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Article posted Aug 02 2010, 2:02 PM Category: Commentary Source: Signs of the Times Print

Valedictorian Speaks Out Against Schooling in Graduation Speech

by Erica Goldson

Updated with video belowThe following speech was delivered by top of the class student Erica Goldson during the graduation ceremony at Coxsackie-Athens High School on June 25, 2010

Here I stand

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, "If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, "Ten years . ." "¨The student then said, "But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast -- How long then?" Replied the Master, "Well, twenty years." "But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?" asked the student. "Thirty years," replied the Master. "But, I do not understand," said the disappointed student. "At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?" "¨Replied the Master, "When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path."

This is the dilemma I've faced within the American education system. We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

Some of you may be thinking, "Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn't you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer - not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition - a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I'm scared.

John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher and activist critical of compulsory schooling, asserts, "We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness - curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids into truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don't do that." Between these cinderblock walls, we are all expected to be the same. We are trained to ace every standardized test, and those who deviate and see light through a different lens are worthless to the scheme of public education, and therefore viewed with contempt.

H. L. Mencken wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not "to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. ... Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim ... is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States."
Comment: The full passage reads: "The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever pretensions of politicians, pedagogues other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else."
To illustrate this idea, doesn't it perturb you to learn about the idea of "critical thinking." Is there really such a thing as "uncritically thinking?" To think is to process information in order to form an opinion. But if we are not critical when processing this information, are we really thinking? Or are we mindlessly accepting other opinions as truth?

This was happening to me, and if it wasn't for the rare occurrence of an avant-garde tenth grade English teacher, Donna Bryan, who allowed me to open my mind and ask questions before accepting textbook doctrine, I would have been doomed. I am now enlightened, but my mind still feels disabled. I must retrain myself and constantly remember how insane this ostensibly sane place really is.

And now here I am in a world guided by fear, a world suppressing the uniqueness that lies inside each of us, a world where we can either acquiesce to the inhuman nonsense of corporatism and materialism or insist on change. We are not enlivened by an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated, for work that need not be done, for enslavement without fervency for meaningful achievement. We have no choices in life when money is our motivational force. Our motivational force ought to be passion, but this is lost from the moment we step into a system that trains us, rather than inspires us.

We are more than robotic bookshelves, conditioned to blurt out facts we were taught in school. We are all very special, every human on this planet is so special, so aren't we all deserving of something better, of using our minds for innovation, rather than memorization, for creativity, rather than futile activity, for rumination rather than stagnation? We are not here to get a degree, to then get a job, so we can consume industry-approved placation after placation. There is more, and more still.

The saddest part is that the majority of students don't have the opportunity to reflect as I did. The majority of students are put through the same brainwashing techniques in order to create a complacent labor force working in the interests of large corporations and secretive government, and worst of all, they are completely unaware of it. I will never be able to turn back these 18 years. I can't run away to another country with an education system meant to enlighten rather than condition. This part of my life is over, and I want to make sure that no other child will have his or her potential suppressed by powers meant to exploit and control. We are human beings. We are thinkers, dreamers, explorers, artists, writers, engineers. We are anything we want to be - but only if we have an educational system that supports us rather than holds us down. A tree can grow, but only if its roots are given a healthy foundation.

For those of you out there that must continue to sit in desks and yield to the authoritarian ideologies of instructors, do not be disheartened. You still have the opportunity to stand up, ask questions, be critical, and create your own perspective. Demand a setting that will provide you with intellectual capabilities that allow you to expand your mind instead of directing it. Demand that you be interested in class. Demand that the excuse, "You have to learn this for the test" is not good enough for you. Education is an excellent tool, if used properly, but focus more on learning rather than getting good grades.

For those of you that work within the system that I am condemning, I do not mean to insult; I intend to motivate. You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and that you will be punished if you do not comply. Our potential is at stake.

