. He appears to have called them to other special service; and this service necessitates university study. My prayer is that they will bear much fruit for eternity in their service as doctors, lawyers, engineers, public servants, lecturers – or wherever it is that their contribution lies.
However, when I look around me in the Christian world today, and when I listen to what other Christians have to say on the subject, I’ve been finding that not everyone shares these opinions. In fact, quite a number of Christians – maybe even a growing number – disagree. For them, the question of higher education for girls is very much an open question, and they’re inclined to oppose it. Because of this, I thought it would be useful to review some of these objections, and to offer my thoughts on them.
The Most Common Objection
The most common objection, as I’ve found in my experience, is a ‘spin’ added to the truth that most Christian girls will be wives and mothers some day. This, claim the objectors, is their great calling in life, and this is what they should prepare for. What use, then, is the time spent studying at university? How will three or four (or more) years reading books, doing labs, attending lectures and writing papers prepare her for being a good Christian wife and mother? What have English literature, higher mathematics, engineering, law or dairy science (to pick a few subjects at random) to do with homemaking, submitting to a husband, or raising children? To put it bluntly, philosophy and nappies don’t mix!! If your degree is going to get in the way of your proper calling, forget the degree... Furthermore, many of these objectors argue, a young woman who has spent three or four years doing a degree has just used up three or four critical years when she could have been helping her husband and/or having her first few children. (At this point, people often start talking about the biological fact that it’s more likely that women will conceive in their twenties than their thirties; so starting at 18 or 20 is even better, in their minds.) Better to get married young and get on with the real business of life.
Well, I do have sympathy for the major presupposition behind this objection. That is, marriage and motherhood are without doubt the major calling of women in this world. The Scriptures make this quite clear; and Christians, quite rightly, have been defending this truth vigorously for the past three decades or so. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that God sometimes withholds the blessings of this calling from some of his faithful daughters, and does seem to be calling them to serve him in the professions (for which university study is most useful). But there is more to a degree than this – much more. A university education actually enhances a woman’s usefulness as a wife and mother. It helps her to develop more mature powers of analysis, for instance. She will learn how to grasp (quickly) the key points of an argument, and weigh them up critically. In the course of her studies she will have plenty of practice at considering a question, researching it, and then putting together her own conclusions and defending them on the basis of good supporting evidence. (She will learn this in many different disciplines: it is a skill common to most of them.) Given this, her ability to study the Scriptures and to weigh up the theological teaching of others will be greatly strengthened. She will become a much better Berean (Acts 17:11-12). She will, if she uses these skills with faith and with grace, be much less prone to being tossed around by every wind of doctrine, and will therefore be a tremendous asset to both her husband and her children.
The ‘Wasted Years’ Argument
But what about the ‘wasted years’ argument? Should young Christian women be encouraged into early, or very early, marriage? While I certainly don’t want to tread on sensitive toes here, I would like to offer a few counter-suggestions. There are some advantages in marrying young, should a young woman be sufficiently mature, and should she meet a fine and godly young man. But there are also some good reasons why it can be very beneficial to wait a few years. I think there is little doubt that it is a good thing to become as mature as possible before entering into marriage. By maturity I mean maturity in the faith. This involves knowing the Scriptures well, and knowing oneself – one’s own particular sinful propensities – and how to deal with them. If we know our weaknesses, and have learned to work on them, particularly in our relationships with others, then we’re in a much better position to deal with the stresses and strains of living with another sinner in the intimacy of marriage. Certainly, most of us women are in a better position to do this when we’re 24, say, than we were at 18. We will almost certainly make a wiser choice of marriage partner as well. Not only will we know ourselves better, we will also know what we’re looking for a whole lot better. By becoming more godly ourselves, we will also know what a godly Christian man should look like!
In addition, these late teen and early twenties years are often the critical years for getting to know God more deeply. We’re on the threshold of adulthood, and our ability to understand the ways of God have reached a mature level. So, if we have the time, energy and mental ‘space’ to get to know God then, we are building a great foundation for our whole adult life. (Try reading Packer’s Knowing God1 and you will see what kind of knowledge I mean.) The university years – for most people between, say, 18 and 22 – are absolutely prime time for the business of getting to know God. University life gives a marvelous opportunity to devote time to the study of God. We are already attuned to sitting at our desks, being quiet, and concentrating ... (the very habits required for Bible reading, prayer and meditation on the Word). And if we’re combining the discipline of university study with the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life2 then we’re building very wisely for our future calling.
