At age 12, as I began to wonder exactly what it was I wanted to do in life, I was, if nothing more, aware of the path I was supposed to take to get there. At that time, it all seemed only too simple graduate high school, go to college, go to grad school, get married, get a job as a sideline reporter for Monday Night Football and live the dream… and all of this by the age of 25. As I grew up, ‘sideline reporter for Monday Night Football” morphed into ‘neurosurgeon” and then to ‘journalist,” but always there was the same structure for how I was planning on achieving that goal graduate high school, go to college, go to grad school and so on.

This norm of attending college directly following high school and then getting a job directly following college is a testament to how dedicated our society is to maintain a high level of education. But this norm fails to accommodate the idea that everyone learns and grows at different rates. At the same time, it undermines the idea of personal growth as a key component in schooling.

By creating an environment in which adolescents believe that in order to be successful in life it is necessary to finish all schooling in a succinct and timely manner, the education structure of our country has proven ignorant to a student’s option to choose his or her own path in order to excel. Entrepreneurship and innovation are discouraged directly after graduating, and while I understand the importance a good education serves in today’s world, I also believe that individuality and creativity should be just as highly prized.

Additionally, this norm neglects the idea that college years are essential for most people in developing who they are and what they want to do. Colleges don’t account for the fact that self-exploration and self-discovery aren’t likely to be complete by the age of 25, and thus going directly into a professional lifestyle after graduating isn’t the best option for everyone. The idea that a university should only be educating in the classroom and then shipping its graduates off into the ‘real world” takes away from the personal development that should take place during this period. After all, if a school’s sole purpose were only education, why would it spend money on extracurricular programs and house students in community living environments?

First and foremost, educational institutions and the structure of schooling as a whole should be places that foster personal growth, and the fact that our culture encourages and even pressures students to finish school in such a structured way speaks to how much store we put into what a person knows instead of how and what an individual thinks and believes.

There are so many opportunities to learn in ways that extend far beyond the institutions that advocate for them, and it is important that our culture realizes there is not one single way to become an educated and accomplished individual. After all, when life spans extend past 70 years, there’s nothing wrong with taking a couple of those years to explore opportunities.

Hilfinger is a member of the class of 2010.

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