The television historian Lucy Worsley upset a lot of women when she told Radio Times recently that she had “been educated out of the natural reproductive function”. Instead, she added, “I get to spend my time doing things I enjoy.” Sandra Parsons and Fiona Phillips, of the Mail and Mirror respectively, took exception to Worsley’s implication that only unintelligent women choose motherhood.
Judith Woods, in the Telegraph, dismissed their response as a “cri de coeur from women who, if they had been a bit brighter, would have recognised a joke when they saw one”. Well, Worsley’s allies can fall back on this defence: it was just a joke, it wasn’t serious, get over it. But that’s usually the answer given when someone finds themselves in hot water for having said something crass.
The Independent‘s Christina Patterson put a different gloss on it: “What she was saying was that nobody gets to do everything in a life, and that what you have to do, in all kinds of areas, even if you’d sometimes prefer not to have to, is make a choice.” That may be what Dr Worsley was trying to say but it was not what she actually said. As the presenter of several BBC series and as Chief Curator of the Tower of London, Hampton Court and other royal palaces, she ought to know how to express her ideas clearly. She should not have to rely on others to provide a critical gloss for her words.
Maybe, though, Lucy Worsley meant exactly what she said. It’s a mindset I’m familiar with. As a woman in my thirties with an Oxford doctorate, I am yet to have children of my own but I have plenty of childcare experience, and I recognise the impulse to think, when frazzled after refereeing squabbles and collecting up scattered toys, “I went to university for this?”
Yet what else was my education for if not to cultivate an attitude of mind that can be brought to bear on any situation? In the case of raising children, it helps to be able to articulate why they shouldn’t behave in certain ways, why they should pick their toys up and not leave it to others. You may not need a degree to do this, but it helps.
Kids are also expert manipulators, quick to spot any weakness or flaw in an argument. A higher education gives a good grounding in how to reason, how to explain and justify a response.
For all that they take, children also give. A life spent in the pursuit of self-gratification is ultimately impoverished. There is enormous enjoyment to be found in seeing children flourish within the boundaries you set for them. That kind of flourishing within an academic discipline is exactly what higher education sets out to do: it is a mirror-image of the task of parenting.
So what do we, as women struggling to find the energy to read Homer or Shakespeare with children who would rather play World of Warcraft, say is the value of our education? Was it just for getting us out of the home? Or was it to make us more rounded individuals, perhaps even the kind of rounded individuals who could raise inquiring and well-mannered children? Because, surely, raising children to be thoughtful and considerate members of society is the hardest job of all. If universities are not educating students to be citizens who can take the humanities beyond the academy — yes, even into the nursery — then what are they for?