There’s a famous story about a man coming upon some stonemasons and asking them what they were doing. One said he was cutting a block of stone; one said he was dressing a block; and one replied, “I am helping to build a cathedral to the glory of God.” I heard a variation of this story, in which the one who sees the “big picture” is an old woman sweeping up some dust from the construction, but the point is the same–that however humble one’s role in an enterprise is, it is glorious to help create something lasting and valuable.
I experienced the converse of this story in one of my college English classes, which focused on The Canterbury Tales. It was an upper-level seminar-style class, in which we tackled the Tales in Middle English, read some of the scholarship on the Tales, and were expected to produce some scholarship of our own. And after reading dozens of essays discussing gender role depiction, how Chaucer upholds and subverts the social structures of his day, what is the exact sexual status of the Pardoner, etc, etc, I realized that if every single one of those essays disappeared from the face of the Earth no one would be worse off. The Tales themselves are wonderful, and the linguistics work on Middle English is necessary both to understand the Tales and to trace how greatly Chaucer influenced the course of the English language, but the great mass of criticism on The Canterbury Tales appeared and still appears to me to mean no more than the speculations of “Sherlockians” who argue over how many times Dr. Watson was married, and to whom, and on what date(s).
This class heavily influenced my decision not to pursue a graduate degree in English literature, though I loved my English classes and was told I had some talent in criticism. Were I inclined to teach, I could put up with meaningless research for the sake of sharing literature with my students in the classroom–which I do believe to be a worthy and valuable goal–but I would be a very unhappy and ineffective teacher, which would serve no one well. What point would there be, then, in spending time and money to apply deconstructionism or structural analysis to the works of Dostoyevsky instead of curling up with Crime and Punishment?
My mother was disappointed that I took no steps to acquire impressive-looking letters after my name. She would very much have liked me to become a doctor, a lawyer, or a professor, and thought I was clever enough to become any of those things. (She might have revised her opinion of my scientific abilities if she had ever seen me foul up the simplest experiments in my chemistry classes, though I generally managed decent grades because of my test-taking and writing abilities.) She did not often harp on this theme, to her credit, and I can understand her disappointment that her smart daughter did not become any sort of high-status professional; today, I am “merely” a stay-at-home mother, which is the sort of job a high school dropout can do with reasonable competency. Some high school dropouts are considerably better housekeepers than I am, in fact, and what a waste! With my brains! Even my piano teacher was disappointed in me.
Now, I do not actually know where I fall on the scale of human intelligence, but I have a large vocabulary and decent memorization skills. Let us put that aside and suppose that my abilities were indeed on par with my mother’s opinion of my braininess. In such a case, it seems to me that the most rational choice I could make is to evaluate my career options and choose the one that I think would lead to a useful, fulfilling life. I have tried to do this–first taking jobs in a field that I found interesting and worthwhile (medical publishing), and then having and raising my children. And frankly, sinking thousands of dollars and several years of my life so that I can say I have an advanced degree, or a prestigious career, strikes me as the height of foolishness. I do not at all mean to denigrate those who do have advanced degrees and belong to various professions–I have benefited immensely from doctors, teachers, and other professionals; but when I consider the course of my own life, I have tried to follow a path that allows me, as I am, to do the best I can in this world.
In the grand scheme of things, I do not know whether I am helping to build a cathedral or a Soviet-style apartment block, but it is not for me to judge the ultimate value of my life and work. I can only say that I have no regrets and a great deal of satisfaction.
When my children grow up, I am sure that I will have strong opinions on what they ought to do with their lives. I hope I shall be wise enough to offer only occasional, solicited advice on their career paths, and to recognize that they, too, will be trying to succeed–and that their definitions of success might be different than mine, without being wrong.