Thursday, July 22, 2010

Valedictorian Speech

(The following was read as the valedictorian' s speech at
Coxsackie-Athens High School in recent weeks, creating quite a stir
among administrators, to great applause from students and many of their

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.

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. (Gatto)

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

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

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

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!

Erica Goldson
Athens, NY

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant isn't it!