The Place of the Father
A second objection to higher education for girls runs like this: it is far better for a girl to be at home, under the authority of her father, and learning mostly from her mother, until she marries. While the extreme forms of this objection come from what is sometimes called the ‘hyper-patriarchy’ movement, variations of it are found in many Christian circles. This line of thinking stresses the fact that the Bible gives parents primary responsibility for training their children, and highlights the dangers of letting their vulnerable daughters come under the sway of ungodly influences in the world. To aspects of this approach, I am quite partial. It has many precedents in the pattern of Christian family life in past centuries. It was taught in good books written in the nineteenth century3; and many Christians who argue this way today look fondly back to earlier ages when girls did stay at home until they married. But I think this line of thinking can go too far. For one thing, it is a great blessing for young people to enjoy the friendship and example of Christian adults other than their own parents. This is one of the wonderful aspects of good church life! It makes me sad to think of parents clutching their children so close to themselves that they miss the benefits of learning Christian lessons from other wise adults. Secondly, many of the mothers I have met who home-school their daughters successfully have had the benefit of higher education themselves. I think one of the reasons for their success is that their own studies have made them much better evaluators of the curricula they are using for their children. They are in a position to use, adapt and discard because they are good critical thinkers. But if they discourage their daughters from going outside the home and studying at university, will their daughters be able to teach as well in turn? I often wonder...
A very common objection to university study raised by Christian parents is that many dangerous ideas, destructive to the Christian faith, are taught at university. Many a young person has had his or her faith undermined because of the subtle – and sometimes open – challenges to the gospel that come from unbelieving university lecturers. Furthermore, the immoral way of life of many university students, it is argued, can be a dreadfully bad influence on young Christians. Will my son or daughter be drawn away into sin by friends they make at university? Parents worry.
Again, I have sympathy for some of this. It is quite true that universities are places in which many false philosophies of life are taught and discussed. Even more dangerously, criticisms of the Scriptures are conveyed by the power of ridicule and assumption – that only the very narrow-minded or naïve would take them seriously. These sorts of attacks can arise in almost any subject area. However, there are some subjects where anti-biblical ideas form the very foundation of the discipline. Perhaps this will offend those who have made careers in these disciplines, but the social sciences are particularly hostile to the gospel. There is not space here to engage in a detailed critique, but they were founded, in a period of history when the authority of the Scriptures was being overthrown in western culture, on ideas antithetical to the biblical teaching on human nature and human relations. To study in these areas is to encounter a complete set of alternatives to what the Bible has to say about sin, salvation and sanctification. Nevertheless, many Christians do study them, because they are keen to enter the ‘helping’ professions, and degrees in these subjects are the gateway to such careers. I often worry about them, and have warned many a young Christian school leaver to think twice before enrolling in the social sciences.
The Need of Preparation
In answer to this difficulty, though, I would say: be prepared! While naïve and immature Christians should be very wary of subjecting themselves to study in university courses, the well-grounded 18 or 20 year-old Christian can profit exceedingly by engaging in them. How is this? I suggest it because there is real value in gaining first-hand familiarity (through structured courses) with the ideas that drive our world. In courses that introduce you to these ideas, and encourage analysis and discussion of them, you will become adept at recognising them, predicting their outworkings in people’s thinking and behaviour, and at answering them. In other words, study in such subjects (I mean especially the liberal arts or humanities) will help make you a better ambassador for Christ in this time and culture that he has placed us.
Parents’ second concern, that of the potentially bad moral influence other students may have on their children, does have some substance. This is especially so in our times, when university halls of residence have (in their foolishness) made their accommodation unisex, including mixed bathrooms. There must seldom be a week, or maybe even a day, when a young Christian in such a living situation would not be faced with behaviour they would much rather not see. However, while the above may be avoided through choosing a home-city university, or a private boarding situation such as our church network often readily provides, there is only a real cause for concern (I believe) if children are sent off to university without proper preparation. By this I mean a habit of open talking, parent-to-teenager, about all the issues of life and the biblical principles that relate to them. This is explained, most realistically and humorously, by Paul Tripp in his excellent book, Age of Opportunity.4 I know how good this talking can be, because it is what my parents did with me through my teenage years. Helpful, understanding, relaxed conversation does prepare a young woman for what she will meet at university. It does provide her with the inner resources to discern the moral challenges, resist the temptations, and know what to say and how to handle difficult situations. Besides this, our university cities all have good churches that will look after our students when they are away from home. But in respect of mixing with the world at university, there is one last thing I would like to say. The keen Christian student will see her unbelieving classmates as people in need of the gospel, and she will want to share her faith with them. She will not want to hide herself away, cluster (or should I say cloister?) together with only her church friends for company on the campus. University years are a great time for learning how to share your faith, and beginning to bring Christ’s love to those who so desperately need it.
