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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 1 - 20 of 57 Add Comment Page of 3 >

Posted: Aug 02 2010, 8:49 PM

76179 I have been waiting for the new generation with fresh energy to come to light. Inlightened youth will increase and those who work in the dark shadows will be revieled. what an awsome speech. would have loved to see the reaction of the machine minds in the audiance.

Posted: Aug 02 2010, 10:04 PM

98247 This student will be an outcast, forever, amongst his/her peers in the US and in areas of the world where Americans congregate.

And that, friends, is very sad indeed. Social isolation should be feared, moreso than one's own death.

Posted: Aug 03 2010, 6:04 AM

76179 No NO anonymous 98247 This student will be a great leader. Not of some corporate nonsense but guiding human souls.Lose the world and gain your soul....

Posted: Aug 03 2010, 2:13 PM

71193 There are so many people that believe what she believes and I am happy to share this with everyone I know. For she has managed to put into words what had irritated me about my high school the whole time and gave me insight on why I was the way I was in high school. I applaud her and hope she does work towards that change in the future.

Posted: Aug 03 2010, 3:15 PM

131212 I wonder if she's single

Posted: Aug 03 2010, 9:15 PM

98247 All of the fresh young minds and ideas are being funneled into the UN's Agenda 21 paradigm, to promote the massive schemes of the financial oligarchy. If any fresh young minds survive the eco-draught of human consciousness, they'll be targeted for fresh soilent green.

Posted: Aug 04 2010, 11:34 AM

219148 There is a massive awakening to the truth all around us and it feels great to be a part of it! Well spoken young lady and I'm thrilled to see her courage and opportunity to make a difference. Outstanding!

Think positive, we can all make a difference and need to take action now, it starts with a conversation with friends and neighbors. Conversations set unbelievable awareness in motion around the world!

God Bless

Posted: Aug 04 2010, 7:46 PM

20839 I have known other young people coming into their adult lives, who are on fire for knowledge, not just a check in the box. This excites me to know there are young people who are not content to become robots in this world, but to explore, go beyond what they've been taught in school, and challenge, challenge, challenge.
I feel America is in good hands of the next generation, we just don't hear a lot about them.

Posted: Aug 05 2010, 7:02 PM


What's with the flamebaiting? "Social isolation should be feared..." You couldn't have missed the mark more completely. Isolation gives one a chance to reflect inward, to use ones senses without distraction and to then move forward with that concrete knowledge.

If there were no social isolation we would have no art, period. No scientists, no inventors, no greatness, period.

I'm just hoping this new adult uses her ability to free other minds to think for themselves and to value ones own opinion and knowledge. Not to just go and head up some NGO in Eastern Syria because "people" are "oppressed". Last time I checked everyone still has the physical capacity to think for ones self although conditioning and societal pressures usually weigh that down.

Posted: Aug 13 2010, 4:40 PM

67182 Thank you! I had a really tough time in school because I didn't get good grades all of the time. It really gave me low self esteem about my intelligence. School officials tend to put us aside and give up on on us and we end up lost by the time we graduate. As a parent I want my children to feel secure in their school work and in themselves and be able to be successful in whatever makes them happy.

Posted: Aug 17 2010, 11:44 AM

99151 As an educator, I have often wished that more students felt this way. When I talk about critical thinking, I get blank stares. They just want to know what's going to be on the test - they couldn't care less about learning. Ironically, we just went over this concept last week in class - but we were talking about businesses, not schools, so despite my efforts, the students did not connect the idea that statistical measures of achievement can also mean "grades."

I cannot financially afford to emulate Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, but that is the kind of educator this young lady is calling for and the kind of educator we need. In order to achieve that, we have to untie finances from work - we have to make it possible for people to achieve based not just on quantitative statistical measures of performance but also on qualitative measures of enrichment, enlightenment, creativity, and drive; and we have to untie standardized test scores from teacher retention and pay scales.

Unfortunately, the people who run the system will never accept this because it would reduce their power and control over not just the students, but the graduates and the educators. More to the point, the corporations need people who are trained to be good little automatons. That's the real plan behind public education these days - not an educated workforce, but a trained and compliant one. Corporatism is the worst poison for the mind that exists in this world today, and we must find a way to overcome it if we are to move on to the next phase of human existence.

Posted: Aug 17 2010, 3:07 PM

18457 Well put. I am a senior in college (at an above-average state school), and I am still struggling with the same problem: too much focus on the goal, too little focus on the path.

It makes it more difficult to learn when you are too worried about comparably trivial things (like grades).

A grade seems like it should define your grasp of the subject at hand, but in the end it's only a reflection of your ability to to meet attendance quotas (instructors of lecture courses at my school often refer to this as a "participation" grade-- seriously), make deadlines, and satisfy the pet desires of he or she who grades.

Used in this way, grading becomes an arbitrary system of evaluation, and tells much less about someone's understanding of a subject.

And yet, these grades are what we depend on to acquire a meaningful and successful career? I think there needs to be a paradigm change in how we evaluate student progress.

Posted: Aug 17 2010, 3:24 PM

98250 Now that we have found the faults, fill us in on specific solutions.

Posted: Aug 19 2010, 12:14 AM

Awesome that she did not sell out to the lies and propaganda. I have 2 younger brothers (5 and 7 years younger, respectively) whose socialization was markedly different than my own. Neither has any real appreciation or passion for music and the arts, it's all about the sports. In my opinion they, as well as their peers whom I've encountered, seem devoid of common sense and creativity. It is amazingly disheartening to see the mindless drones who are the "leaders of tomorrow". Will creativity in the arts die with us?

