Take this question: Should a high school graduate go directly to college right after high school, or should she get away for a year or two to accumulate experiences and perspectives from the wider world? Whether to take a gap year is a compelling question for an 18 year old, not to mention for her 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 to make it on your own for a while, in going places and doing things that may have little to do with advancing your career?
Summer is the season that brings such adventures to mind. The future is out there and some adventures are best experienced when you're young and healthy. Having the money to explore in comfort is great, but so is not having that kind of money — to a point. In taking a meaningful break, you want to have a good plan. One place to start is a web search for "gap year," which turns up five or six outfits offering a range of possibilities.
A few ideas: interning with a lawyer in China, assisting a veterinarian in Romania, interning as a reporter in South Africa. A few more: rehabbing buildings in Thailand, assisting in the classroom in Ghana, working as a ranch hand in Australia.
Is there a higher priority than becoming an educated person? Maybe not, but what is education, and to whom should we be putting that question? "Education," said William Butler Yeats, "is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." Is there that fire inside you? How brightly is it burning?
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 aren't fulfilling. 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 institution 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."