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A Well-Rounded Education Doesn't Have to Start with College

I’m going to step back from economics for a moment and write about teaching economics to both undergraduates and graduate students. Based on that experience, I have some advice for talented high school students: Don’t go to college. And advice for talented college graduates: Don’t get a job.
A Complete Education
Of course there is a caveat. You should do both of them eventually, just not right away. Take a year off, either after high school or after college.

Use that year to do something interesting that you’ll likely never be able to do again: write a book, hike the Appalachian Trail, live with your grandparents, trek in Katmandu, volunteer at a health clinic in India, or serve your country in the military.

Just do something that will make you a more complete person. I suspect that it’ll also make you appreciate your education more (and, ironically, make you more attractive when you do apply for college or enter the job market).

Rules of Engagement
I have two rules. First, you have to support yourself. If you’re writing that novel, then you need to be waiting tables when you’re not at the keyboard. If you’re traveling across India, then you’ve got to earn the money before you go. This isn’t about Mom and Dad funding leisure travel. The time will only be meaningful if you have to work for it, literally.

And second, this experience can’t be one of those uber-competitive kinds of programs that are designed as a means to get you somewhere else — like NASA physics camp or 14 hours a day of intensive gymnastics.

The World a Classroom
Why should an 18- or 22-year-old head for Nepal instead of the University of Illinois or Wall Street?

For three reasons. First, because you can. Because the world is an interesting place, life is short, and there just aren’t that many opportunities to take long stretches to do really cool things.

Second, and perhaps more practical, it’ll make you appreciate your education more, whether you do it before or after college. I remember the first time I saw terraced rice paddies in Indonesia. I’d taken a course on monsoon Asia in college but the concepts seemed remote and academic. But when I was standing in Bali, staring up at the remarkable green fields carved into the mountainside, I finally understood all the facts that I’d memorized for the exams.

Book-Smart, Life-Ignorant
Last, it’ll impart perspective and maturity. I’ve encountered a small but growing number of students — amazingly smart and talented people — who just seem intellectually immature and even emotionally unhealthy. They’re obsessed with grades more than learning (because good grades are necessary to do the next hypercompetitive thing).

Despite enormous talent, I fear that these students aren’t prepared for a world in which the best path isn’t always the most competitive one; where failure is a precondition for success; where there are no letter grades to signpost success. They are smart but not wise — and more life experience, both the waiting tables and the trekking in Nepal, would help that.

I imagine this kind of immaturity is an inevitable part of growing up, but it feels more common to me these days. Perhaps this is what comes of a generation characterized by parents who made extraordinary efforts to get them into the right preschool.

Hitting the Road
In any case, when it comes to taking a year off, I write from experience. When I was a senior in high school, I told my principal that I wanted to take a year off before going to college. He talked me out of the idea, but to his eternal credit he persuaded me to do it after college.

So I did. After graduation, I spent four months working at a law firm where I was paid a relatively large hourly sum to put 50,000 production documents in chronological order. I lived at home and caddied on the weekends. (In one of life’s little ironies, the last guy I ever caddied for — after a 13-year looping career — was George W. Bush. Go figure.)

When I had enough for the trip, I left for Colorado, then California, then Tahiti, then Australia and New Zealand — and so on, across Southeast Asia, China, India, Europe, and home. People often tell me how lucky I was, which is true in a broad sense, but not when it comes to having done this trip. The whole journey — with a budget of $20 a day — cost roughly as much as a Honda Civic at the time. Have you ever told a college graduate that he was lucky to be able to afford a Honda Civic?

Meeting Resistance
Curiously, most people — including my college peers — thought that taking a year off to travel was a terrible idea at the time. One relative told me that I would be “a year behind,” a comment that only makes sense if you believe that life consists of checking off a series of boxes — job, kids, house, vacation home — and then ringing a bell.

There are two common arguments against taking time off to do something off the beaten track. The first is that “you can always do it later.” I find that kind of sad; to quote Langston Hughes, a dream deferred is a dream denied. How many people do you know who have hiked the Appalachian Trail, volunteered at a clinic in India, written a novel, or done any of the things I mentioned above? These kinds of things don’t get easier when you have kids and a mortgage.

The second is that this is some kind of elitist boondoggle. That’s just nonsense. My wife (who as my girlfriend at the time) made the around-the-world trip with me. She graduated from an Ivy League school with a full load of student loans. She worked as a waitress on Nantucket (living in a bunkhouse behind the country club) until she’d earned enough to travel around the world for nine months and pre-pay her loans for a year. Then she came back, got a corporate job, and paid off the rest of the student loans. Not bad for someone with three siblings, all raised by a single parent who taught preschool for a living.

A Leg Up
The irony of taking a year out is that it’s a pretty good career move, too. You get a unique life experience, and a year later, should you so choose, you can still apply to Harvard Law School.

Only in that pile of applications, you’re the one who wrote a book or went around the world. That’s who I want in my classes.

Written by Charles Wheelan, Ph.D.
Article Source: http://finance.yahoo.com/expert/article/economist/103250



Publish date: May 14, 2009