The baby or the diploma?

A friend e-mailed me with the following comment on one of my recent posts about Sarah Palin:

I don’t want to post a comment because I don’t want to appear that I’m against the McCain/Palin ticket, which I’m not. I think Sarah Palin is great, and I don’t think she’s a bad mother because her daughter got pregnant as a teenager.

However, I do think that you make a rather strange point when you say that if Bristol were to go to college “everyone would be getting drunk and high and hooking up, and she’d either be a social outcast by rejecting the sex-drugs-booze college culture or she’d become a part of it, likely ending up depressed and degraded by all the sordid experiences with guys who used her for sex without caring a bit about her.” Really? Do you actually believe that EVERY college student gets drunk, high, and has random sex or is a social outcast? Gee, I don’t remember that from my college days. Many of the people I knew in college actually met their future husband or wife there. It seems that you’re saying that marriage is a better alternative to getting an education because colleges are a regular Sodom and Gomorrah. I don’t get it — you have a Ph.D., for Pete’s sake, you obviously value education!

The problem isn’t that marriage is a death sentence, the problem is that a person should be able to support himself or herself before having children. That means either learning a trade or going to college to get a degree that will ensure some kind of livelihood before getting pregnant. I’m sorry, but I can’t imagine that either Bristol or her hockey-playing boyfriend are capable of supporting themselves or their child. And, fair enough, I know they’re not going to be collecting welfare or any other public assistance, but the fact is that their parents will have to support them, at least for a little while. I do believe that Bristol made a brave and wise choice in keeping the baby, but to say that she hasn’t ruined her life, at least for the next few years, is silly and a bit naive.

Because the person who wrote this is someone whose opinion I respect, I think it deserves an answer, and I’ll make it publicly rather than in private e-mail since if she had this objection to what I wrote, others probably do, too.

When I first read my friend’s e-mail, I stopped and thought, yes, I probably was too flippant, and that her objection had some merit. Upon further reflection, I do think that I ought to have been more nuanced in the point I was trying to make, and that for the sake of flashy rhetoric I made my case in bold strokes of black and white, too bold perhaps. Still, I stand by the substance of what I wrote, and perhaps the following explanation will make it clear how I can do so while not disparaging education.

I obviously value education. Of course I do. And no, I don’t believe that every single college student either goes into full-blown self-destructive hedonist mode or is a social outcast. There are some who manage their vices in moderation, and others who work and study hard and avoid the sordid sex and substance abuse while still enjoying a social life. I was painting with a broad rhetorical brush, and I readily acknowledge this. Nevertheless, the friend who wrote this has been out of college for quite a few years. True, she has taught at colleges, but teaching isn’t the same as living an undergraduate life, and most 30-something and 40-something adults today don’t fully appreciate just how different the college culture is today than it was when we were in college.

When I taught college myself, I had a lot of students in my classes who in my opinion had no business being in college at all. They had neither the skills nor the self-discipline to do basic college-level work. A great many of them, I suspect, were only attending university because that’s what’s expected of a middle-class high school graduate, and they didn’t seem to value learning for its own sake at all. Some of them did, of course, but not the majority. College has become for all too many young people simply a way of deferring the responsibilities of adulthood, of getting mom and dad to continue footing the bill for four (or five or seven or however many years it takes some of them to finish) more years.

If Bristol Palin was planning on going to college for that reason, then there’s no great loss in her not going. But if she is one of those young people who sincerely does want an education for the right reasons, then she will probably manage to obtain one even as a mother. But being married doesn’t mean you can’t still go to college. And having a child doesn’t mean you can’t go either. If Sarah Palin can govern Alaska with five children, why can’t Brisol Palin get a bachelor’s degree with one child? Would it take a lot of hard work and juggling of responsibilities? Indeed it would. But hard work and responsibilities build character and maturity. It’s probably even harder to earn a B.A. with a perpetual hangover than it is to earn one with a baby at home — and I say this as someone who has a baby at home.

While watching the RNC coverage, I saw an interview with Michele Bachman, a Congresswoman from Minnesota, in which Bachman said that she and her husband were both in graduate school while they had two children at home, and that while their situation was difficult, it forced both of them to become very focused and self-disciplined. She recounted this experience not in regards to Brisol Palin, but in response to a question about Sarah Palin’s ability to balance motherhood and the vice presidency.

As to Bristol Palin’s parents having to support her during the next few years, well, wouldn’t they be supporting her anyway while she attended college? What’s the difference whether they pay her tuition and rent while she’s single or while she’s married? I realize that there are some parents who would not finance a son or daughter’s education in those circumstances, because they disapprove of early marriage and would rather the couple choose to abort the child and stay unmarried and in college. I hope those parents are in the minority. I really don’t see why people think nothing of financing their unmarried children’s education when those children are frittering away a lot of their time and money on pleasure-seeking rather than studying, but think it’s somehow inappropriate to help a young married couple earn an education that will help them and their children have a better life.

I don’t think a young woman who chooses early marriage and motherhood has ruined her life. Many young women who get pregnant and keep their babies, whether they marry the father or not, probably do end up with regrets. But have they ruined their lives? Is it really impossible to earn a college degree after becoming a parent? For that matter, is it really impossible to have a decent life without a degree? Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not disparaging education. I value my own education, and want to give my daughters the best education I can possibly provide.

That said, I have seen people with college degrees living empty and meaningless lives, and people without them living rich and fulfilling lives. I would wager that a good many women who put off marriage and family for so many years that when they finally tried to have a baby, found that it was too late, felt that they had ruined their lives.

Is my own life richer because of my education? Undoubtedly it is. But if I had to choose between having my four daughters and having those three letters after my name, well, there’s just no choice at all.

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