I’ve met Swedes in the lava fields of the Big Island of Hawaii and islands off the Great Barrier Reef; I’ve enjoyed fresh OJ with Israelis at juice bars in the Caribbean; I’ve had long, beer-soaked conversations with Londoners in Marrakech, and admired the pyramids of Egypt with elderly Australian tourists. Rarely do I run into other Americans outside the U.S., and when I do, it’s usually because they have family out of the country. As a peripatetic American, one of the discussions that invariably comes up when one is traveling (I’m currently in the midst of two weeks in El Salvador) is how few Americans ever leave the United States. For a country so involved in international affairs, this is an anomaly—Europeans travel significantly more, both between their countries and throughout the rest of the world, as do the British (and of course the Irish), and even the far-flung nations of Australia and New Zealand, who would seem to have the "distance excuse" (which some Americans use), travel plenty; in fact, Aussies and Kiwis have a reputation for showing up in the most obscure locations and throwing a party.
At least part of the reason is a long-standing cultural one; it seems to me that people in other countries understand the value of travel, especially for young people. It helps one understand the rest of the world by experiencing it first-hand, lending cultural literacy the easy way (through first-hand experience), and makes one learn real, valuable skills. It also reinforces the benefits of learning a foreign language. And the reason so many non-Americans feel comfortable in places far from home is that they went abroad during their gap year, between high school and college.
Now that a bachelor's degree is necessary for the kinds of jobs that a high school education used to be sufficient for, more and more young Americans are attending college right after finishing high school. But maybe we should re-think the idea of what an education means, especially now that most of us are going to live long or very long lives. School is certainly important, but why are we rushing into college and then into the working world, and what could we gain — as a society and as individuals — if we followed the lead of Europeans, Australians and others, who often take a year to travel between high school and college? How would a year to gain perspective, education of a different sort, and life experience change what we want to do with our lives, how we view the rest of the world and our understanding of America's place in the world? I know that my travels have led me in new directions in my work and given me a first-hand understanding of how most people in most of the world live (which is very, very different than a typical middle-class life in the United States).
I didn't take a gap year between high school and college, but looking back, I should have. Coming from a small town in New York's Hudson Valley (which was a wonderful, if insular place to grow up), I had been on trips with my grandmother and even on my own, though the latter were domestic, and I was a fairly independent kid (I'm an only child). But I was still incredibly immature when I began my freshman year at Syracuse University, about four hours from my childhood home, when I was 18. I had no idea what I wanted to study, and changed my major three times over the course of my college career. I double-majored and minored because I just couldn't figure out where to focus. I was stalked by a senior guy after a few dates and had no idea how to handle the situation. While most semesters I over-achieved, one semester I will admit to pretty much just partying for three straight months because the pressure for me to figure out a career was too much to deal with. I was, like many college kids, figuring out who I was. If I had spent a year traveling beforehand, I really think I would have had a much better idea of what I wanted out of school and a more conscious conception of who I am and what's important to me. I ended up so confused that I spent the year after college traveling abroad and around the United States, and then finally got myself on my career journey.
The pressure on American kids in high school is intense (and significantly worse than when I was graduating), and diagnoses of depression and anxiety are shooting up across college campuses; at least some of this is related to expecting 18-year-olds to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives. In other countries, the gap year is some time and space to think, travel and figure out how they want to invest their college careers. It also forces one to learn geography, at least get a handle on foreign languages, eat new foods, learn other culture's histories (which can be very different from what we learn in school in the U.S.), learn how to budget time and money, and gain the skills of self-reliance and concurrently, knowing when and how to ask for help.
Since I mentioned money in the last paragraph, I will answer what is most Americans' first objection to a gap year — it's seen as expensive. But when you're 18 or 19, you don't need to stay in pricey hotels, and in fact hostels the world over are set up especially for young people. Food in most places outside the U.S. is incredibly cheap, and in other countries, the gap year isn't seen as only for the wealthy; many young people spend three to six months working for the money they will spend on travel once they are on the road; it's not handed to them by their parents.
Considering the lousy time-off policies Americans get once they begin working, a gap year might be the only chance — until retirement — that many Americans will ever get to really see the world that our country (and its voters) spends so much time influencing.