Speaking of College

Allison from Presentmindedly just read The Fellowship and commented with the perspective of an “outsider.” I asked if I could turn her comment into a post.

For a little background, Allison and I grew up in the same hometown–attended the same church, in fact–but our paths didn’t cross too much. Public schooled while I was homeschooled, she was a few years ahead of me: always determined, ambitious, and very kind to the younger girls. Recently I was thrilled when she said she was reading the novel, and as usual I find her perspective very valuable.

Her words are in bold, and I’ve added my own observations in plain text. I’m not commenting to disagree, but to discuss two sides of the question. It’s a sort of call-and-response post, I guess.

I understand how young people told that they can’t attend college and having that option for their future totally removed from them would want to explore the option of going to college, and how women might see a need for college so that they have a way to support their families should their husbands pass away (or leave).

In the Fellowship, Bekah knows that college is not an option if she wants to remain in good standing with the church. This aspect of the Fellowship reflects my own experience with IBLP, which discouraged both young women and young men from seeking higher education. (But it was especially forbidden for women.) A lot of heavily-controlled religious systems push the line of thought that college introduces young people to worldly ideas, which shipwrecks their faith. When it comes to questions about their future, these groups insist that God will provide whatever training is necessary to make a living as an adult.

Most of us spend our 30s scrambling to catch up, or living with the insecurity that one twist of fate could leave us unable to support ourselves and our families (again, especially women).

And we think, if only we’d been allowed to go to college…

In my experience and observation, though, college is not necessarily an avenue for job training or even job preparation. I write this as a summa cum laude graduate of the Honors College at University of Southern Mississippi, with a degree in Environmental Biology and a minor in Chemistry.

All those A’s, all that studying, all those classes and labs, and all it really prepared me for was–wait for it–more school. I had no desire to go to grad school and wanted to be a missionary at that point, anyway. At Awards Day at the end of my senior year, my father asked (with slight disappointment), “You’ve never wanted to go to med school, have you?” Nope, never had. Got accepted to grad school but declined it because I went to Romania to serve for a year.

Many people I know graduated with degrees that, while perhaps fulfilling on personal levels, didn’t necessarily prepare them for a job. I had a delightful professor who once quoted somebody else (no idea who now) in one of our classes… “College is the babysitter for tomorrow’s workforce.” I took offense at the time, but I kind of get it now.

Although it doesn’t come through strongly in my novel, I’m very disenchanted with the college system. I love the idea of alternative training and seeking knowledge outside the approved channels of learning. But that’s a harder road to walk, and most of us weren’t actually given the choice. We were forced to walk it… often by men who were actually interested in keeping their empires going.

It’s also easier to have the degree and say, “I didn’t need it,” than feel trapped by a life where you can’t seem move ahead without that degree.

College did give me opportunities to grow personally and spiritually and to grow up. To discover more about myself, to learn more about how to think critically and to engage in the world. But it wasn’t particularly fun, and although I met great people, I don’t have lifelong close friends from college (and I had counted on that). It was honestly often lonely and lots of hard, hard work. So it provided opportunities for personal challenge and development.

This right here is part of what many of us feel we missed out on–some much more extremely than I did.

My parents didn’t forbid college; we sure didn’t have a lot of extra money and I wasn’t gung-ho to go. They believed that the program we were in was a viable alternative (It looked very good on paper, as the saying goes.) So we all bought into the idea that traditional college wasn’t worth considering.

So all that growing, figuring out who we are, what we believe, thinking critically, and engaging in the world — that’s part of the “college experience” that we feel we were denied.

The truth is, of course, that you don’t need college for any of that. But in our subculture, the reason that college was discouraged or even denied to us was to keep us from developing, exploring, and engaging. So that’s how we think of it: if I had been allowed to choose higher education, I might have been allowed to grow.

But what college did not give me was what I expected going in–-training, credentials, and an open door to a career of helping protect God’s green earth in some way. God used college in my life, certainly; but I don’t think of my degree as something to fall back on. And I’m not alone in that.

I suppose I’m just bringing this up because I sensed several times that there was a thought in the story [of The Fellowship] of college giving women (and men, too) abilities to provide for and support their families that they couldn’t get without a degree.

This was my personal insecurity shining through. I’m entirely dependent on my husband’s ability to bring in income. I consider myself very well-educated; but I don’t have the degree and work experience for a decent job. We do have life insurance (again, possible because of DJ’s money, not mine); but still, if something happened to DJ, I’d be trying to find a minimum-wage job to support myself and my four children.

