First Person Essay: Women and Education

Feb 5, 2008 by

This week, I watched a movie about the history of Brigham Young University. I was moved by the sacrifices that were made to make that institution what it is today. I was grateful for the opportunity I had to get an education, and felt the urgency to urge my children to do all they could to get all the education they can. The Spirit is strong when I consider the importance of education. It’s something I have given presentations on to both teenage and college-age young women.

I’m also deeply passionate about the roles of women as repeatedly addressed by men we sustain to be prophets of God, as outlined in the Proclamation on the family. While some women don’t have the chance to fulfill all of these roles in this life, we believe that for those who do, there is simply nothing more important than being a good wife and mother. No other pursuits should be more important to us than this. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for education in a woman’s life.

And, of course, there is great variation in how life unfolds for each of us. (I thought I would be married before age 21. I wasn’t. I ended up serving a mission, getting a graduate degree, and building a career before I married and had children.) There is no one-size-fits-all answer on the “how” or “when” of all of this.

But we know the “what”s. And yet, I have talked to many who are either personally conflicted or confused about it all, or who have looked at the Church’s counsel to be a wife and mother (home with children whenever possible) and to get all the education you can somehow incompatible.  I have also seen those who want to suggest that somehow now things are drastically different than before somehow, because President Hinckley has talked about education and making contributions to society. I do not believe things are so different, nor that these concepts are incompatible. I will try below to share some of my thoughts and beliefs in more detail.

1. Education is a means, not an end. If we make educational and career goals our primary focus, it is very possible that we will miss the mark. Education is a facilitator. If we are educated, we can better serve the Lord, our families, our communities. We will be more prepared for whatever life may throw at us. Education can help us in our roles. We will be more likely to sort through all the many sorts of information out there with more discernment, and be able to make wiser decisions (in theory, anyway, right?).  We will be able to teach others (particularly our children) the importance of education, and do so by word and example. And yes, we can find personal joy and fulfillment, but that should not be the primary focus. Even our own fulfillment and success should be about glorifying Him and being closer to Him and following His plan (all of it!). It’s too easy to fall into traps of ego and success, and I think it’s possible the single most difficult challenge with being educated and capable of success – to keep priorities in place. (Were this not so, we wouldn’t hear so much about the importances of priorities. Think Elder Oaks, for example.)

Which leads to point #2.

2. Education should be attained with wisdom and order. I don’t mean this only in terms of time and energy, but also in terms of focus and priorities. Education is an important priority, but it’s not THE most important priority. (I’m not advocating foolish choices, and each person (couple) will have to decide what wisdom and order means. But I still think that we need to keep education in proper perspective, and, again, remember it’s a means, not an end.)

For those of us who are women, I liked what Sister Beck said in her Conference talk. “[A]ll the education women attain will avail them nothing if they do not have the skill to make a home that creates a climate for spiritual growth.” She makes it clear what should be most important in our lives. Elder Oaks does, too — faith and family are our first priorities.

This counsel is not new. We are reminded time and time again, both by ancient and latter-day prophets that we need to put the kingdom of God first, and put trust in Him before trust in the arm of flesh.

To me, this also applies to how we approach the acquisition of knowledge. As we gain knowledge, we need to keep it all in perspective and make sure that we learn through the lens of the gospel, not try to change the gospel to fit with worldly philosophies. (Often, truths we learn ‘in the world’ and in the gospel proper are not incompatible. But sometimes they are. When they are, I believe we should put the gospel first and let those things that seem not to fit either sit on the back burner, or fall off the stove completely.)

And, yes, wisdom and order also means being wise about time and energy. Sometimes life situations mean that we won’t be able to get it all done, right now. That’s okay. The Lord can guide and open doors. Sometimes this is all a process. I saw a sister have four children in six years and take a class at a time and graduate with two degrees at the age of 27. Other women go back to school when children get into school, or later. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to getting an education. I think the key is keeping that goal present, remembering the counsel to ‘get all we can’ (which will be different for all of us) and seeking the Lord’s guidance on how and when to fulfill that goal.

I think that kind of variation and flexibility and sometimes more-spread-out-than-we-would-like-it-to-be process will tend to be more true for women than for men. I am one who believes that in a marriage, a man’s career and education should take priority in almost all cases, simply because I believe there is divine purpose in the roles we have been given. I know there will be exceptions to this, but I am not a fan of making the exception the rule on this point. Flame me if you will, but I feel strongly about that.

That said, I also believe a supportive husband can help his wife find ways to fulfill the goal of getting an education and keeping practical and use-able skills current as appropriate along the way. The Lord can help make this happen, if we are patient and obedient to His guidance and counsel. I know that because I have experienced it, and I have been a SAHM the whole time we have had kids, but my résumé is anything but empty or filled with large gaps.

