Union University
Union University Dept of Language


Malachi 4:6

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

June 21, 2013 -

According to a recent book, those seeking to pursue an academic vocation suffer a “baby penalty” when they simultaneously engage in child-rearing.  Parents (especially women) are purportedly “penalized” (i.e., less likely to be successful in their pursuit of academic upward mobility) when they attempt to combine college teaching and scholarship with changing diapers and wiping snotty noses.

The typical professor views this situation as an entirely dreadful state of affairs.  It is virtually an axiom of contemporary, enlightened thinking on such matters that equality of opportunity and fairness demand that the desire to have and raise babies not be an undue impediment to the achievement of one’s individual ambitions.  Thus, the cultural artifice known as the university owes it to the professoriate to remedy imbalances through better policies and of course, if necessary, by overcoming nature.

As a matter of sociological research, the data of such studies merely quantify centuries of common sense.  Raising babies and young children well takes time – lots of it.  Parents (especially mothers) who attempt to raise babies and young children well are unlikely to have all the time they’d like to have for other pursuits, vocational or otherwise.  (Human finitude has a way of dampening the desire for limitlessness.)  Thus, for those with a modicum of common sense (NB: not professional academics), such findings are unremarkable.

However, to frame such observations, as this study apparently does, in terms of the rhetoric of penalization is misguided on at least two counts.  First, to treat children as obstacles or impediments to professional success (for which more “family-friendly institutional policies” would be a remedy) is a profoundly disordered way of viewing the relationship between parents and children.  While it may be true that institutions ought to have policies more favorable to working parents who wish to raise children well, the justification should not be the dis-encumbrance of the parents’ professional advancement.  Children are an intrinsic good.  Tenure is not.

Second, reducing children to mere hindrances to academic achievement results in proposed solutions that fall short.  To propose that the remedy to the “baby penalty” is policies that “even out the playing field both for mothers and fathers who want better work-life balance,” is (at best) to treat children as tangential to success in an academic vocation.  To the extent that education consists in successful generational transmission – not of mere information, but of habits of mind and patterns of life – of teaching young birds to fly (C.S. Lewis: Abolition of Man), good parenting is essential to the vocation of the academy.  Thus, a university proposing policy solutions that treat child-rearing as merely personal is an institution that fundamentally fails to grasp the nature of its educational mission. 

This, of course, does not entail that all who teach must parent.  However, it does mean that the imaginative lens through which the current culture understands the relationship between parenting and the professoriate is badly out of focus.  As long as raising babies and young children is construed as a problem requiring a fix, colleges and universities will continue to destroy the souls of students in their care.  For the spirit of unfettered freedom which demands that the pursuit of publication be unhindered by preschool playtime is the selfsame spirit that annually seeks to disabuse unsuspecting college students of their obligations to all that is true, good, and beautiful.