A friend of my pointed out this transcript of a high school valedictorian speech via Facebook and asked for a 5-7 sentence opinion response from his Facebook friends. He asked,
“Is this just Generation Whine (err, Generation Y) hippie angst, or is this constructive criticism of the American schooling system?”
Well, 5-7 sentences doesn’t quite seem enough to do such a piece justice, so I’m commenting here so that I have all the room I need to expound upon my thoughts about this valedictorian’s thoughts.
Why Erica Goldson is right
If you make it 18 ± 1 years, from the womb through the public educational system, and are not at least a little bit pissed off then you aren’t being a good teenager. You don’t have to be angry at the school system, but you better be angry about something. The “system” is what teenagers should be angry about, it’s what they are good at being angry about. They exist in a privileged position which is intellectually luxurious, though not all may not be aware of it. For many of them they are just becoming aware of the horrors of adulthood; the bills, taxes, responsibilities, and most horrific of all the freedoms which adulthood bestows juxtaposed against their needs, wants, and desires. Form their vantage point they can see these modern terrors from the, relatively, safe dual nest; home and school. And it is terrifying (and exciting).
This student’s angst allowed her to get up before peers and authorities to effectively say, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” She effectively becomes the external voice of internal reflection about the self’s position within society, crying out “think for yourself!” For that, it is the perfect speech.
Why Erica Goldson fails
One way that this valedictorian fails in an exceptionally fundamental way is that she fails to recognize her responsibility to herself and the system.
“I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I’m scared.”
As well she should be, for she later on goes on to say,
“…if it wasn’t for the rare occurrence of an avant-garde tenth grade English teacher… who allowed me to open my mind and ask questions before accepting textbook doctrine, I would have been doomed.”
The assumption here that I’m making is that it was in tenth grade that this tenth grade English teacher opened her mind. This means that her mind was open for two years, at least, and she was still unable to take responsibility for her role in the system. And regardless of the time of this mind-opening experience (unless it was during the 11th hour of her school career), it still indicates that despite learning of other avenues to pursue, she still chose to excel for the sole purpose of excelling. Like many teenagers, she fails to take responsibility and places blame on everything else…or in this case squarely on the public education system.
Erica also fails in her understanding of critical thinking and the application thereof. She claims,
“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? “
She may be correct in her statement that “To think is to process information in order to form an opinion.” But that is not critical thinking. To think critically is to process information, while reflecting on that process, in order to form more and more accurate opinions. Americans in the early 1800’s processed information on the color of humanity’s flesh and many formed the opinion that the darker the color of that flesh the less human those people were. This was not critical thinking, but they still thought…just poorly.
Even in her speech she shows a lack of “critical” thought. A few examples are as follows:
She makes this statement at the outset of her speech,
“We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class.”
And later goes on to say,
“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.”
She says “We are so focus on a goal…” but she’s only talking about herself and admits that others were not focus on her same goal, the goal which she espouses is all the educational system wants from her. She points out that other students were not mindlessly attempting to excel just for the sake of excelling but pursing their own interests such as art, literature, and music. She flippantly uses the word “slave” without taking into consideration that the real slaves of American history had a derogatory label for the best, most acquiescing, slave; “uncle tom.” While others sought to find their own individuality she claims she did not and then goes on to link the modern public educational system to the violence, rape, and torture of slavery.
From her high school’s own website,
“Students can take Advanced Placement (AP) courses in American History, Art, Biology, Calculus, English, European History, and Physics. Our students may also take college credit courses through the New Visions Program and the State University of New York at Albany, as well as a variety of other colleges and universities throughout the region. In addition, we offer Honors courses in English, Math and Science, as well as accelerated courses in Foreign Language, Math and Science. Our Music Department also is very active presenting four concerts each year, as well as our spring musical, and the Fine Arts Department showcases student work in a variety of venues.
“Coxsackie-Athens High School offers many unique learning opportunities for students. For example, students can register for electives such as Computer Assisted Design (CAD), E-Commerce, Entrepreneurship, Environmental Science, German, and Sculpture.”
Unless her school is actively lying about the programs offered, she had choices had she looked for them. She is no slave and she is uncritically thinking in thinking so.
She goes on to say,
“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.”