My dad died when I was three, and my stepdad died when I was twenty. I have no illusions that God keeps men alive just to support their families. For those who have read the novel, this situation is spelled out pretty clearly in the story.

Certainly some degrees are necessary for certain jobs–social work, teaching school, physical therapy. But most degrees don’t carry with them an accompanying certification.

Because I’ve been to college, I think “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” But if I hadn’t been to college, I’d probably think, “I wonder what I missed.”

I didn’t have enough room in the novel to explore college vs. alternative education. My point wasn’t that Everyone Should Go To College, but that the Fellowship limited and controlled the lives of its people by refusing to let them make their own way in life.

I posted Allison’s comment here as encouragement to those of us who have come out of a controlling system. College wouldn’t have eliminated our struggles, just given us a different set of problems. It’s tough living with the consequences of a choice we didn’t really get to make. But once we’re free from whatever “Fellowship” once controlled us, we really do have the freedom to make our own choices, learn from our own mistakes, and build our own lives.

3 thoughts on “Speaking of College

  1. This seems not so much a warning of the danger of college, but of college without a real plan for a career – which is a VERY different thing. I obviously don’t know much about Environmental Biology as a path to a career, but it does seem that it could well lead to one. Perhaps her college adviser wasn’t clear on a plan? If she needed an upper degree to do what she wanted, perhaps she should have been told that going in.

    Another point, though, which is also important, is that at least she HAS an undergrad degree, and if she went on to postgrad work, she wouldn’t have to completely start over. Also, a career outside of your degree is often improved just by the fact that you have a degree in something. Not fair, perhaps, but also true. I’ve even found that my lack of undergrad (even though I have a JD) has meant that I lack qualification for many teaching type jobs. Any undergrad degree would have at least been helpful. (Fortunately, I don’t mind working as a lawyer. But I don’t have a lot of options.)

    Your friend may not have truly appreciated this, but she is already four years ahead of someone like you with no degree. If disaster struck, she could *more quickly* pivot to self sufficiency than you could.

    Returning to the original thought, if the goal of college is to find a way to make a living, then one must approach it that way. At the risk of sounding sexist, a person must approach college the way men are usually told to: with the aim of having a career that will support a family. That means actually finding out what job you wish to have, and pursuing it, not some generalized “education.” Not to knock that, because I think education is valuable for its own sake. (Although probably a better bargain from a state school than a pricey private one…)

    The problem, then, though, is that it requires a bit of a shift in thinking. Not just for the cult organization we both survived, but for much of Evangelicalism in general, which believes that the highest calling for women is “wife and mother.” A career isn’t something you have to “fall back on,” but something to have. Continually. You don’t just keep it in your back pocket in case you need it. That’s one reason why a degree isn’t enough. You need job experience, skills, and the whole kit. But that requires a decision to remain engaged in the workforce, rather than withdraw and try to reenter after a disaster. Sure, you can re-enter the workforce later. In some careers, you can even make a living that way. But for many career choices, you can’t just resurrect it later if you let things lapse.

    Again, it requires “thinking like a man.” A man assumes he has a financial responsibility. If women did likewise…

    Oh wait, outside of an increasingly narrow slice of middle-to-upper class society, women do in fact have to work, and realize it. Sorry if that is snarky, but it is also reality outside the Evangelical bubble.


    • “If disaster struck, she could *more quickly* pivot to self sufficiency than you could.”

      This is the heart of my personal struggle. I don’t really feel that my life experience or my education is lacking, and I never had any burning desire to sit through more school. But on a practical level, it leaves me very vulnerable. It seems logical that a “wife and mother” ought to have the means to provide for her family if she becomes “divorced and mother” or “widow and mother.”

      I’ve heard enough people echo my friend’s sentiments to credit her experience. College isn’t the golden highway to success, and it’s hard to balance a career with family.

      But it makes it easier to achieve independence and security. Things I have only by good fortune and an excellent husband.


  2. I am one of those 30-somethings scrambling to catch up after being told college was a waste of time – especially for a woman. My husband and I both are breaking our necks trying to juggle children, a full-time job, and full time college for us both. It is not bad to earn a living without a degree, but it is hard to come by in our area. Also, what if my husband lost his job and all we had was minimum wage options because we both lack a degree? I think it’s a wise investment. Even if it turns out not to be “necessary” it might be necessary later.


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