Why Consider a Gap Year?

When I ask students about the idea of a gap year prior to entering university, I almost always hear the same thing – I can’t fall behind, I don’t want to miss out, I don’t want to lose a shot at the best school, or, worst of all, what would I do? Only once – this year – have I ever met a college bound secondary student interested in a gap year, which may be defined as a year of minimal structure and maximum exploration prior to entering university. Well, for any student concerned about what the bigwigs are thinking about gap years: here’s Harvard College, a medium sized institution of higher learning in New England of some repute, weighing in on the topic.

Among the many rather non-startling revelations in this piece from Harvard are that high stress, high pressure environments aren’t successful for everyone, or enjoyable for many. Under the subtitle of “Fallout,” the good folks in Cambridge, Mass, hauntingly point out that

It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the “prizes,” stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it. Professionals in their thirties and forties – physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others – sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp. Some say they ended up in their profession because of someone else’s expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work. Often they say they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined future goal.

Yikes.

And yet, again, not surprising. Now, while it’s tempting to blame Harvard for its own success, I won’t. Harvard doesn’t make people crazy to get into Harvard, people make themselves and other people crazy to get into Harvard. Or Brown. Or, or, or.

I went to a good university, but not an epic top-tenner. Still, I would have benefited from a year of travel or directed service because I would have matured. I wonder what the result of that might have been – probably not too dramatic, but I might have made better use of some of my course selections and would have surely saved myself an extra semester, which would have saved thousands of dollars. Not a stunning hypothetical, I know, but what of the unmeasurable? My Peace Corps experience changed and improved my life, for sure, and so I think an opportunity like that before college would have been a net positive. A new gap year program called Global Citizen Year offers something that looks very much like a Peace Corps-esque opportunity for young people. It looks like a winner, and Harvard seems to agree.

On “Modern Status”

Living in a time when 20% of all American children live in poverty, David Brooks is on a search for Jane Austen’s America. Seriously. Brooks has his eyes on the ball in “Modern Status” when he notes that there is little difference between the mannerisms and noticeable intelligence of students from Arizona State versus Harvard, but he loses any sense of critical analysis when he notes that “employers aren’t looking for genius as much as energy and clubbability” without a hint of irony. Certainly, the club that Harvard students are game to join is that which “attribute(s) superior intellectual, moral and cultural qualities to people who can get into those places.”

Indeed.

Brooks goes on to observe that “The message, which one does detect on elite campuses, is that the actual academic content to be found in these places is secondary.” I looked around, but can’t find any numbers indicating how many freshmen admitted to Harvard went to test-drilling charter schools or failing schools where all arts, music, and extra curricular activities have been restricted or cut completely, but I bet 100% of those students haven’t spent much time on their sculling stroke. The message is academics first! and they don’t even cover academics. They cover testing, because if they don’t, teachers get fired. The problem, however, goes beyond vilified teachers and students who may not fit in easily to Harvard’s secret clubs.

This argument by Brooks is exactly why money has to be invested in all public schools, and why non “core” classes must be restored with vigor and respect: the culture that these kids lose when they spend all day on math multiple choice strategies goes beyond the critical thinking, beyond even the culture of not hating boring, awful school lessons, and right to class culture. Elites value those who know how to learn and how to live. Those who know pay attention to life beyond the walls of the school, and for the most vulnerable students, that world must be brought into the schools or they’ll miss it. Underpinning Brooks’s argument is a sad reality: modern status is the status quo, reinforced, and girded by taxpayer dollars flowing into banks and out of schools.