Who is it, that she thinks, that expects all the students to be the same? In her four or so years of high school did she, honestly, experience this from any educator? Even if all her teachers treated her like a drone…what about her avant-garde English teacher? Surely that educator didn’t see non-conforming “slaves” as worthless, viewing them with contempt. If acing standardized tests was the main focal point for her school then she lacks the empathy and critical analysis to understand that her teachers have to balance good education with government standards.
Later she states,
“And now here I am in a world guided by fear, a world suppressing the uniqueness that lies inside each of us…”
How can she, critically, make this claim? As a student I wore my hair long, walked with a staff, and sat in the quad pretending to be in an WWII AA battery shooting at the fighter planes flying out of El Toro Marine Base while yelling, “Luftwaffe!” and my impression was most of my educators liked me; they at least tolerated me. If I saw students doing the same today, I’d probably hand them imaginary ammunition. While my argument here is ad hominem, I use it as a single data point to negate her all-encompassing statement that the world (all people) are out to suppress uniqueness in the individuals that constitute its whole.
Erica next uses a quote from 1924 about how “The aim [of U.S. public education] 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.” Yet nation-wide “high-school” level education had barely reach its thirtieth year and the General Education Board’s book, A Modern School was only published 8 years prior to 1924. Cherry picking one quote, from 86 years ago, is far from a critical analysis of the public education system in 2010. Far better would it have been to find quotes from modern authors pointing out the failings of standardized testing.
“…a world where we can either acquiesce to the inhuman nonsense of corporatism and materialism or insist on change.”
Rallying valiantly against corporations and material concerns, especially in the light of the recent Wall Street/Banking fiascoes and the BP oil disaster, is always an easy route to take. But calling it “inhuman nonsense” lacks critical thinking. Without humanity there would be no corporations and no materialism. For good or ill, the ability for individuals to incorporate in order to produce goods and services that are both needed and wanted, has led to this society that has allowed her to make a speech in New York and for people from around the world to comment on it. Viewing the world in strictly black and white is an uncritical attempt to force one’s perceptions on others.
Further on she says,
“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. “
She is correct! But she fails to see how public education helps to foster and empower individual creativity. No one would argue that public schooling is perfect, but it gives its students a place in which they can explore and be introduced to many facets of humanity. You get the ground work in public school, a basic education for a basic understanding of human endeavor. How you, how she, uses those basics is the mark of her individuality.
Of all the things that Erica Goldson says in speech, the next words out of her mouth are the most insulting,
“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.”
Here, from her pedestal, she essentially says to her peers, “the rest of you are just dumb fucks.” She projects her own insecurities onto her classmates while bolstering her own ego by claiming that she occupies a special position in both time and place where only she is able to see the truth. She extols the power of the individual while giving no credit to the individuals listening to her speech. And to add insult to injury she implies that they are relieved of their responsibility as individuals because they are brainwashed and unaware of it.
She continues with,
“We are anything we want to be – but only if we have an educational system that supports us rather than holds us down.”
Again, it’s all the educational systems fault. Erica Goldson is her own brainwashing propaganda totalitarian establishment forcing herself to view the world through one specially constructed (but not by any corporation, of course) lens.
The rest of her speech, had she kept her focus on the effects of enforced standardized testing and how it can place more importance on getting the correct answers on tests rather than understanding why an answer would be correct on a test, is inspirational and exceptional.
Yet towards the very end she wavers and says,
“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.”
Which could be taken as her peers woke her up and made her think about her position within society, but based on the majority of her statements in this speech it contradicts her. Her brainwashed propaganda swallowing peers molded her into a (critically) thinking individual? She is either being uncritical in her reasoning or slyly insulting by saying if it wasn’t for you dumb bastards I would have had to work harder to become valedictorian.
She ends her speech with what I can only assume is sarcasm,
“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!”
She insults her peers as brainwashed sheep and then hopes to work with them to change the system that they blindly follow and then accepts the system by following in the least educational aspect of the educational system…the pomp and circumstance of the graduation ceremony. If Erica’s convictions were more critically thought through she should have left the stage at this moment, ignored the “pieces of paper” to be handed out, and walked with her back to the gathering with a rear-facing middle finger raise high.
So, in conclusion, to answer my friend whether this was just teenage whining (regardless of the generation) or constructive criticism of the school system…80% the former, 20% the latter.