For those of you that are now leaving this establishment, I say, do not forget what went on in these classrooms. Do not abandon those that come after you. We are the new future and we are not going to let tradition stand. We will break down the walls of corruption to let a garden of knowledge grow throughout America. Once educated properly, we will have the power to do anything, and best of all, we will only use that power for good, for we will be cultivated and wise. We will not accept anything at face value. We will ask questions, and we will demand truth.

So, here I stand. I am not standing here as valedictorian by myself. I was molded by my environment, by all of my peers who are sitting here watching me. I couldn't have accomplished this without all of you. It was all of you who truly made me the person I am today. It was all of you who were my competition, yet my backbone. In that way, we are all valedictorians.

I am now supposed to say farewell to this institution, those who maintain it, and those who stand with me and behind me, but I hope this farewell is more of a "see you later" when we are all working together to rear a pedagogic movement. But first, let's go get those pieces of paper that tell us that we're smart enough to do so!

People have asked me to post this. Please excuse the nervousness of my voice.

Related: The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher - By John Taylor Gatto, New York State Teacher of the Year, 1991

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Comments 41 - 57 of 57 Add Comment < Page of 3

Posted: Jan 12 2011, 3:13 PM

17326 About half an hour from where I live, there is a new charter school opening up. From what I've gathered from news reports, the first half of the school day is devoted to typical school courses (mathematics, science, english, etc) The other half of the day is reserved for each individual student to explore their passions. (if a student is interested in art, they have art classes, band and chorus for those interested in music, etc) I would've given anything to have that opportunity.

Posted: Jan 12 2011, 7:31 PM

6244 Wow! What a girl...human you are! You made me cry (I know)

I hope for all human kind's sake that this person becomes president of the US!

Posted: Jan 17 2011, 4:23 PM

1293 This girl is brilliant.

Posted: Jan 31 2011, 7:57 AM

68200 This wonderful girl will someday make a fantastic Homeschool Mom!! :) To her I say "wecome to real Life outside the box!!"

Posted: Mar 02 2011, 10:26 PM

24233 You are so justified in saying that you are now enlightened, this speech is awesome. You gave the best one you could have, that's why I'm sure. It's funny how many would view that statement as pretentious, but also a little sad.

Posted: Apr 06 2011, 10:43 PM

71127 OMG! You mentioned HL Menken! I love you!

You gave me gooseflesh! I teared up! I'm 48 years old and my view of your generation is, well, not so swell. ...until I heard this!

Damn the torpedoes! We've got hope on the horizon!

Thanks, Erica, for making my day a little better. I now know that there is one more nail out there that refuses to be hammered down into its appointed place!

To you, my prayers. May you stand strong on all the points of your speech.

I work for a government indoctrination center, er, uh, I mean, a public school corp. I constantly complain about nearly all the points you brought up. I pray that you are a wake up call to a dinosaur that has rolled over on its infant.
Homeschooled girl.

Posted: Jun 03 2011, 1:11 PM

72178 Wow, just wow. I have 2 best friends they have been there for me always and now 1 of them is going to public school she and her mom will think it will be a "good experience" I'm Homeschooled and i always be now. I went to school when i was almost 1 through first grade (i went to private and inact) my other friend (changing names for their sake) the older one Emma is super smart funny cute sweet but she is going to high school in 1-2 years my mother sent me this with this message:this is why i won't let you go to public school.Now i don't want to.My little brother is also homeschooled and he loves is but sometimes he tells me he wants to go to public school (haha we'll see how that go's over with me mom) i love being homeschool please don't be fooled when people tell you we are not socalized (sorry for the bad spelling) there are groups you can join talk to other homescooled moms (or dads) i go to science and i love it there is where i met Emma my other friend (the 1 who's going to Public this year) Dana doesn't do homework (from science) and always wants to talk when i want to learn this year when Dana won't be there we will be doing chemistry (we are in 5th and 7th) i'm excited so is Emma i take art class and love it, I go to swim team and i have friends there so curse those who say we aren't socalized! i hope this helps you decide if you want to homeschool or not or clears up anything.
Homeschooled girl.

