Thursday, November 18, 2010

If You Want to be a Princess, First You Need an Education

I can’t say I’ve thoroughly combed through the media commentary on Prince William’s announcement that he will marry Kate Middleton, but I did read a little of it this morning after this statement in a New York Times article caught my attention:

“Should Miss Middleton become Queen Catherine, she will be the first queen in British history to have a college degree, or indeed, to have any college education at all.”

Some commentators have lamented the fact that future Princess Kate has done little with that college education except procure a husband, but I think that overlooks a more important point.

For the past few weeks, my undergraduate classes have been reading about gender and sharing their thoughts on gender roles, marriage and family, media influences and girls’ education. In a comparison of contemporary and 19th century arguments about single sex education, one student commented that at least nowadays women’s main reason for attending college isn’t to find a husband. Agreed, but when I asked them whether as college women they feel pressure to find a boyfriend, or at the very least to procure male attention, stories started to pour out about friendly teasing at family gatherings and being left out of social events as friends paired off. The story that floored me, though was one young woman’s account of deciding in seventh grade to save her money for higher education, a commitment she stuck to when she recently faced the choice of getting married and starting a family or staying in college and continuing on to the graduate degree she wants to complete.

Two traditions are at issue here. One is education versus marriage, the notion that education (and the career, as e.g. abbess, teacher, social worker, college president, that education can lead to) exists as a respectable alternative to family life, giving women a path to success that runs parallel to the marriage track. Second is education as a means to marriage. A third, far more lovely and quintessentially modern, possibility, is that education is neither the autobahn to marriage nor the functional frontage road running next to it but, rather, a road to adulthood on which women can maintain an autonomy that serves them, and their relationships, well. Education not only provides careers and husbands; it provides the ability to make sense of it all and to keep afloat no matter what follows (divorce, job loss, dissatisfaction, media hullabaloo, whatever life brings).

A few years ago, in a New Yorker review of biographies of Diana Spencer, John Lanchester commented on her “outlandish lack of education” and how poorly it served her in later life. “In retrospect, it’s clear,” he notes, “Diana would have been better off with a mug of cocoa and an art history book than with jetting around Europe with Dodi Al Fayed.”

Yesterday in class, my students discussed media images of women and the out-of-school education those provide. We talked about how much more the media is a part of our lives than ever before and why girls and women hold themselves to the standards of beauty sold to them by television, magazines, the internet, music, film and ads at every turn. And we talked about how to raise girls possessed of self-respect, dignity, insight and resistance to manipulation. At times, the prospects looked hopeless. The education that teachers and parents can offer our girls and boys seems a frail opponent to the forces of popular culture. But the notion of a college educated British princess makes me hopeful. Parents and teachers everywhere can now say this to all those little girls begging for tiaras: If you want to be a princess, first you have to get a higher education.

1 comment:

Jessy Randall said...

Interesting post. Made me think about the closest thing we have to royalty in the U.S., and that's celebrities. It occurs to me that it's not the norm for young women who make it big in Hollywood to go to college -- is it? When they do go, it's news. The going-to-college of the actress who plays Hermione in the Harry Potter movies is being treated like something really special.