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…

Rest in Peace, Professor

IMG_0720Didn’t I just do one of these?

Sadly, time refuses to stand still…and death to stay his hand.

This time it was a titan not of the smaller world of sci-fi, but one that strode the entire world: Stephen Hawking.

Now, unless you live under a rock — or are just totally divorced from popular culture — you know who Hawking was, at least in a general way.

Take what you know and multiply that a hundred times.

Many of us know Hawking as the man who managed to “boil down” the incomprehensibility of astrophysics and cosmology in A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell.  More, even, know of him from The Simpsons and Star Trek and Big Bang Theory.

Hawking was a great communicator, yes, but he was no vapid, empty suit who could talk only about others’ theories and accomplishments. His (all-but-incomprehensible-to-normal-humans) work on the Big Bang and on blackholes provide some of the very building blocks in their respective areas of cosmology and astrophysics.  He challenged theories and thought — even his own! — and he changed things.  In the process, he left an intellectual legacy that will last for generations.

But he was (still) more than that.

He was one of the bravest, and most driven, humans to ever live.

Most saw the wheelchair, and the attached computers that allowed him to communicate, and saw shackles and limitations.  Hell, the doctors who gave him two years to live — in 1963 — saw only death and failure.  Hawking, however, saw past those limitations and found reasons to live, and to thrive: “However difficult life may seem,” he said, more than 50 years after his predicted demise, “there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

So, to the man who was “supposed to die” in his twenties, I say this: Congratulations, sir, on a life well and truly lived.  Thank you for surpassing every boundary, whether theoretical or real, and for teaching others to follow.


Relax, Folks

I admit it: I’m a simple man, amused by simple things.  Beyond the Simpsons and Mel Brooks and Monty Python, I get a huge kick out of conspiracy theories…and especially out of the folks who obsess about them.

Right now, easily the most entertainment is coming from “flat earthers”.  For whatever reason — and I have zero idea why — this particular conspiracy theory has bubbled to the top in terms of media mentions and attention.  It’s that bubbling to the top that has made it fun, however!

The stories and Youtube videos about these folks — both for and against — are entertaining enough…but then you get to the comments.  Oh, the comments…  My God, are those comments pure gold!  Heck, they’re more entertaining than the dang stories/videos themselves.

orgin_of_secret_societies-invertNow, as much fun as I have with the believers of that theory, it is those who are obsessed with attacking them that provide some of the funniest moments.  Don’t get me wrong, the whole “flat earth” thing is loony as hell…but it’s no loonier than the Freemasons being a nefarious, centuries old plot to dominate the world (as opposed to a bunch of old guys who like funky handshakes and hanging out for drinks a couple of nights a week…). It’s certainly no loonier than the “aliens among us”, or the Illuminati, or the Rosicrucians, or the…ah, hell, go ahead and pick your own!

But, for some reason, the flat earthers just seem to get some opponents going.  A number of folks take the whole thing personally, get well and truly angry and upset about it.  Hell, to a number, it represents not a loony, very small-time conspiracy theory, but is instead a symbol of the complete breakdown of modern society.

Oh, please.

The flat-earthers no more represent the end of civilization and the triumph of ignorance than a pair of 80-year-olds exchanging secret handshakes represent a secret cabal controlling the fate of humanity.

Honestly, I think the people who get so wound up and obsessed with “debunking” the looniness are the reason it even exists in the first place!  Oh, I’m sure there are folks out there who really believe the Earth is flat*…all of about five of them.  No, most of the “flat earthers” aren’t believers, I’d say; it’s far more likely that they’re out there just absolutely trolling the shit out of the angry folks.

discworld_main*I think Terry Pratchett had it about right with Discworld: It’s flat!  And on the backs of four elephants!  Who are standing on top of a turtle!

Think about it: you post a video, or a link…you make a few comments…and touch off a firestorm of people working themselves into a frenzy and a fury.  You then grab a beer, sit back, and laugh your ass off watching people twist themselves into knots linking your “flat earth” crap to every problem they see in the world: the left will say it shows how the right have destroyed education!  The right will say that, no, it shows how the left has destroyed the family and the last vestiges of morality!  It’s inbred rednecks! No, it’s college snowflakes!  It’s Americans!  No, it’s Canadians!

I’ve never posted a link or story or video on the whole “flat earth” thing…but, my God have I enjoyed the show that follows!

Really, folks, is the whole thing worth getting upset about?  Just how empty does a person’s life have to be to get upset about someone else beliefs?  Just how vituperative and politically narcissistic do you have to be to turn a cheesy conspiracy theory into anything more than a laugh?

Great, now I’m getting myself back into a “conspiracy-theory-mood”. Hell, maybe someday I’ll actually finish that satire I’ve had kicking around the back of my mind for the last couple of decades!

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.