Take this question: Should a high school graduate go directly to college right after high school, or should he or she get away for a year or two to accumulate experiences and perspectives from the wider world? It's a compelling question for an 18-year-old, not to mention for parents. Is it also a momentous question? Perhaps. Parents may exhibit high anxiety if the subject even comes up. Are there advantages in this competitive global economy in having had to make it on your own for a while, in going places and doing things that have little to do with advancing your career?
This week's story in the Almanac on the gap-year option looks at a few local graduates who report on how they spread out across the planet after high school — to a game reserve in South Africa for a stint of manual labor and veterinary work; to Taiwan to study Chinese while working as a night watchman in a crowded hostel; to southern France and Redwood City as a cooking intern, and then as a student at cooking schools in Europe.
That cooking intern was Christine Rogers of Atherton, now a Stanford freshman. She is "so much more confident and outgoing than before she went away," and is now cooking for her dorm, her mother, Mindy Rogers, says.
The night watchman in Taiwan was University of Puget Sound freshman Jack Sieber of Woodside. "My parents weren't very big supporters of this idea," he says after his sojourn in China, "so I had to put up a lot of the money myself. I had to be very entrepreneurial."
Duke University senior Claire Gilhuly of Woodside says she came into college "refreshed and excited to learn," after a year in Paris studying French, and then south to Montpellier to study cooking while staying with a host family.
Few in the local community in recent years appear to be choosing such a path. This week's story noted a handful of seniors from Menlo-Atherton, one from Woodside High, two to four from Menlo School, two or three from the Woodside Priory, and four from Sacred Heart Prep.
Is there a higher priority than becoming an educated person? Maybe not, but what exactly is education, and whom should we be asking? "Education," said William Butler Yeats, "is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." From what Christine and Jack and Claire are saying and doing, that fire is inside them and it's burning brightly.
All this is not to deny the reality that conventional wisdom describes: Job hunting these days is brutal. No college degree means few prospects for a conventionally comfortable life unless you're a born entrepreneur. Good schools very often lead to good connections and a resume that survives the winnowing. Life-enriching experiences can be had after college, after all the hard work and the long hours, after winning the security of that degree, right?
The jury is out. Massive student debt now forces grads to choose jobs that may pay well but can damage their souls. Is there a college course in how to live fully? In figuring out what's important and what is not? How about a class in discovering what you really want to do, and, crucially, what you really do not want to do? There are valuable courses and important experiences to be had in college, but a great deal depends on what a student brings to it. The academy is not called the ivory tower for nothing.
"The ultimate goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursuing his own education," renowned educator, thinker and Stanford scholar John W. Gardner once said. "This will not be a widely shared pursuit until we get over our odd conviction that education is what goes on in school buildings and nowhere else."