Princeton hits upon an idea that many Europeans already practice in large, louche numbers: the ‘Gap Year’ between one’s secondary and higher education. Many of the Europeans fritter it away in Thailand and India, getting smashed with other continentals and doing unspeakable things. In Princeton’s case, a formal program that may ultimately encompass one-tenth of matriculating students is being articulated — it’s abroad, it’s subsidized.
One interesting thing about this proposal is the difference in the way the New York Times and Daily Princetonian cover it. While both make mention that this would be a “a year of social service work,” that string of words in the lede of the NYT is the only place in the article that mentions it, and the piece then goes on to conflate that with study-abroad.
Service abroad and study abroad are not even close to the same idea. I remember this becoming very clear when I was on a study-abroad program in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. There, you had the study-abroad students, who were speaking decent Swahili and who could give you a brief history of East Africa in colonial times three months after arriving, and then you had the “study-abroad” students. These were people who were a nominal presence on the campus — often sponsored through an American university — but just couldn’t be bothered to enroll in a language or history class because they were too busy organizing a book drive, serving soup, distributing mosquito nets, or doing something else that could have easily and more efficiently been done by a local who, incidentally, needs the job and is not having his parents actually pay to have their child pawned into this type of horizons-expanding service. (Inevitably, African students were incredulous at being told these white people had paid $7,000 to show up, work their unexceptional skills, and then feel good about themselves.)
Understanding a foreign culture — I mean, really understanding it — is hard and important work, and one does not accrue this understanding by hanging about and occasionally installing water pumps in a village before going for drinks with your soon-to-be college friends. In a world where all people take seriously ideas of an often radically different nature, where two people in America and Africa are not even starting off on the same epistemological foundations, the best thing anyone can do abroad is to spend a considered year abroad where a student learns the language intensively, with about 20 hours in the classroom per week, and then supplements this with historical reading and whatever he chooses to do in his free time — preferably just roaming around the market, taking in the scene, and using the language practically. If that spare part happens to be service work, then great — but why should that be an entire year’s primary orientation?
For a country where few people know a foreign language passably, wouldn’t it be much better to have college-bound Americans focus on that, rather than something as oblique as service?