Posted: Jun 03 2011, 1:15 PM

72178 And i forgot to mention My friends and me are so different from each other when you homeschool the best comes out of you i found that out, the other day my friend Emma invited me to schlitterbahn and i went in the big wave pool three kids a little younger then me called me a fat frog it hurt my feelings but my friend was there and she made me feel better, so i'm not the skinnest but i don't care and it's mosly muscle. well have a nice day everyone!

Posted: Aug 06 2011, 6:23 PM

2127 Why does this look so oddly like wedding pictures? In my graduation I wore the same colour gown and cap as the men, every bit the same. This scene disturbs me quite a bit. Why the flowers? fair enough if they have been bought by a relative but why the hell do they all match? Surely the women are graduating with the same degree? why are they made to look like submissive wifey's?

Posted: Aug 09 2011, 1:52 PM

7088 Dear Erica Goldson,
I cannot thank you enough for your courage, your insight, and your brilliance. You bring a great light into the world, even though it may not seem so right now. I know you know about the "Butterfly Effect," and your speech may indeed be a tipping point for many. I am far older than you and was the first Valedictorian in my high school who was not allowed to speak at my graduation because of my views for world peace. How wonderful that you were able to take the small opportunity offered to you and turn it into something far greater! Your voice is beautiful, tremor and all. I send you the gratitude and admiration of an "Elder." Your great vision is for all of us. Thank you for your bravery and generosity.

Posted: Jan 19 2012, 12:24 AM

137186 I am currently a high school assistant principal and i would suggest people read "shop craft as soul craft" as it elaborates and lends credence to the ideas espoused by this valedictorian. End goals are especially fragile as means, when these goals are extrinsically determined/motivated as this author aptly demonstrates.

Posted: Jun 08 2012, 7:11 PM

72240 I am going into my senior year and i can't stand the education system today. I have a 2.5 GPA, yet almost every one of my teachers say that i'm one of the best students that they've gotten to teach. Almost all of my peers agree that i'm clear headed and of all of them, i feel that i'm the only one going with my passion rather than saying, "Oh, this pays pretty good and it wouldn't be that bad." I do feel that society's influences on the upcoming generation is immoral, mindless, and overall conformal.

Posted: Sep 23 2012, 9:42 AM

687 This is a typical response to the bear standing at the gate: yes, it's scary out there. Doesn't matter whether you were not schooled, home-schooled, prep-schooled, or public schooled. Some teachers are better than others. Some students work harder than others. I agree that there is probably not a lot of difference between the IQ levels. These things work themselves out in college, along with fluctuating hormones. I was a slacker in high school, but my teachers were good and imaginative. Should I have been elsewhere? I doubt it now. Maybe college. No, memorizing won't necessarily help you. But it won't hurt you either. If you do not have the discipline to soldier through on tasks that aren't instantly fun or gratifying, you might not reach Zen either. I too read Mencken at that age. However, reading history will tell you why public education came about. There was and there a a good reason for that. Parents wanted children to work. Factory owners wanted children to work. They were going out to find themselves as an alternative to public school...they were starting a lifelong career as members of the underclass. That's what no schooling gets you.

Posted: Sep 23 2012, 9:45 AM

687 I have a couple of typos in the above comment in the last two lines: there IS a good reason for that. and "they were NOT going out to find themselves as an alternative". Thanks...see, that's what slacking gets you: impatience:)

Posted: Mar 14 2013, 4:25 AM

6858 I work at an inner city public high school.

"For those of you out there that must continue to sit in desks and yield to the authoritarian ideologies of instructors"

The instructors are largely not the authoritarians you're looking for. Bureaucrats in the DoE, both state and Federal are.

Many if not most teachers feel as trapped as you do. Curriculum is very structured and leaves little leeway for real teaching and not just teaching to the next test (actually there are many) that determines whether or not everyone from the support staff to the classroom to the administrators have a job when that year is over.