Posted: Aug 30 2010, 1:02 PM

7693 I don't think this is necessarily an american problem. This happens all over the world. I can not speak for this student but if one were to compare the education of today vs the education of 100 years ago, I think that the later would look a lot more oppressive, especially considering that many schools were segregated and gendered.

With that said, teachers, educators, and administrators need to push students not driven by test scores but driven to learn.
David Gibbs

Posted: Aug 31 2010, 11:38 PM

687 This was a great speech. There are many ways in which I agree with her and a few in which I feel she has exaggerated to make a point but as we all know that is very understandable. The one word I can find to describe my connection to this speech is respect. I mean, this girl really found a way in. By being the valedictorian and putting up with all of the control issues in the speech and coming out on top really pays justice to her speech. If any kid went up there, for example one who does not do so well in school this speech would be half as legitamate.

The speech is very controvertial and because of that aspect, there is a good chance that it may actually change things. Not completely, or in leaps in bounds, but it will put this very strong idea she had in her head into the minds of many other students and teachers which leaves a higher possiblity of things actually changing.

The part that I agree with most of all in her speech is the idea that we should spend more of life focused on passion rather then getting the grades, to get the money, to what? To die? I think that school starting at grade 9, should be based alot more on the specific interests of kids rather then taking general ed classes that half of us will never need in our entire lives. I feel this way because it is very common that people leave high school without an idea of what they want in life. Now imagine if we already knew what we wanted and where we were going? What if we didn't have to waste all that time buried in books of no relevance to our future? I think it would be great, and little by little if we continue to press this message, especially in such big situations as graduation, we can make a change.

Posted: Sep 01 2010, 7:12 PM

72199 Whe she said, quote" It is all of you that are my compettion and my backbone" thats when I understood alot of her points. How you are shaped in highschool is the person you choose to be and the direction you choose to go. Your peers are going to challenge you and they are going to be the ones who you have to try and be better than in order to suceed. However your peers are also the ones who can control where you go and which direction you go in. With peer pressure and becuase you don't want to look stu[id in front of them.

When she ws explaining how she has worked at school her whole life she doesn't know if she will sink or swim in life thats the question so many people need to consider and ask themselves. Where will I go? What do I want to do? Whats my plan and wil i make it?

She makes many good points about school life, and life in general. Get the grades to suceed in life. Or enjoy life to its fullest and let the rest play it part.

If only one goal is on the road, then only one goal is on the path
dylan bunker

Posted: Sep 01 2010, 11:01 PM

99171 I really like this passage. I think it makes a lot of good points. I can relate to many of the things that are said especailly when she says that we dont even focuc on learning anymore, instead we focuc to much a on a little goal. The goal should be to spark interest and ideas and enjoy your highschool career. They shouldn't set classes up in such a one sided way where only one answer is right, inseatd I beleieve teachers should use a different more open policy that sparks individualality and uniqueness.
I also beleive schools put to much stress and pressure on kids. At coronado high they make it seem like even if you get a 4.5 and do everything that colleges want you still have a slim chance on getting into college. I think instead of scaring kids into trying hard they should encourage the kids and help they do what they want. I aggree with this post in some ways and dissagree too but over all I think it is a good voice of opinion.

jake lindee

Posted: Sep 01 2010, 11:52 PM

6675 I like what Erica said in this speech about how we are taught to memorize people, places, and main points, instead of understanding qhy we are learning these things. i have found myself up late many nights trying to study for tests but just ended up trying to memorized as many facts as i could without understanding how they were all connected. I believe if we could change the way our classes are taught, then many of us could grow up to be more than just office monkeys doing a pointless job. instead we can dream of being astronaughts or artist or things that the school system doesnt teach us to aim for.
I agree with the fact that not all students will even know that they are being taught to memorize. Many of them will just go though school thinking that this type of teaching will get them to places in life. When in actuality, most will end up in and office doing what they are not while not knowing why they are doing it or what the signifucance is. I think Erica is going to play a huge part in our future educational system if we ever want our kids and grand kids to learn for the sake of being able to understand things later in their lives and not just to get good grades and be at the top of their class.
Ross McGuyer

Posted: Sep 03 2010, 12:50 AM

6675 A very intriguing speech, while I have no doubt that, yes, our education system may need some reforms, I for one, have not had the same experience as her. For instance, none of my teachers have said, "memorize the Bill of Rights for the quiz on Friday," for example. Instead, they have said, "Explain to me why the Bill of Rights was so revolutionary at the time of it's creation in your own words." It is my belief, that it was not merely the "system" telling her to learn only facts, but her mind set as well right from the beginning. I also couldn't help but notice how she said she was "enlightened" by now knowing that free thought is more important than facts. But she also quotes H. L. Mencken's, "The American Mercury", stating his negative opinion about the American education system, as if the fact that this man said so, it has to be true. That to me, seemed hypocritical.
The point I want to make is, I do not believe are schooling system is a bad as she says. We need to know facts in our lives. 1 + 1 = 2, is a fact and an important one. There is such thing as a one right answer question. What Erica seems in my opinion to be saying, is that all our education system does is feed us facts that we have to memorize to succeed. Facts that have no meaning otherwise. But as a high schooler myself, I have to dis-agree with that statement. My teachers have always asked for more the just a fact for an answer. And I believe our "system" is on the right track to making all American teachers do the same.
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