The Gap Year

One of the scariest sentences in the world?  “So, I was thinking…”

Thinking is dangerous…thinking can get you into trouble.

But…well…I got to thinking, anyway….

It started when I wrote about education a little while back, got reinforced by an article I read after, then was brought to the front of my mind with a podcast I had playing while I drove.

What was I thinking about?  College.  The whats and whys, mainly, but also a tiny bit about the hows.

I did college twice, mostly because the first time I didn’t really come close to getting it right.  To be honest, I was most definitely one of those kids who would’ve benefited greatly from taking a couple of years between high school and college to work and travel and just experience something of the real world.

Put simply, I wasn’t ready for college at eighteen — I wasn’t mature enough, hadn’t experienced enough, and certainly hadn’t learned to understand myself enough.  There’s a reason why I went through a few majors before I got to linguistics (and my eventual degree).

If anyone thinks I’m alone in that immaturity, they’re either freakin’ insane, or they’re living in a disconnected dream-world that makes me ask, “where can I get some of that shit?”
Most kids, I would argue, are nowhere near ready for college nowadays.  Oh, I’m not talking about academics — most high schools are very good at box-checking when it comes to classes and subjects — but rather I’m talking about life, and survival, and the maturity that comes from experience of the wider world.

We can prepare high school kids with all the prerequisites in the world, but no school can teach them to expand their horizons and develop the self-reliance and confidence that success in college requires.  Look, I know college is looked at — nowadays — as the end of childhood, rather than the beginning of adult life, but that outlook just infantilizes the students and defers for five more years the act of growing up.

The less prepared are the incoming students, the more in loco parentis do the teachers and administrators have to be.  The way things stand at present — let alone in the future — those folks already have too much sway and power over things that should be none of their business.*

*A fact neither their fault, nor intentional on their part: it is the fault of the families, and of society itself, who have done little-to-nothing to prepare their kids to be adults able to think and judge for themselves.

I’m far too many words in to this post — already! — to get into every area I want to touch on, so I am just going focus and finish on this one point:

Taking-a-gap-yearThe Brits do it differently.  They do it differently and, in my eyes, they do it better.  When a high school kid finishes their A-levels, they typically take a “gap year” to work or travel or study.  A year to grow up, and to experience something of the world.  A year to, hopefully, prepare themselves for university.  When that year is done, and university is beckoning, the students take three years for a bachelors.

Three years, not the five that is now average in the US.  Yes, the British Universities are structured differently than ours…but I defy anyone to show even the slightest evidence that they are somehow worse.

I repeat: THREE YEARS.  From the perspective of student debt* and finances alone, that is a huge win.  A gap year increases the odds that, unlike me in my freshman and sophomore years, a new student will have at least some idea as to what major they want to pursue.  We here in the US charge an arm-and-a-leg for college, and then do everything possible to stretch out that college experience.  Very, very few humans who walk away with $50,000-$100,000 in college debt are going to see sufficient return to justify that expense.  What, though, if we could reduce that by 40%?  Yeah, I’d take that deal, too…

*spit**spit* Don’t even get me started on the evil idiocy that is the US student debt industry — there aren’t enough curse words in the universe for me to express my derision and hate for that particular monster.

From an academic perspective, too, the reduced time in university is a win. From the perspective of the classes and work that is important to their intended major, three years of focused and intentional study is as much better than five of meandering confusion as it is from the financial perspective.

The point of this rant?  For those of you with kids nearing those college years — middle and high school age kids — think about what best prepares your kid.  Is it to go straight to university?  To, potentially, spend a year or two taking classes just to take classes…and, likely, partying, err, rather heavily?

Or is it better to spend a year experiencing the world?  A year to work…  A year to travel…  A year to, equally likely, party rather heavily…and get it out of their system?

You be the judge.

Looking back, by the way?  If I had it to do all over…the linguistics and history degrees would (very likely) be the same, even with a gap year, but the career path would be markedly different.  Oh, for all the paths I didn’t take, and the opportunities I missed…

Build The Whole Person

Just how many news stories can there be saying “kids are fatter today!”?  Just how many stories do we have to see and read attacking kids today for being shamefully “weak” and “lazy”?

Who, I have to ask, raised those kids?

Who created the system — the dynamics and emphases — that surrounds those kids?

Here’s a clue — it ain’t them.

If kids today are screwed up, it’s because we did it to them.  We took away recess and P.E. — the”official” times when kids learn about fitness and exercise — because those classes & times were “wasteful” and “non-educational”.  Then we started attacking the kids for not exercising enough.

We cancelled music, and literature, and government classes, then we got mad when the kids had no idea who Mozart or Shakespeare or Hamilton were.

We blamed the kids for their “weakness” and “failure” without the slightest twinge of guilt or shame at our own blatant hypocrisy.

Great example we’re setting.

Look, for all the popularity of educational buzzwords — not to mention the shortsightedness of, well, pretty much everybody — “building” a good student ain’t that hard.  Hell, let’s cut through the bullshit and just be honest: we’re not necessarily building students in elementary and middle school, anyway.  We’re helping to build people.

And right now, we’re building people trapped in that miserable hell that lies between bureaucratic inertia and political talking-points.  We’re building people who see value in nothing other than regurgitating information for a test…who see value in nothing other then pro forma academics for the sake of box-checking in a “permanent record”.  What we are not building — or, at least, what we are passive-aggressively discouraging — is curiosity and understanding.  What we are not building are well-rounded and intellectually honest people.

And that’s a fucking crime.

I’ve mentioned before that I think there are a number of things folks should know, or at least have experienced, in order to consider themselves educated and civilized.  Literature, art, math, science, music…if you don’t have an appreciation and basic understanding of all of these things, you are a one-trick pony, and one-trick-ponies are something to be pitied and avoided, not admired.

If we want our kids to actually have a chance in the world — the same chance we had, as a matter of fact — we need to offer it to them.  We need to give them the same opportunities we had.  We need to focus not on the “war” between STEM and liberal arts, but focus rather on the basics that build the person:

  • Plenty of unstructured play at recess for elementary school kids…and daily P.E. classes for middle and high schoolers.
  • Classes to learn and understand music and drama and art.
  • Classes on literature and history and languages, right alongside math and science.
  • And last, but most certainly, positively, definitely not least: vocational classes.  When I was a kid, over the course of five years from 8th grade to graduation, I had classes in woodworking, metalworking, electronics, auto repair, and forest firefighting.  I wouldn’t trade those for all the “STEM” in the world.  And, shit, I probably shouldn’t even talk about the fact that my school offered — and I took — something so “wasteful” as a class on “Home Economics”.  The basics of cooking, sewing, and a handful of other things.  All I will say is that, to this day, I both love to cook, and am very good at it.  Draw your own conclusions.

I’m going to save for a future post my thoughts on the current trend towards “mandatory” college for all, but I do want to tout the value of even a small amount of vocational training.  I learned things in those classes that I still find valuable today…as valuable as all the calculus and chemistry I learned, and far more valuable than the bullshit of the “standardized tests”.

In the end, if our kids — any and all of the current younger generations — are disappointments, it is not their failure, it’s ours.