The Arizona Desert Lamp

Give me back that year, good or bad

Posted in Culture by Evan Lisull on 3 December 2008

Over at her blog, Laura Donovan makes the case for the gap year:

Melville strived to be a great literary figure like Shakespeare, and though they both had similar educational backgrounds, Melville wrote less and learned about life as a whaler out at sea. He exemplifies the importance of learning by experience, and very few seem to recognize how much more a person can grow from an experience than a lesson in a classroom. Young people are looked down upon if they choose not to go to college, especially if they have the resources and intelligence to attend. Where does that leave those who just crave adventure and frequent change? Some just don’t see the personal value of a college education.

. . .

High School seniors would benefit from taking a year off before college to go out and do something worthwhile. I wish I could have taken this path before coming to the University of Arizona, but my high school counselor and teachers spoke as if college was the only route to take. Princeton University recommends students take a year off because studies have shown that students who travel abroad before starting college aren’t as likely to drop out as new freshmen are. Clearly, there’s more to personal growth and stimulation than textbooks and lectures can provide.

I’m personally torn on the gap year. Right now, heading into academic götterdämmerung, a year off from the U. sounds pretty good. While Donovan cites a great Melville quote, I’m led to think more of Truman Capote, who went straight to work as a copy-boy at the New Yorker when he was 17. “Still,” he said, “I was fortunate to have it, especially since I was determined never to set a studious foot inside a college classroom. I felt that either one was or wasn’t a writer, and no combination of professors could influence the outcome. I still think I was correct, at least in my own case.” Real world experience is essential to becoming the “complete” person that college was once intended to achieve. But now that morality and personal character has been completely removed from the curriculum, and the university becomes more and more divorced from its surroundings, it becomes little more than a bad MTV sitcom; and without personal dedication, you can go through four years without any teneable personal change. This makes the gap year all the more important.

At the same time, I can’t shake the notion that the “gap year” is a rich kid’s luxury. Melville worked on a whaling schooner, but I don’t see many of today’s gap-year-ers doing the same. Instead, they get comfy apartments and volunteer for theatre troups. They go to India — which is nice, but study abroad can certainly fill that gap. Instead of a genuine Experience, kids are instead just “relaxing” from that taxing time in high school, putting off the “hard work” of college.

It is a romantic notion. But cultural acceptance is a huge aspect of why this isn’t catching on. Making it an institution, rather than a personal holiday, requires a huge shift in mores.

Two thoughts here:

– I’m thinking that the university could implement something along a line of long-term acceptances. Here, students could be accepted in 2009, but could go through a process to defer that admission for, say, five years.

– Would a gap year be more effective before or after college? I can see arguments either way.

3 Responses

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  1. Laura Donovan said, on 3 December 2008 at 3:01 pm

    You’re right, the Capote quote is better for my argument. I just grew up under the impression that people find themselves in college, and as you said, it feels more like an MTV sitcom than a personal learning experience. I learned a lot more about life in high school and childhood.

    Most people don’t have the luxury of just running off for a year, but at the same time, a lot of people also don’t have money for college. The gap-year-do-er’s would be better off doing something value and productive like teaching in another country. I’m not advocating “hanging out” for a year, and I don’t see how anyone could be happy doing absolutely nothing with their time, either. It’s a romantic and somewhat unrealistic idea, but it works for some.

    To answer your questions-
    1. Long-term acceptances sound reasonable, and several universities already do this.
    2. A gap year would be more effective before college. It allows a young person to grow up and mature before going off to school, and they may be more enthusiastic about their schoolwork when they start since they won’t be as anxious to get out and see the world. I also think someone would be more prepared for life after college this way.

  2. Connor Mendenhall said, on 3 December 2008 at 3:03 pm

    I can see a gap year as an awesome opportunity for reflection and self development for the disciplined, but I can also see it as a sort of transfer of the more traditional junior year abroad to the beginning of college, another symptom of a constantly accelerating demand to achieve. After all, that year you spent building sustainable housing for Peruvian peasants after high school will look mighty fine on your all-important resume.

  3. Walter Krieg said, on 4 December 2008 at 8:02 am

    I have responses to offer you on many of your theses and questions, but let me defer to experts that I have worked with at The Center for Interim Programs. They are gap year counselors and can certainly help to dispel your notion of a gap year as a rich kid’s luxury or a time for sitting around an apartment. I happened upon your question by receiving a google alert about your blog. Hope I haven’t intruded.

    You might want to note that Princeton University has just instituted a “Bridge Year” that allows acceptance and actually supports your gap year as part of the curriculum.

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