Saturday, August 16, 2014

“College Often Unwise for Young Ladies”…Or Is It?

It is interesting how this phrase sounds in 2014. I encountered this headline, “College Often Unwise for Young Ladies,” when I was perusing old newspapers from 1950 for obituaries. Catching my eye, I scanned the article to read later.

Being from an old advice column called “Dorothy Dix Talks,” I found the journalist’s opinion stunning yet intriguing to one letter writer’s plight: “I have…five daughters of whom I am naturally proud, but we are in very modest circumstances and I have been ill for over a year…My oldest girl…graduates from high school this term. What about a college education?...shall we struggle along, denying ourselves everything we possibly can and sacrificing the comforts of the whole family, in order to send our girls to college?—Mrs. B.”

What would you say if you were the journalist? Would you encourage this mother to act on her desire to provide her girls with the best including a college education? Would you do some research for her on good schools and alternatives to paying for tuition?

As I pondered over this mother’s question, I came back to the reality of this column. This was in 1950, not 2014. Circumstances and social norms were different. Very different. Miss Dix wrote the following reply: “I think where a girl can be sent to college depends entirely on her personality. Upon her looks, her disposition, her character, and most of all upon the sort of brain she has and what her ambitions are.” Right there, in the first sentence, Miss Dix reminds readers that college education was not a priority, especially for girls.

She continues: “Not all girls are college material. Plenty of them are bright…but they have no book sense. They have no intention whatever of following any learned career, and it is a waste of time and money to send them to college…Also, it is a waste of time and money to send to college the girl who has more glamor than gray matter, and who was predestined by Nature for marriage.” She goes on for another two paragraphs addressing both side of the issue, but clearly making a stance that college is more of a luxury for the rich than for the working class.

Her opinion becomes more heated as the column progresses. She boldly declares: “I do not think that there is anything more pathetic than the superstitious reverence the great majority of people have for a college education. They have a blind misguided belief…that a college degree is some sort of magic that will unlock every door of opportunity to its fortunate possessor and enable them to stroll through prosperity.” Towards the end of the column, she states that kids at college “are just having a grand fling and a four years’ loaf, nothing but a college yell and maybe sweater with a letter on it and a swelled head.”

I was shocked, but not surprised by this journalist dissuading the mother from sending her daughters to college. In 1950, women were expected to marry young and run a household. Today, women are encouraged to pursue an education and enter the career force. According to an article from The New York Times, “men now make up only 42 percent of the nation's college students. And with sex discrimination fading and their job opportunities widening, women are coming on much stronger, often leapfrogging the men to the academic finish.” (Tamar Lewin, “At Colleges, Women Are Leaving Men in the Dust, 2006).

Although I do not share most of the columnist’s opinion from 1950, she was supporting a norm for the day that working class people could not afford college. Opportunities for the less fortunate to go were fewer. After thinking it over and considering how college education has become a widely accepted social standard today, I am grateful for the opportunities available to this generation. Having a college degree, I feel like my six years were not wasted, but rather the opposite of what Miss Dix wrote—I have the magic key to more opportunities and to greater prosperity.

In essence, college is wise for young ladies. In the words of two respected religious leaders: “Arise, young women! You determine your goals. You decide what enters your mind and heart.” “The future us unknown; therefore, it behooves us to prepare for uncertainties…pursue your education and learn marketable skills.”

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