As I was walking past the many gates in the Denver International Airport, thinking of all of the festivities that would soon be taking place for my sister’s wedding, my eye was caught by one of those “Pass It On” billboards which line the walls, shining and waiting for someone to receive its motivational message. I’d seen it more times than I can count, all over the United States. It has a picture of Malala Yousafzai, the Middle Eastern education advocate, and boldly asserts that “Girls should learn history. And make it.” No unusual sentiment manifested itself during any of the previous times that I had seen this billboard. This time, however, my heart leapt up and cried, “That’s sexist!”
Or, at least, that’s what our culture would have it cry.
The exponents of “gender equality” decry the usage of the word should with respect to women and their occupations. It would seem extraordinary, then, that a mass-produced poster such as this was given a pass by both the media and the anti-discrimination activists of America in the 2010s. Imagine if the sign said something different, such as “Girls should learn about food. And then cook it.” Who are we, after all, to tell girls what they should do?
One might object that, with my hypothetical billboard, there is an expectation that women be limited in some way. But, if you think about it, doesn’t the education billboard also do precisely that? What if a woman only wanted to be a physicist or biologist, and had no desire to study history? What if a woman aspired to a life of simplicity—St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s little way—and not a life of worldly “greatness,” in which the fate of the world-at-large depends upon their every choice?
We might even be so bold as to ask, Which does our society need more: lady historians or women who know how to cook?
This brave, new world of ours is dominated by machines and utterly in denial regarding the objective elements of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. That’s why it’s so easy for us to demonize the effort to encourage women to cook more. In our world, food is meaningless. We have a McDonald’s in every town not too far away from numerous factories belonging to secondary, less widespread “culinary” giants—all of whom adhere to the Golden Arches’ orthopraxis in both telling half-truths about their ingredients and claiming through their advertising that their products are just as good as your family’s home-cooked food which they’ve never had.
In reality, real cuisine—which is created to delight partakers by means of subtleties and layers and is passed down through tradition to children and grandchildren—is meant to be a good, spiritual experience. One need only watch the foreign film Babette’s Feast or truly ponder the wondrous mystery of the Eucharist in the context of the Last Supper in order to get an idea of what I am talking about. Admittedly, the latter might prove difficult, given our imaginative tendency to see our present assumptions, temptations, and practices more than we should in previous ages. It’s no wonder that the rubrics, vestments, and prayers of the Mass (even in its elements more proper to a meal than a sacrifice) were changed at the same time in history that people were dismissing en masse the domestic and decorous arts, justifying both with calls to a supposedly more lively and enlightened time than one influenced by the medieval. But it is imperative for both the Faith and our everyday lives informed by that Faith that we understand the paradoxically august and humble nature of nourishment rightly ordered.
Meanwhile, most people don’t recognize the flaws in our modern education system as they do with the modern food industry—at least, not to the point where the Malala billboard’s message would be seen as an encouragement to something that is meaningless or even harmful. The call to shape history is accepted because greatness and influence are still known to be goods in the hands of talented, good-willed, and intelligent people, regardless of sex.
If only people knew the true state of pedagogy and discipline in our schools, where teachers see no problem with walking out on their responsibility to educate so that they may protest the latest political issue at the state capital! If only people understood the gravity of recent centuries and decades of innovation. To name just a few, there’s the total forbiddance of fair and honorable fights in the school’s playgrounds (since, of course, testosterone needs to be perpetually caged like the beast that it is). There’s the demand that all be taught in Health Class how to mess with the natural end of their reproductive organs by means of contraception (in this instance, it seems, testosterone doesn’t need to be checked). There’s the opening of the school’s bathrooms or sports teams to those of either sex—specifically, young men under the influence of the contraceptive mentality, who mistakenly believe their original reproductive organs don’t define them or their relations with others.
Rather than encourage a consistent negativity towards “shoulds,” however, I advocate for a more civilized response to their usage. “Should” should be welcomed, as long as it respects men and women’s natural dispositions and prudently reflects the individual’s strengths. How does one effectively do this? There’s much to be said by way of an answer. But, to at least make a beginning, we must remember that there truly is a shared dignity along with unique privileges for both sexes. In promoting virtuous habits and behavior, we must look to both and see what each sex is apt to do well and what each person’s God-given gifts show us they ought to do. The sooner society begins to acknowledge this traditional, balanced understanding of human beings, the better off both men and women will be. For we’ll be making our own contribution to history, whether it be small or great, until we are blessed to take our glorious seat at the heavenly banquet.