For some reason, many American students get their first European/foreign exposure as 20 year olds. The junior year abroad has become a university tradition. And I'm sure it's a great experience for many young adults. But why at age 20?
Several years ago, in an op-ed for The New York Times, David Hajdu, an associate professor at Columbia, suggested that a youngster's most formative years are actually several years earlier, in high school:
"Fourteen is a formative age, especially for people growing up in social contexts framed by pop culture. You’re in the ninth grade [...] struggling to figure out what kind of adult you’d like to be, and you turn to the cultural products most important in your day as sources of cool — the capital of young life.
'[For example,] Fourteen is a sort of magic age for the development of musical tastes,' says Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of psychology and the director of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University. 'Pubertal growth hormones make everything we’re experiencing, including music, seem very important. We’re just reaching a point in our cognitive development when we’re developing our own tastes. And musical tastes become a badge of identity.'"
The author specifically cites the impact of music on the 14-year-old psyche. But the same surely can be said of many other cultural influences, including foreign travel. So it seems strange that we would wait several years to consider sending students abroad. By age 20, many notions and attitudes already have started to gell. The reason we hear most often is that people in their 20s are more likely to appreciate the cultural experience. Maybe. But then you can make the argument that people really should wait until age 50 to get on the plane. Teens soak up the experience and assimilate it in a more visceral way.
Any age is a good age for travel. But it seems the younger the traveler, the more malleable the mind. British law makes it difficult for us to accommodate 14 year olds. But if you're 16, we'd love to welcome you aboard.