In the inner city schools I've worked at, poverty, lack of parents, and lack of discipline are most at fault for failure at the schools; the above notwithstanding. These problems are not ever addressed in the constant shifting of "programs" and curriculum.

There is so much money and so many under-the-table kickbacks and bribes that a lot of the systems in place are there only through corporate force.

Where I work now they literally have sales people dictating what we do much of the time because the state DoE put them on our shoulders.

The whole system is broken and corrupt from the top down. If you want to learn something you teach yourself.

Posted: Oct 01 2013, 7:42 PM

6892 As a administrator and Instructor of a private trade school, I applauded this individual for telling it like it is. I agree with her 100%. Administration must teach it the required way, but encourage our students to question, search and expand their knowledge and Imagination, to create and advance steadfastly to new dimensions of their future. Bravo!!

Posted: Nov 10 2015, 7:18 AM

89166 Background: Finland. Every teacher is university graduate. Rather ok PISA etc... I was born 1970. I was generation of rising education (WAS. TL;DR see last chapter).

So, when I started school I already read (had used library for a couple of years, had long travelled alone over buses, town libraries and other locations). I needed to unlearn in order to hyphenate etc... Do stuff they wanted me to. Dumb down.

2nd year ("grade" we said here) I got a math book, I'd never seen such a marvellous thing. I stayed up all night hidden with a flashlight under my bedsheets and learned and wrote whole years answers to the book, showing then on the morning to my teacher. I was moved to in front of the class, reprimanded and I had to wipe everything, I had no idea why it was forbidden to learn, but thereafter I always left my books empty of answers, even on high school I did all (science in US?) from empty/doodled scetchbooks.

At 1982 I could (from monthly 2 dollars plus presents) buy a computer with savings.

In high school (schoolyears 7-9, we coded and sold games with a friend to raise income, no disposable income otherwise-sold out finally to major japanese importer; basically they paid us not to make any more games).
Whole time, only one teacher noticed I had nothing written down (English teacher, 1st year 2nd part) and spent that day entire 2 hours asking me about answers to the stupid coursebooks-by this time I mainly read English novels 3-4 a week). To her credit she never asked me about anything and never asked me to even be present any more.

Other trouble was when I was almost evicted on 1st, 2nd and 3rd year (3 weeks into highschool I had always -first one in school- used my maximum allowable away-from-school-time).
Every year I got the red slip to drop to parents and then teachers voted with no outside input to keep me and advance me (I always got best school scores in all but 2 items (had I had one less than 5/10 I'd have had to run the whole year all over again). Also, I taught our physics teacher how to code).

I did math, chemistry, 2 foreign languages etc from empty scetchbooks for three more years. Essays I wrote, in three languages and whenever presentation or such needed to be done.

We're poor nation so stipends don't go far, I got 3/4 stipends of our school which I promptly spent on partying when I got summer free.

I left high school with only 9.6/10. Religion (mandatory still) was 5, and it annoyed my gym teacher (5-6) to no ends when two 10/10 students took their first 1-3 best picks for their team and after it it was always: "are you going to play today or shall we pick you last ?" (I would often contemplate on math or whatever giving little heed to mindless scurrying around basketball/skating outside/skiing/whatever)). I walked a lot in forests, along streams etc relaxing on nice days, skiing too. Contemplating things.

When I went to university, it was the first time I was able to (somewhat) control what I was able to do. Hopefully it is easier for todays learners. But then I did not need to run, I took my time (cheap, wide education !).

Unfortunately today people get expelled from university unless you do about 40 credits yearly towards your main/secondary curriculum stated by professors; I dabbled in mathematics, computing, algorithms, both chemistries, german as my 4th language, whatever I fancied at the time. Hydraulics, pneumatics, economy. GPS-driven cars in 1992 including strong physics department. Robotics, psychology (finally)).

We've gone back the wrong way now here. I don't know how it is with money (USA) but we're all middleclass here, nobody and exactly everybody has the possibility to use universities. Or, rather, HAD.
Comments 41 - 57 of 57 < Page of 3

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