Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland
Living as a stranger in a foreign land is a great privilege. It is also one I enjoyed during a career that included a lot of time living, working and traveling outside the United States — in Europe, Asia, Australia and South America.
Living and traveling abroad provides many opportunities to gain a new perspective on your own cultural heritage as an American and to assess your own cultural practices against those you encounter every day in another country.
Based on my experience, the “second chance” is one of the most distinctive and admirable features of American culture. It is also one that applies to those in later life as well as young people.
The second chance is something you don’t read much about in the “blame America first” malaise that infects so much of what our political and media elites say and write these days, but it’s surely a key cultural asset in accounting for America’s exceptional success as a nation.
Americans are great believers in the second chance. And the redemptive second chance is baked into our basic institutions.
Indeed, historians have long observed that the American frontier was advanced by new Americans seeking a second chance and an opportunity for redemption as they headed for the frontier, forsaking custom, creating new institutions and social practices, and sometimes even fleeing the law.
Over time, this “frontier spirit” has been embedded in nearly every aspect of American culture and is reflected in our institutions and in the ways that people treat each other — both in their personal and professional life.
Consider this example from education. In America, education has been about citizen-based leadership, experimentalism connected to the changing needs of students and society, new possibilities created by new technologies, and decentralized flexibility. These virtues and design principles created some pretty good results over the past 200 years or so.
Compare this to much of the rest of the world where you find nationalized school systems, centralized control by professionals rather than elected school boards, bureaucratized administration, a disconnect from the grassroots needs of society and — most disturbing — top-down, expert-driven, one-size-fits-all curricula with test-driven certification.
Result: In Japan, the UK and many other countries, your educational future is largely determined by the time you are 12 years old — often based on tests given in the sixth grade. The die is cast and, if you don’t make it, well, that’s tough.
Not so in America. In most places in the U.S., you have repeated opportunities to prove yourself.
First, you go to elementary school.
If you don’t do so well there, you have a chance to start over, with a clean slate, in middle school.
If you don’t do so well in middle school, you begin again, with a more or less clean slate, in high school.
If you don’t make high school grades that will allow you to go the university, you can go to the community college and, if you make the grade there, you can earn a vocational degree or even transfer to a four-year institution, taking your credits with you.
If you don’t make it there, you can go to a proprietary school such as Strayer University or Kaplan — or even an online or correspondence school — to learn a profession, trade or craft.
If you don’t make it there, well, you go to Craigslist or LinkedIn or some other source to find a job and go to work.
And, anywhere along the way, as long as you are 18 or older, you may decide to enroll in the American institution that spends more on education and training than any other — the U.S. military.
And it doesn’t end there. Early on or even mid-career, you may decide to go back to school for a professional or technical degree — for example, at the community college, an American innovation where adult and continuing education are an important part of its mission. Or to a proprietary (i.e. for-profit) school, like the University of Phoenix.
America is unique in this important way: Our institutions and practices recognize that the intellectual and social development of individuals varies widely from person to person.
How many “late bloomers” didn’t do well through high school but “caught fire” in college or at the community college. And then they went on to the four-year institution only to graduate, sometimes with honors, and then, mid-career, took an advanced degree in business, public administration or some other professional discipline. In fact, it happens all the time in America.
America is not just the land of the second chance. It is the land of the third and fourth and fifth chance. And the sixth and seventh. America is the land of redemption where, compared to other countries, it is hard (not impossible, but difficult) to get “slotted” by the system and then “written off.”
In America, opportunities to make a “mid-course adjustment” or even start over are ever-present at every stage of life — including later life. Indeed, the idea of the encore performance is part of our cultural DNA.
According to aging guru, David Corbett, “Americans are coming to realize that the second half of life can mean a second wind … that we are not done at 60, not at 70 and maybe not at 90 … (Instead) it’s now a time to step up, to contribute and serve, a time to learn and try new things. There is much behind, but there is more ahead.”
The 19th-century English novelist and journalist, George Eliot, said it best: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”