3. Education goes far beyond just a degree or diploma. Education is a life-long pursuit, and this pursuit can be both formal and informal. I sometimes hear people say that the only way to keep a résumé current is to work. This is simply not true. With or without formal education, and within and without one’s field, there will be myriad ways to keep one’s saw sharp (to borrow a Covey phrase). I have not taken a formal class for nearly a decade and a half. But I keep reading, learning, networking, talking to people in and out of my field, volunteering…. One can take a class at a time, or get practical experience an hour a week, or volunteer a day a month or work here and there, or…. Sometimes finding ways to serve and develop ourselves takes taking a step back from typical approaches, and being creative (and willing to let go of Our Way). This is possible and I think in order to fulfill our responsibilities with faith and family, that kind of creativity is more often than not a necessity, particularly for women.

Also, while life experience is harder to record on a résumé, there is much to be learned from the day-to-day stuff of life, particularly when we have an eternal perspective and understand that there is nothing mundane or ordinary in what we do. Life is an education, and we should not forget that along the way.

4. Tied to #3 is the idea that I think we should avoid thinking in binary terms. I have seen too many women think in terms of either working or being at home. There are SO MANY ways to use our time and to be of good when and if we have some time and energy to spare. We can volunteer in a million different great causes, or do family history work, or work at the temple, or help sisters in the neighborhood (I will forever be indebted to my stay-at-home sisters who could be working but instead are available to help mommies like me), or take night classes, or teach community classes, or or or…. Again, a résumé is not only built or kept current by for-pay work. And again, what we do should be about God’s will and work, not our own.

5. The Lord cares about all of this, and He will help us achieve goals in the way that will best suit us and our families and His work and plan — if we involve Him in our decision-making and are willing to seek His will and find His plan for us. I have experienced this miracle time and time again. Because there is no one-size-fits-all approach, I believe we must seek His help. The consequences of our decisions on these eternally-important issues are too significant to go it alone.

This means, however, that we might have to adjust or forgo some of our plans along the way. I will encourage my girls to vigorously pursue their goals, but always, always, to keep the need for family foremost in their minds, and always let the Lord guide, all along the way (not just in the initial decisions). I will encourage them to thus consider carefully their career choices, to leave room for options that can allow for flexibility, for entering and leaving the workforce with some ease through different stages of life. I would hate to see them choose a career that leaves them bound to professional obsoleteness if they choose to stay home full time. In my view, there are just too many choices out there that will allow for some flexibility and creativity to bind one’s self to such a rigorous career path, given what our leaders have said about our primary roles. (This is not to say that the Lord couldn’t lead one to such a rigorous choice. But I, for one, would only want to choose such a thing if I knew that was what the Lord wanted, no question. Again, I think involving the Lord is essential.)

One aside: I have heard of women who are a force for change to make that kind of flexibility more acceptable in their fields or companies. Let’s not assume that what is is what needs to be.

6. We may not always be guided to what is natural. My husband bluntly told me recently that I am much more suited to the boardroom than to motherhood. My ‘natural’ abilities are not in dealing and playing with small children. I’m not good with bodily fluids, which is a constant feature of motherhood, particularly of young children. I am not the most patient person in the world. Nevermind the fact that I LOVED my career.

But I believe in the importance of this role, and I knew that being home was what the Lord wanted me to do. And nearly a decade into it all, I can tell you that He is adding to my list of what is ‘natural’ to me. My capacity has been increased, and I believe that has come from following what I knew He wanted me to do, even when it was harder than anything I had ever done. So I plead with women to not just make decisions based on what they think they are best suited for alone, but to also discover how the Lord can magnify them, be that in the personal realm or in the professional realm. (Another story for another day is that I was led to a graduate program in something I had ruled out completely as an undergrad degree, for sheer and total lack of interest. Go figure.)

In summary, I think we cannot overlook the fact that education is important, for men and women. But I think that, generally speaking, we cannot overlook the fact that education for women is not always going to unfold in the same way or for the same reasons as it will for men, by reason of the fact that we are given different roles to fulfill. Education and career pursuits for women may take more creativity and flexibility, particularly for women who are (or will be) married and have children.

Still, these goals are important, and I believe they should be on every woman’s mind, regardless of age or stage of life. As that seed is planted, the Lord can help it grow as it should, when it should. As we put the things of the Lord first, I believe He will bless and guide and magnify and open doors. In my case, He led me to dreams I never knew I had, résumé bullets I could not have anticipated, and personal growth and change and becoming that I never would have found with my dreams alone.

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