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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 21 - 40 of 57 Add Comment < Page of 3 >
Bailey Waitley

Posted: Sep 08 2010, 6:35 PM

24152 I comepletly agree with her, students should be inspired to learn not trained. I think we should aspire to learn for the sake of learning, which good grades will then come easily; but if we train our minds to be prepared for mindless teachings that we don't care for, good grades will be earned instead of given by knowledge.
aurora roberts

Posted: Sep 09 2010, 8:19 PM

99164 i agree with here in her speech because our education system needs to be improved. i also like that fact that Erica was taght to memorize things and no understanding why we need ot learn these things. i do agree with her on the part where not all students can memorize things.
jackson boomer

Posted: Sep 13 2010, 12:23 PM

20966 she needs to learn how to deal with things . scholl isnt fun thats a well known fact everybody knows it and still goes. being validitorian and wasteing your time on asignments is your fault not the schools. school teaches you ho to deall with a scheduall and time responsabitlity .. thats all you need to know ... this speecker need to learn how to deall with it
Madi K.

Posted: Sep 14 2010, 12:32 AM

207200 I think this was a very well spoken speech. I agree with her with most of the speech. She explained pretty much about how I feel about high school aswell. We learn one thing just to take a test then move on a learn something else just to forget the subject. Also some of the things we learn do not pertain to what we want to do in the future. It just tells us that we have to excell in every class to move on and be successful, and that is not true. Plus in some cases it does not help us to build up to what we want to be. We should make what we want out of high school so we wont regret what we did and do what we believe is right for us. That is why i agree with this speech.
Karly Holthaus

Posted: Sep 14 2010, 1:42 PM

20966 I agree and disagree with her, she did well above the required amount of work and that was her decision to do that, she could have been doing all the other activities that her other peers did, but she decided to stay at home and excell in her homework. But I agree with her at the same time just because maybe she felt she had to do that work or else she would fail. I think school would be much better if the school did more specific subjects for each student, subjects that would help them later in life.

Posted: Sep 14 2010, 4:37 PM

7464 Yea I agree that the school system is bullshit, but for the speech to have legitimacy, we had to hear it from someone that very same school system bestowed honors upon! We need to change our thinking and stop giving these elites moral and intellectual credibility based solely on that same corrupt school system. What about those that don't have the precious grades given to them because they were busy learning things on their own for its own merit and not for grades. High grades mean you are good at following orders, not at being intelligent.
JP Barnes

Posted: Sep 16 2010, 10:24 AM

70179 i think that this speach is very eye opening. it really put allot of peoples feelings tward school in words. i agree with this person allot in thinking that schools are teaching its students wrong.

Posted: Sep 24 2010, 12:55 PM

20966 I am curious as to what Miss Goldson will be doing in five, ten, or twenty years. Will she become a doctor whose future education will be enundated with the repition of facts which is clearly discouraging to her....or a scientist with even more repition of facts but with a possibility of being passionate about a new cure for some of life's challenges....or perhaps a teacher who then will open the minds of the youth to create a new America? Congratulations to her on her success as well as good luck to a new journey....and remember to enjoy the journey...

Posted: Nov 24 2010, 12:25 PM

19093 This reminds me of John Holt's (1960/70s American educator, proponent of homeschooling) main philosophy:

"... the human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don't need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it."
Homeschooling mommy of 2

Posted: Nov 24 2010, 12:58 PM

10825 Fabulous speech, and so impressive by such a young lady. It isn't until now, at 28, that I have the ability to look at the education system the same way as she does. If only I had had such insight at 18, I'm sure I'd be doing something far different with my life.

I wish her the best.


Posted: Nov 24 2010, 2:52 PM

17374 There is one thing that is better - this speech was allowed to be made. When I graduated High School it would not have been allowed. Now that students have the awareness that the system is narrow, keep in mind you may be getting the skills to learn on your own and accomplish great things.
Mykel Dixon

Posted: Nov 25 2010, 12:56 AM

220235 Brilliant! My heart is singing with the courage, insight and power this young woman exudes! The world is shifting folks. Fear not! The kids are more awake, more aware and more committed to a positive change for this planet whether we help them or not! Our students have become our teachers. What a glorious day it is! Woo hoo!
Homeschool Family USA

Posted: Nov 27 2010, 11:46 AM

6838 Sweet Ericka, Seek Jesus Christ above all else. He WILL make your path straight. God has gifted you and He will equip you along the way. Such love and devotion and courage you have shown to many. TRUTH has been spoken by you. Do not fear only BELIEVE.
You are bright and what you are seeking - is not from this present world.
I send this to you with love and admiration.

John 3:16

Posted: Dec 18 2010, 5:31 PM

6814 i just think it was an inappropriate time to have said speech. I feel like the speech should have been more geared to her peers and less geared towards society. Yeh it was a great speech but i think her peers would have appreciate hearing stories about their class...just a thought
Amy Kaiser

Posted: Dec 21 2010, 4:17 PM

6964 This is awesome! I could not have expressed my dismay with the education I received and all the lies I was told growing up. I am now 26 and am trying to really figure out the world and where I want my place in it to actually be. Well done! :)

Posted: Jan 03 2011, 8:22 PM

99144 It is this independent, yet focused, spirit that builds empires. Men and women of analogous impetus are the people who not only build a better future for himself or herself, but for the world. This not a bash on the school nor faculty nor other students, but the system the let the school and faculty and other students function as they do. Genuine inspiration in not found in a compulsory education. The statistics of CEOs and drop-outs is uncanny. The statistics of college degrees and medium pay is disheartening. Independent study needs a large sampling of subject areas. Not for to make a student excel in everything, but to find the area or areas in which the student excels. Let us join Goldson now in the fight against mediocrity and conformity.

Posted: Jan 04 2011, 2:29 PM

946 Inspiring. Thank you for speaking these words, for posting this here. I am a student in the UK but you still summed up what I thought of my education!

What a fantastic speech. I wish you well.

Posted: Jan 05 2011, 6:24 PM

98150 "[t]eachers, educators, and administrators need to push students not driven by test scores but driven to learn. "

Remember there's a difference between strength and being driven. Being driven will only get you so far. Harnessing strength from within will persevere through life's challenges.
j.a., md <ret.>

Posted: Jan 06 2011, 12:45 PM

7270 ... a truly inspiring work of great intellectual honesty.


Posted: Jan 06 2011, 8:10 PM

67176 yeeeeeah girllllllllllll Fuck that banking education bullshit! we are the makers the creators and the deciders of our reality. Don't be the sheep!
Comments 21 - 40 of 57 < Page of 3 >

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