It took me almost 20 years to return to college after giving up my dance department scholarship at the University of Illinois in 1999. That’s generally not what they mean by “taking a gap year.”
Sometimes I wonder where the years went. By most conventional signposts, I did not make much of it: I don’t own real estate, and I don’t have a retirement account. I’m not married and don’t have children. I don’t have any big career successes or prestige and haven’t received any promotions, awards, titles or accolades. Actually, I worked for money as little as possible and spent as much energy as I could volunteering, going to cultural events and learning whatever I fancied.
Now I’m at UC Berkeley, and I study political economy with a concentration in neoliberalism. From an economist’s point of view, I added very little to output and productivity, sold very little of my labor and contributed, by the numbers, very little to society. And yet I am thrilled by the choices that I’ve made and can point to many impacts I have made on society that go unmeasured by standard economic models or conventional definitions of success.
Economics has a funny little tendency to sweep everything under the rug that cannot in some way be measured — from narcotics to volunteerism (and I’ve enjoyed both to varying degrees). Lately there have been more efforts to embrace these unknowns and to complexify models, but in the end, there still exists a singular obsession with GDP growth.
I remember laughing out loud in economics class when they first introduced the concept of “utils” — vaguely quantifiable units of “utility,” alternately understood as happiness, value, satisfaction or consumer preference. However, I came to maximize my “utils” not by what I chose to consume, but by the quality of my relationships to other people in my community and in the natural world: relationships that I noticed usually netted more benefit when remaining unmediated by money — relationships that were not transactional.
I dropped out of college because, though I was studying in a creative field, I still felt boxed in. At the time, I lived in a special dorm where several guests-in-residence came every year to conduct workshops and programs with students. Most of the people who came to attend, however, were students not of the university, but of a small formerly unaccredited institution in Urbana, Illinois, called the School for Designing a Society, which I eventually withdrew from the university to attend.
This school offered no tangible capitalizable rewards. Classes, ranging from cybernetics to clowning, were held in living rooms and backyards and were organized by former professors and professional performers. Field study was frequent and included street theater and gardening. There, at age 18, I was introduced to the cooperative movement, sustainable agriculture, the radical faeries (ask me later) and a swath of other ideas and practices. Of course, these all exist in quantity here in the Bay Area and to some extent on campus, but remember that I was a child of the Lower Midwest in the 1990s!
One powerful lesson this school taught me was that, with other people, I could design a curriculum and community that was far more relevant to my life and to the world around me than my former university was. I learned to work creatively with others in a nonmarket capacity to address issues of crucial social importance. I learned that there were endless social alternatives to the common “middle-American” narrative and that I need not permanently fixate on my career and my bank account. I learned that a broader education could be more easily stoked outside of educational institutions.
I was able to experience the rewards and perils of collective decision-making and communal living. This taught me more thoroughgoing lessons about direct democracy and social power than those I could learn reading theory. And I learned how we recreate the world every day with our words, habits and social structures — and that every day we have the choice to create that world differently.
Many years have gone by since then, and I have taken advantage of many other learning environments along the way, from book clubs and university extension classes to internships, conferences and on-the-job training. There does come a time, however, when the formal environment and structured academic rigor offered by a top university trump the freedom of meandering intellectual exploration. In market terms, the net benefit to me of a university education has finally surpassed the net cost of that education.
After my gap decade or two, I’m back (and old enough to be my classmates’ dad, albeit a very young dad). Along the way, there came to be many stories to tell — stories that don’t fall neatly into the prefabricated categories of the college-to-career mill. I’m looking forward to sharing them.
Mark Shipley writes the Thursday column on his experience as a Gen X transfer student. Contact him at [email protected] .