The Kiddy Pool: The Gap Year and the Sabbath
On Wednesdays in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
Malia Obama’s recent acceptance—and subsequent deferral—at Harvard University has drawn attention to the idea of a “gap” or “bridge” year. In a controversial New York Times Op-Ed, “Don’t Send Your Kids to College. At Least Not Yet,” Abigail Falik trumpets the benefits of this year off, typically taken between high school and college. Then again, Falik is founder and C.E.O. of Global Citizen Year, which stylizes itself as a “non-profit social enterprise on a mission to make it normal to choose a bridge year; an experience after high school that builds self-awareness, global skills, and grit—the foundations for success in college and beyond.” Note that the organization opts for the term “bridge” instead of “gap” to show its connectedness rather than its lack. Yet however impassioned and/or truthful the advertising, it’s still Falik’s business.
We were made to work, yes, but we were made to rest, too.As much as Falik may hope for Malia Obama to spark a trend, it’s difficult to disentangle the Obamas’ privileged position from their elder daughter’s decision to defer college at, of all things, an Ivy League School. In her own analysis of Malia Obama’s announcement, Adrienne Green cites the National Center for Education Statistics, whose study suggests “delayed entrants who are racial minorities, come from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds, and have parents who are not college-educated, are at a sizable disadvantage compared to peers who enter college right away.” Indeed, Green points out the disparity between encouraging high-achieving, wealthy college students to delay admission and urging so called “at-risk” students to enroll immediately. It would be unfair to say that Malia Obama represents the average college applicant, and it seems like much of the confusion and contention surrounding the “gap year” relates to privilege.
The idea that finding oneself, or building one’s character, or simply taking a much-needed break is a sign of privilege shows up in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And, of course, it’s not confined to the college application process. Take, for instance, my husband and me. He is a tenured professor eligible for a sabbatical next year, which he will gladly take. I don’t begrudge him that, and I sincerely believe the time to refocus his energies will ultimately benefit him and his university: it’s not a break per se but a shifting of priorities and a time for quieter, more reflective work than his typical committee and administrative duties. I, on the other hand, work at the same university as an adjunct. There is no sabbatical, and certainly not with pay, and that is the condition that most workers in most places face. Call it a bridge year or a sabbatical; it’s privilege either way.
It’s no surprise, though, that sabbatical shares the same etymology as Sabbath. We are all called to honor the Sabbath, partly to worship and attend to the Lord in a more focused way, and partly because (and I believe this of all God’s rules for us) God knows it’s good for us. We resist a day of rest like children resist sleep, but there’s a reason God created us to require rest; without need, we’re not so great at doing the right things for ourselves. It’s easy to see the ways that even this simple weekly Sabbath seems like a privilege. As the mother and primary caretaker of two small children, I mostly feel like I haven’t had a break in about seven years. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but it’s not a stretch to say that those without elitist jobs or wealth, and those whose lives center on care work (who ministers to those who minister?) struggle to define and keep a Sabbath.
I don’t begrudge Malia Obama, or any of her fortunate peers, her bridge year. The problem, as I see it, is not that some people get a Sabbath but that the premium on self-development and introspection is too high for most of us to (self-)actualize. I know there are organizations that would contradict that claim, but in times when college itself is astronomically expensive, the idea of delaying it (and further employment) is formidable for many families. And that push of propelling students through primary and secondary schooling with such anxiety that it calls for a break shows something deeply wrong with our values.
We were made to work, yes, but we were made to rest, too. Even the bridge year seems shallow when immersed within a larger culture where surviving on as little sleep as possible serves as a humblebrag. We were also made to worship, and to rest. I love the idea of a bridge year for all students, but it finds its precedent in the older and wiser commandment that we’re called to follow: that Sabbath shouldn’t be only for the privileged few. Instead of a bridge or a gap for a privileged few (and then only for a short time), we need to reconsider rest within our systems. It’s critical to knowing ourselves—and it’s critical to knowing our God.
Image by greymatters via Pixabay.