If you asked me a year ago whether I would take a gap year after graduating from Year 12, I would have simply stared at you as if you were but a brainless emu standing naked in the middle of the street, blindly bathing in your own pool of stupidity. No doubt, my confused stare would have moulded into a judgmental incision into the deepest, darkest depths of your soul. Then, I would have uttered with utmost incredulity: “What? Heck no!”

For some reason, I always had a deep prejudice for gap years. I thought of them more or less as ‘those things that lost people do after high school,’ and like vermin… or a room full of icky-sticky preschoolers running amok, a gap year was something that I was committed to stay clear of. Reflecting on it now, I see how naive I was. The main reason for my quick dismissal of the merits of a gap year was not because I had my life sorted out and had an impenetrable vision of my life sitting in my trusty brain. Instead, it probably came down to my conformity.

Schooling and conformity

I confess that I have been a minion for most of my life. It’s what schooling does to us. We like to think that formal education nurtures knowledgeable and inquisitive individuals, and for the most part that is true. But something else that is equally true and more alarming is that modern schooling is also a great big factory that churns out adorable little minions year after year, and each one of these little minions have mastered the art of Simon Gru Says.

The long lesson of conformity begins early in primary school with lots of harmless rules-things like “Don’t run on concrete”, or the cute affair of lining up in impeccable lines with strictly one partner (no more and no less!), or strict uniform policies, and the list goes on. As our little minions move into higher grades, they are expected to an ever rising degree to conform to set guidelines, and before they know it, they’re drowning neck-deep in criteria sheets; they’re measuring their worth on what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ as told by school authorities; and they’re constantly paranoid about straying from The One True Path as decreed by syllabus requirements and assessment rubrics.

This widespread culture of conformity is exacerbated by the assumption that every student is identical. Like sheep, students are invariably shepherded from one pasture to the next at the end of every year. Modern schooling has warped the organic, meandering journey of true learning into an industrialised, linear pathway that zips from point A to point B with express FedEx efficiency but a dysfunctional ethos of “no size fits all.” Those who lose most from this model of modern education is the students themselves, specially those at the middle and lower ends of the normal distribution. These students are either too busy conforming to/catching up with the performance of other students, or experiencing disappointment and low self-esteem, to focus on learning and self-improvement at all. In an ideal educational system, no student should feel ‘left behind’ because learning should be personalised and not delivered in its current conformity-breeding, competitive form.

To really paint a picture of what I think modern education is doing to students, let me tell you about the Chinese tradition of foot binding. Everyone today would agree that forcefully binding your feet is, at least, an unnecessary idea and, at most, a harmful and unnatural one, especially at at time when the foot is naturally growing. Previously in China, women’s feet were bound tightly from a young age. This practice led to grotesque, misshaped feet, broken bones, infection, rotting flesh, and less than ideal blood circulation. By no means do I compare education to such a harmful tradition, but an underlying similarity is the somewhat forceful imposition of criteria and rubrics and strict guidelines on the natural process of learning. Now, I am aware that this comparison isn’t entirely accurate. Growing a foot is adequately directed by the time-tested ability of biology and genes, and so constraining an effective, natural process is clearly harmful to growth. Learning may not be as clearly directed by ‘natural’ influences, and we do require much more guidance. But here’s the catch: Nurturing guidance is exactly what modern education can benefit from, but it seems that this guidance has overreached and devolved into an unfortunate foot-binding-esque constraint on intellectual curiosity and individuality.

The problem highlighted here is the undeniable culture of conformity existent in most school systems. I strongly believe that learning doesn’t have to be this way. Learning should be an organic process involving numerous failures as well as successes. Learning should be about bringing forward the raw curiosity that is already in every child’s mind. On the contrary, learning should not be about following criteria or memorising specific answers for specific exam styles. What the world needs is personalised learning. Every student is different, and every student learns at a different pace.

I’m getting really side-tracked from gap years here, so I’m not going to share my thoughts on how we can achieve more natural, personalised learning in this particular post (but I will say that a flipped classroom is definitely a change in the right direction. I have been taking many online courses this year, learning at my own pace and re-watching videos and discussing problems with fellow e-learners. It has been magical!)

Back to gap years…

I believe that modern schooling makes you a big conformist. Some people are natural born rebels and so they are more immune to such effects, but for the vast majority of unfortunate souls, we tend to get more and more conforming year after year.

So for most of my life, I avoided even considering the possibility of taking a gap year because I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of being out of line with everyone else my age. I wanted to conform and graduate university in 4 years, as expected, and then maybe get a job, as expected, and then maybe destroy all happiness by creating children, as expected.

What I’ve learned on my gap year is that conformity is one big joke. Conformity only exists in two places: North Korea and school, because once you get into real life, you learn and live at your own pace. There are no more year levels; there are no more criteria sheets; there are no more uniform codes. School really is like a vacuum-an artificial, empty representation of life that is planted early into our brains. If school continued for the rest of our lives, imagine everyone marrying in the same year, giving birth in the same year, buying a house in the same year, ticking off life’s criteria sheets for the rest of your life! It’s ridiculous! The sooner you realise this fallacy, the sooner you will be free and truly soarrrrrrr.

Benefits of taking a gap year (or two)

So what are the benefits of taking a gap year? Here they are in all their glory:

  • Time to try new things: I tried so much new stuff this year that I found out what I love and what I don’t.
  • Get real-world experience: Working part-time is a great way to save up money and get a taste of what real life is like
  • Rest up and relax: Movies, Netflix (& no chill…), volunteering, sports, whatever - the year is yours!
  • Become more mature: You’re thinking less about study and more about yourself, life, politics, religion and world issues.

Happy gap yearing!