Why Malia’s Gap Year Matters

By: Julian Goetz | January 11, 2017
Topics: Education
The gap year is probably the only opportunity in your education career when you can physically step out of the bounds of a classroom and design your own learning for a sustained period of time.

Every year, more and more young people are taking gap years. Whether it’s a new celebritythought leader, actor, activist, gap years are becoming increasingly more common as a way to broaden and diversify the learning experiences young people go through before hitting the post-college world.

With last summer’s news of Malia Obama taking a year off, gap years have seen a marked spur in interest in the States, which we’ve heard reiterated around the country as we tour with the USA Gap Year Fairs.

But why does it matter that Malia’s taking a gap year? Should we be concerned that she’s taken a year off before starting college? Are we perhaps over-concerned about the choices of the President’s daughters? Of all the education topics we could be concerned about, why take a gap year?

The truth is, the American public education system has become overly interested in test-taking and rote learning, a paradigm that has only accelerated in the last 15 years. The downside isn’t that measuring progress is a bad thing. It’s that too often, measurement is defined in very narrow terms, leading us to over-emphasize the value of math and reading skills. To be clear, these skills are very important in predicting academic success. However, their correlation to success in life in general is far less clear. Moreover, the goal of education is not mere academic success, but rather preparation for life.


Howard Gardner’s seminal work on Multiple Intelligences Theory at the Harvard Graduate School of Education makes a very strong research case for the value of not only the many ways in which we can be educated, but also successful in life. Broadening the ways we define education as well as the autonomy of students to shape and design their own education is of increasing value in a highly specialized 21st century economy.

Which brings us to Malia.

The gap year is probably the only opportunity in your education career when you can physically step out of the bounds of a classroom and design your own learning for a sustained period of time. The gap year is in many ways the most powerful way to gain real experience, learn skills, and get a tactile sense of what it means to live and work in the world. If you’re able to travel during that time, it can give you an even greater sense of how the world really works, and what it means to live in a globalized, interconnected planet and economy.

Malia’s gap year, to spend time interning at the US Embassy in Spain, probably gave her an immense variety of skills and experience to prepare her for going back to school, this time at Harvard University, (just down the street). In addition to the international experience and being able to look upon her home country from a distance, she’s likely been able to brush up on her Spanish, already apparently quite good, develop greater independence, and learn the ins and outs of what our State Department is doing abroad. There’s likely no short list to the number of skills she’s learned during that experience.

And though her gap year experience was designed to be highly specialized, that’s not essential for most gap years. For many, the gap year is an opportunity to explore new experiences. Too many students go into their junior year of college having no idea what to major in. And it’s likely not their fault!

To know when you don’t know enough is a critical life skill. However, under pressure to declare, many make decisions that they ultimately regret, or change, costing them extra time on the back end, and forcing them to spend even more time in classrooms gaining academic experience, instead of real world experience!

The gap year is your opportunity to get things out in the open sooner. To start the life germination process on a clear-eyed, good foot. To not just think about what you want to do, but gain exposure to a wider variety of life paths, and to learn what is it that you actually enjoy doing, and what challenges you.

Malia’s decision to defer admission to arguably the nation’s best university, is good news for all of us because it highlights the value of taking the time to design your own life, strike out on a new course for independence, and gain real world experience that will inevitably prove useful in your life.

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