The Pragmatic Argument
There are a number of more pragmatic objections that Christian parents sometimes have to their daughters spending a period studying. Some ask – wouldn’t she be better off getting a job for these years, and saving up the money to help her future husband buy a house or start a business? Well, my inclination is to answer by asking: what is really important? For sure, it is handy to have the extra savings, and to have the ability to buy your first house before you start a family, should God give you one. But if you are thinking long-term, surely what you are after is the best upbringing for that family. After all, what is the best spiritual and educational co-leadership for that home? Wives who are well-prepared for marriage and motherhood are more important than a paid-off mortgage. A woman who has the ability to contribute spiritually in the church, to offer her husband discreet and wise counsel on matters pertaining to the faith and the upbringing of the children, is, I would have thought, more valuable than one who is simply a partial-breadwinner. Wives who have learned to read widely and discerningly, and have the ability to convey the main points of a good book, have helped many a busy and tired husband. (One man calls it ‘vicarious reading’ on his part.) And there are other scenarios. Perhaps a husband has studied in an area necessary for his career – in the applied sciences, let’s say. A wife who has enjoyed a wider-ranging education, touching on the humanities – or perhaps even some years studying the Scriptures at a seminary – can help her husband immensely.
Others ask – if she is going to do some study, why not choose something practical and useful, like child-care or book-keeping; something that she can use as a mother or to help her husband run a business? I see the point, but still believe that there are far more useful things again, eternally-speaking, that a young woman could study, if God has given her the desire and the abilities.
The Concern about Cost
Finally, there is the question of the cost of this study. We live in a day when students have to pay for more of their tuition than was required in my university years. Indeed, we baby boomers probably did not know how spoiled we (and our parents!) were. Our university bursaries covered the cost of our tuition, and the living allowance covered most of our living expenses. What we earned in the holidays was for extras, like cars and clothes and some of the more expensive textbooks. Now, however, students bear much greater costs. For many, large student loans or dependence on well-off parents is a fact of life. Some parents wonder whether a daughter with a student loan will be a liability. Will a man want to marry a girl with a loan to pay off? (I’ve actually heard this asked.) Well, unless the loan has been extravagant in size, and used for wasteful purposes, I would simply assume that a young man put off by a debt incurred for worthwhile study is probably not one you’d want your daughter to marry. Is this how you see it?
The Danger of Pride
I hope I have made a convincing case for educating our young women well. But there is one danger in emphasizing all this. And that is pride. Education, like every other blessing God showers upon us, is an opportunity to be thankful for, not something to boast about. It is not as if some letters after (or in front of) one’s name makes one any more worthy a servant of Christ than a person who did not have the ability, the encouragement, or the money to pursue a similar education. I am sure we will realise that in heaven, if we do not here and now. Pride is a particular temptation for gifted children (and their parents), and needs to be guarded against.
Over the past year our ladies’ Bible study group has been working its way through the book of Acts, and we’ve all been struck by the marvellous way God used the Apostle Paul in the spread of the gospel around the Roman world. It was simply amazing. We have seen in our study that one of the reasons Paul was so greatly used is that God had prepared him for this task. He had a very fine mind, and had received one the best biblical educations available in his day, at the feet of the great rabbi, Gamaliel. But in addition, he had a strict and faithful Jewish upbringing, and developed a deep understanding of Greek culture as a result of his earlier years in Tarsus in Cilicia (part of the world where Greek thinking and language were the dominant culture). It is not hard to see why God called him to be apostle to the Gentile world of his day. And yet, Paul did not rest his case with Christ on externals like his great learning. In the third chapter of his letter to the Philippians he observes that he had every bit as much to boast about (‘in the flesh’) as did those who insisted upon circumcision as the way to please God (and he lists his qualifications). He had done all the right things, been in the right places, and gained all the right qualifications. But then he adds: ‘whatever gain I had, I counted as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ...’ (Philippians 3:7-9)
In the end, it is Christ, and not anything we are, have been born with, or have achieved, that counts. But it is wisdom to take every opportunity he gives us to improve our usefulness as his servants.