Common Wisdom: Educating Girls

As we have allowed liberal education to collapse into relativistic technical training, we have also thrown away the blueprint for educating our girls. Our failure to hand on to the current generation the patrimony of our intellectual, spiritual, and moral tradition is a grave loss both to young men and young women. The loss of the tradition may be even a more detrimental blow to young women, however, than it is to young men.

Young men, at least, still absorb their education within the residual cultural expectation that after their undergraduate years they may go on to professional school, then go to work as men have always done, and eventually — though these days they push that dream farther into the future — they will marry and found a family.

Young women, on the other hand, no longer receive in their education any pattern of what they might be expected to do in life. When they march off the graduation platform, their lives yawn toward a frightening open end. By this time they have come through sixteen years of schooling, exposed to a drumbeat of ideology that tells them they must imitate men in seeking careers in the world, that denies they have any distinct feminine calling of their own, that preaches that their potential vocation as wives and mothers is merely an alternative lifestyle which they may choose one day, but if they do, that vocation is only one among many careers, no higher than any other and certainly most desirable when pursued in combination with a “real” career. Little wonder that young women dare not admit openly that they may think themselves called primarily to be wives and mothers. When asked what they hope to do in life, most feel compelled to declare some specific career goal. Only in sheepish embarrassment do they sometimes add the aside that they also look forward to getting married someday. And even then they likely will not allow themselves the further admission that they hope also to have a baby — and maybe even more than one baby. Those natural feminine hopes of being wife and mother are not permitted to surface in the modern technical world that faces today’s young women. Any such inclination must remain inside the secret hearts of girls.

Since democracy tends to equalize everyone within it, and education tends to follow that downward thrust toward equalization according to the lowest common denominator, then education in a democracy cannot be permitted even to hint that boys and girls might be called to ends higher than what is merely useful in society. Further, because democracy is inherently more and more splintered by interest groups, no one can agree on the common moral vision that must form the core round which to fashion an educational curriculum.

The resulting smorgasbord of courses, designed to give a smattering of information about a great many fields of knowledge, produces a student who has little understanding of any overarching principle of knowledge that could unify the whole. The typical emerging graduate has learned little of why he should want to know anything at all. He has no grasp of the transcendent end of knowledge, which end, ultimately, can be the only unifying principle of what we can know. Instead he has been saturated with technical pre-professional courses that make him fit only to take his place in a hive of workers. His education has fitted him more to be a technician in a totalitarian state than to be a free man in a free state.

No one has described better than Raïssa and Jacques Maritain why this kind of education especially damages young women. Both Raïssa and Jacques were struck by the natural attraction of young women toward the deepest level of reality, toward what is. Raïssa, a tiny, captivating woman with luminous big eyes and a sweetness of expression that seemed to reflect all the richness of her extraordinary contemplative life, understood the appeal to women of metaphysics, the science of reality, of that which is. She herself was a metaphysician, a student of St. Thomas. Her grace, unusual in any century but more so in our time, was to combine a deep experience of God in the mystery of contemplative prayer with an active and rigorous intellectual life as philosopher and poet. Moreover, she and Jacques in their marriage scaled the heights of human friendship, which they saw as an extension of their union with God. After Raïssa’s death Jacques, upon much consideration, published her journal. Acknowledging her influence on his own work, he said, “If there is anything good in my philosophical work, and in my books, this has its deep source and light in her contemplative prayer and in the oblation of herself she made to God.”

