Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
The other day I ran into an old coworker from my career days, and when it came up that I’ve permanently ditched cubicle life to stay home and raise my gazillion kids, he asked bluntly, “Don’t you feel like you’re wasting your education?”
I think we were both surprised when my answer was: “Actually ... yes.”
I had been prepared to launch into a lecture about how my roles as homeschooler and household manager challenge me intellectually, but when I considered whether I ever use the knowledge I gained in my four (okay, four and a half) years in college, I realized that the answer was no. But the problem isn’t with my vocation; it’s with my education.
My degree is in Advertising, with a focus on interactive media. In my senior-level classes, we created websites for local businesses, analyzed marketing campaigns, studied successful advertising strategies from famous businesses, and so on. Of course I took classes in history, literature, and other liberal arts in my first two years, but I saw them as little more than stepping stones toward getting a degree that would ensure that I had a good career.
Back then, I bought into the increasingly common worldview that the main purpose of higher education is to teach people how to work. I had a natural love of learning, but it was hampered by my atheistic outlook: I didn’t believe that there was objective truth other than in mathematics and the sciences, which led me to overlook the value of studying the non-quantitative liberal arts. I skipped philosophy classes that might have introduced me to new ways to think about the world because I saw it as all just a matter of opinion. Oblivious to the traditional, theistic view of the meaning of education, I didn’t understand the difference between the search for wisdom and the search for knowledge. On top of that, I was steeped in a culture that prizes worldly accomplishments, and saw no use in a degree that wouldn’t land me a glamorous job, no matter how much I might have learned.
All of this led me to see my years at university as a means to the end of getting a job. Some focus on future employment opportunities is prudent, of course, but I viewed it as 99% of the purpose of paying all those tuition bills—and so did my academic counselor, many of my professors, and, from what I could tell, most of the university system. And now that I’m out of the workforce? Well, let’s just say that I haven’t had a whole lot of opportunities to create a stair-step media placement campaign that optimizes CPM by creating synergies with television spots and one-to-one web interaction any time recently.
The good news is that, thanks to my conversion to Catholicism, I finally understand what education is all about. Father James V. Schall summarized it well when writing about Pope Benedict’s address to St. Mary’s University College in England:
Education looks to the “whole person.” It is about “wisdom.” Wisdom, moreover, is “inseparable from knowledge of the Creator.” Wisdom is about how all things fit together in their causes and relationships. Benedict makes this affirmation about the Creator in a nation in which leading scientists make headlines by claiming that they can explain everything without God. They cannot, of course. They inevitably end up with some variant of something coming from nothing. They think that because they can understand scientific and mathematical formulae, they do not need to explain how these formulae came to be or to be embedded in this cosmos prior to their knowing them.
Benedict recalls the great monastic tradition in English history, which includes Westminster Abbey itself ... [L]ibraries and schools were “natural” in a religion that searched for the reason of things ... In a remarkable sentence, the Pope adds: “It was the monks’ dedication to learning as the path on which to encounter the Incarnate Word of God that was to lay the foundation of our Western culture and civilization.
This age-old understanding of education as the pursuit of truth and wisdom (instead of just facts and knowledge) has opened up a whole new world to me. I have a new appreciation for all areas of study, and take advantage of my flexible schedule to spend time rediscovering all the subjects I overlooked in my career-focused college years. I might not be using most of the information I acquired as a university student, but now I am finally getting an education.