Ben Kean

The Purpose of a Gap Year

In a recent article entitled “Tufts Will Now Fund Gap Years So Needy Teenagers Can Get Drunk Abroad,” Jordan Weissman critiques Tufts University’s alleged misuse of aid money for gap years, arguing that they are a waste of time. His article reflects a very common sentiment, that the modern trend of spending a year between high school and college is a frivolous and unproductive distraction from the goal every young person should have: getting a career as soon as possible.

First and foremost, gap years aren’t a year-long drinking fest in which students do nothing but party.

I am currently a student at a yeshiva (Jewish religious seminary) in Israel for a gap year between high school and college. We spend our time sober and working. I also have friends who have done, or are currently doing totally different types of gap year programs, including volunteer programs, political science programs, and internships. These people spend most of their time doing constructive things with their programs or internships.

To compare hours spent working, I spoke with a number of friends who are serious students at high-powered universities. A friend from Columbia reported working upwards of 10 hours a day between class time and homework. A friend from Washington University in St. Louis similarly reported about 10. A friend at Williams College answered about 7.

By comparison, I spend about 10 hours a day either in class or doing independent study. A friend, who is doing a program in which he takes classes in language, politics, and world cultures, and also travels worldwide to experience the cultures he studies first-hand, reported spending three and a half hours either in class or doing homework, in addition to all of the trips that his program takes. Now I’m not saying that I work as hard or am under as much stress as the average college student. What I am saying, however, is that gap year students are spending their time productively.

However the most important point is that even though many gap year students may drink in addition to all of the incredible things that they do, college kids also do an insane amount of drinking.

People in the 18-25 demographic drink, regardless of whether they are working, in college, or doing a gap year. Try Googling “college drinking.” When I did it, I got 244,000,000 results in 0.36 seconds! If you’re going to argue that aid to students for gap year programs is a misuse of funding because of excessive drinking, then maybe you should consider cutting financial aid to college students because of the excessive drinking that happens on college campuses.

Of course, that would make no sense because college kids still do many productive things, even though they drink, just like gap year students do many productive things, even though some may drink. That is because a drinking culture doesn’t necessarily equal a lack of productivity.

Further more, gap years enhance education and knowledge.

People who take gap years seriously understand that there are multiple settings which are conducive to a person’s education and that different learning environments teach different things. Traditional academic classes are wonderful for teaching research skills, teaching academic principals, or conveying information. Volunteering in a third-world country endows students with a greater understanding of a culture different from their own and think about life from a new point of view. My friend on the world-cultures and politics program that I mentioned earlier is gaining a much greater understanding of how international relations and conflict resolution work. Working or interning provides students with a new outlook on a specific field and a work environment not based on tests and grades. For example, my friend who spent a year after high school working for a Bay Area startup says he learned way more about programming by working than he ever did by reading about it.

In my own experience, yeshiva has enabled me to relate to texts and knowledge in a completely different light and has given me an important set of analytic skills I never would have developed in my secular schooling. The goal of secular academia and traditional Jewish scholarship are totally different. Secular academia seeks to generate and gain a breadth of new information, research, statistics, ideas, etc., whereas traditional Jewish scholarship seeks to gain precise, in-depth understanding of concepts within the system of Jewish and law and thought. New ground is not broken until every stone has been turned over.

The style of secular writing and traditional Jewish writing is also quite different. Secular writing is meant to be as clear as possible, and outside the field of literature, it can be taken at face value. Jewish texts are the opposite. They are terse, require inferences, and leave much to be figured out. Obvious face value in Jewish scholarship goes WAY deeper than looking for themes in literature. No word or letter is left unaccounted for in trying to gain a precise understanding.

Yeshiva students, even native Hebrew speakers, are also forced to confront a significant language barrier head on, in a way that I was never forced to in any of the many foreign language classes that I took. In my past foreign language classes, I was first taught words and structures, then given easy readings to practice. I would slowly work my way up from their. That’s not how it worked in yeshiva. I was told to open the Talmud, which uses a wide variety of words and language structures, in addition to having its own unique rhythm, and start reading. It was a totally different way of relating to language.

Every aspect of my gap year has forced me to use my brain in ways I never would have otherwise.

However, society’s relationship to the purpose of higher education is quite different from what it used to be.

Once upon a time, the purpose of higher education and universities was to increase knowledge for its own sake, based on the idea that increased education of any kind is in some way good for society, even if there is no direct economic benefit. That is why liberal arts curricula require all students to take courses in many different fields of study, even though odds are that an engineer will never need to know Shakespeare, nor will most English teachers need to know physics.

Today, the purpose of higher education has shifted in many people’s eyes to being a mere prerequisite for a well-paying career. As such, the value of creating the most wholesome and complete education possible is lost to many who wish to reduce that system, which is meant to increase knowledge, into a system to train professionals for careers.

With the perspective that the only purpose of higher education is to fulfill the necessary prerequisites for a career, there is no room for any learning or self-growth that is not career oriented. Anything that doesn’t go on a resume is a frivolous waste of time. Gap years, which often, but not always, focus on self-growth or learning that is not career oriented, fall into the category of “frivolity” in this world-view.

Once gap-years fall into this category, it is very easy to understand how people like Weissman make the jump to accuse gap years of being little more than an excuse to party. If gap years are a frivolity and a waste of time, then gap year students probably do nothing but frivolous, unproductive things. What frivolous, waste of time do all teenagers do? Drink! And the cherry on top: many countries have a lower drinking age than the United States. Therefore, gap-years abroad must be spent doing nothing other than drink.

However, that’s not the case.

If institutions of higher education are interested in preserving the ideals of higher education, that all knowledge, a variety of learning experiences, and perspectives, then they should encourage gap years. Why?

Because gap years give students new perspectives on life.

My gap year has given me a different outlook from that of the suburban American bubble that I and many college-aged kids grew up in. It has allowed me to see my life as something other than a rat-race to some high-powered career. My gap year has given me a greater balance between the mind, the body, and the physical world that America’s education system denies its students.

Having a daily routine that is not based on test scores and my college admissions profile, but rather based on genuine self-assessment of my own efforts is eye-opening. It forces me to truly strive to do my best, rather than someone else’s best. This is something many Americans don’t truly experience until they finish college.

Did Buddha achieve enlightenment sitting in a classroom? No, he achieved it by detaching himself from his materialistic surroundings and meditating.

Did Moses receive his first prophecy listening to a lecture? No, he was tending his father-in-law’s flocks away from his upbringing in the Pharoah’s palace, while contemplating life.

Was David Thoreau inspired to write Walden while in a university/academic setting? No, he was in self-seclusion in a cabin he built in the woods.

Did Gandhi gain the leadership qualities and non-violent philosophy which he used in his incredible campaign for Indian independence while studying law at University College London? No, he developed these things in South Africa while fighting legal discrimination against Indians there.

People often do great things while off the beaten path, outside the traditional education/job route, or in a different culture. Gap years allow students to do just that, to do something off the beaten path. Colleges that want better students, who think beyond the experiences they grew up with, would be wise to encourage gap years.

About the Author
Ben Kean was born and raised in the Washington, DC, area and is currently studying at Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah in Zanoah (near Beit Shemesh). His interests include learning Torah, art, reading anything by anybody about anything, and arguing.