Raïssa devoted a particularly inspiring section of her journal to the aptitude for metaphysics of young women who have a gift for abstraction. Though she thought that metaphysics, as the most abstract of disciplines, is a difficult study for both men and women and there are few of either sex who are capable of addressing it, nevertheless when women study philosophy, “it is metaphysics which, after all, seems the best suited to a feminine mind with a gift for abstraction.” Citing her own case as a convert from atheism, she wrote, “As an atheist, I preferred metaphysics because it is the supreme science, the ultimate crowning of reason. As a Catholic, I love it still more because it allows us to have access to theology, to realize the harmonious and fertile union of reason and faith.” What Raïssa called “the realism and the faculty of disinterested contemplation proper to women” is the key to feminine love of metaphysics. Woman’s very grounding in the heart of reality, her position at the center of God’s plan for how the world comes to be, moves her to “delight” in the knowledge of ultimate reality. Her own profound link to that reality, made so by the very nature she is given, inspires her “to examine in this supreme light [of metaphysics] what her whole life ought to be.”

Furthermore, woman’s sense of order, her natural bent toward contemplation, and her capacity for loving, all increase her enthusiasm for knowledge of ultimate reality. Said Raïssa, “Her sense of order. . . is satisfied by being able to order her whole being in the light of intelligence. Her powers of contemplation enable her to love the truth she knows more intensely and, in certain cases, to increase her range of knowledge through the very love that she bears the Truth. Her great capacity for loving attaches her more strongly to the Truth and induces her to dedicate herself to it.”

Raïssa was ever aware of the essential connection between the intellect and faith. She defined truth in the Thomist sense, as “the rule of the intellect and of the will,” a rule by which the will must submit to the truth that the intellect shows us. It is this “rational obedience which is receptive to faith.”

It was typical of Raïssa’s utter humility that she could write, “I give thanks to God who put in my heart such an ardent love of truth when, ignorant of the divine Truth, I lived among skeptics and atheists. That desire which the physical sciences could not satisfy because they are partial, and which modern philosophers completely frustrated by their relativism, was fulfilled by the revelation of Catholic doctrine and of Thomist philosophy.”

Jacques Maritain, in his long experience as a professor, saw also in the young women he taught the same feminine love of truth that he noted in Raïssa. Jacques observed that the complementariness of being in men and women extended to the way in which young men and women received the discipline of philosophy. It seemed to him that young women had a particularly urgent, desire to integrate into the core of their own being the truth they saw in philosophy. “Often,” he said, “young women enter into the realm of knowledge with an intellectual passion more ardent and a love of truth more disinterested than young men do.” He thought that although young men excelled in “constructive syntheses and the inventive work of reason,” young women possessed “the advantage of a more vital and organic feeling for knowledge.”

When young women love truth, Jacques said, “it is in order to bring down truth into life itself. When they love philosophy, it is because it helps them to discover themselves and the meaning of existence; and they well understand the saying of Plato, that we must philosophize with our whole soul.” Jacques thought that women’s minds are “less compartmentalized” than those of men, with “a greater need of unity. . . .” And this, he said, “is the reason, too, that an education too departmentalized is even more harmful to them than to young men.”

Because of her closeness to the origins of life, a woman appropriates knowledge of ultimate reality more directly than does a man. A man, too, apprehends reality, but he may go through more mental steps to reach that knowledge. Because of her more direct relationship to the heart of reality, a woman brings to our fund of understanding what Maritain called “that mysterious spiritual wealth — unutterable and substantial, sorrowful, too — which we call experience, and which plays a role so essential in culture, which renders it lasting and fecund….”

Of all tasks that present themselves to a young woman the most important is surely the care and formation of souls. When a young mother holds in her arms her new baby, she holds a tiny barbarian with the potential for becoming a saint. The vocation of this young mother is to impart to her child the intellectual and spiritual treasure of her civilization. Her aim is to help her child toward integration of soul, that is, toward that state in which his mind, properly instructed, truly governs the other levels of his being, in which he is able to subject his entire self to the governance of right reason. What the young mother must do is to teach her child how to use his freedom in the only way he can remain free — that is, by doing right. To rear a free man, this young woman must herself understand what freedom is. Thus she herself requires an education befitting a free person, an education that explains to her why she is free at all. Unfortunately the education she most often receives these days is more proper to the citizen of a totalitarian regime, in which education merely aims at turning out technicians who are useful to the state.


  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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