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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Is Education Killing Us?

Thanks to 22c+ member, Karl, for alerting me to this story.

Just how useful is school? According to one now (somewhat) famous recent high school graduate, it's worse than useless - it's actually dangerous! Erica Goldson graduated as valedictorian of Coxsackie-Athens High School just this last month. No doubt she would have been expected to prattle on about how great everyone was and how she became a better person for her years at school. Instead she took the opportunity to trash the system! You can see the video and read the actual speech, below. Here I offer a few insights of my own, taking specific quotes from Erica’s talk, and suggesting some of its limitations.

Erica highlights many of the issues which I have critiqued in my own writings about education and Deep futures. She says that system is dominated by credentialism, and the test has become the focus of the curriculum. Modern education is embedded within an extremely materialistic society, where the dash for cash is the prime motif in many lives (I might point out that I believe this is less so in Australia and New Zealand, where I have also taught high school).

(You should) Demand a setting that will provide you with intellectual capabilities that allow you to expand your mind instead of directing it. 

I would add to what this remarkable young woman has said here. By “intellectual capabilities”, Erica appears to be referring to independence of thought and the ability to individuate as a unique human being. My point is that the analytical mind and intellectual acuity are not enough to empower human beings towards their full potential, to live their Bliss. People also require an enabling of the intuitive mind and Integrated Intelligence.

One crucial issue that Erica fails to address in her speech is that the culture in which her education system is embedded within is often not hostile to individualism and radical thinking. In fact it is one of the major characteristics of the United States as a nation. It's not much different in Australia. I vividly recall the graduating class of my very first teaching post. It was 1992 at Warren Central School in inland New South Wales. The graduates marched into the school hall to the chorus of Pink Floyd's Another brick in the wall ("We don't need no education"). That school was in the tiny town of Warren, with just 2000 people, and in the middle of nowhere. The graduates were basically an unteachable rabble, and this was their way of say “Fuck you!” to the teachers and administrators. This was a phrase directed at teachers at irregular intervals by students expressing dissatisfaction with particular pedagogical processes of which they did not approve.

In contrast, it would be almost unthinkable for a student in China (where I have taught also) to present a graduation speech of the kind Eric Goldson did. The Chinese social system is so hierarchical, and guanxi (connections) is such an ingrained part of the system, that the individual delivering the speech would likely be shunned by the tertiary system, the power elites, and probably many employers. Sacrificing oneself for the collective is a driving theme in Chinese history, film and literature - and of far too much government propaganda for my liking.

The internet is also enabling more and more people (including the young) to express their opinion without consequences. This of course has its downside. Many, perhaps most, chat sites on the net are dominated by exchanges of judgment blame and even hate.

The same freedom of expression is not afforded by greater western society when it comes to other ways of knowing, however. Western culture does not reward and acknowledge intuitive and spiritual ways of knowing. Even references to them are taboo in tertiary education, as parapsychologist Dean Radin has often stated. Consciousness researcher Charles Tart has also noted that it is effectively forbidden for people to talk about spiritual experiences in public life, or even with friends and family. The saving grace, however, is popular culture. Movies, literature and the internet are full of information and stories of people following their Bliss to live a greater life. An intelligent cosmos is barely controversial here. Just think of Star Wars, Deepak Chopra, Harry Potter, Dean Radin, The Secret, The Matrix…

We will break down the walls of corruption to let a garden of knowledge grow throughout America.

Erica's use of the garden metaphor reminds me of an irony: that corruption - and the corrupt people within the system - are the very baby boomers whom a couple of generations ago were the “flower power” generation. Protest against the system was perhaps their single most defining characteristic. Let's hope that Erica maintains her idealism throughout her life.

The obvious irony of the Erica Goldson story, of course, is that her schooling didn't stop her putting together this highly original, thought-provoking and courageous speech. Nonetheless it’s true enough that there are few students in the secondary and tertiary systems who would truly critique the system before teachers and administrators in the way that she has done.

I understand well the price of biting the institutional hand the feeds you – even before a single crumb has been fed! I have been repeatedly "punished" by the system for daring to take on domains of inquiry which push knowledge into the frontiers of human intelligence. I have been regularly rejected by tertiary systems right across the world. It seems that no system or institution is so decrepit or desperate enough to consider employing me, despite having written and published widely after receiving my doctorate.

It’s not all one way rejection, though. In truth I have turned down one or two jobs. Most recently I was contacted by a tertiary institution in Australia and asked about my interest in making a formal application for a position in Futures Studies. However my intuition told me immediately that the job was not right for me. It was a real round peg in a square whole scenario. The position involved working tightly with the business community, and attempting to raise funds for research. I just knew that my own natural passions and style would be suppressed within that particular faculty. After a couple of email correspondences with the programme director, I told him that I would not apply for the position. I wrote that if I was ever to be employed by his institution I would end up biting the hand which feeds me; and the hand would probably end up slapping me down. My previous attempts to sell a Deep Futures programme at a top Asian university was met with overt hostility from several of the faculty members who attended my presentation. Once bitten…

So then, as individuals we have to work within imperfect systems, and make the best of them. Or find ways to work beyond the system (as I now do). Though restricted, teachers are not without power, either. Erica Goldson refers to an English teacher, Donna Bryan, who influenced her to think for herself. The key for teachers is knowing just how far you can push people without taking them too far beyond their comfort zone. I have often quoted futurist John Naisbett: get too far ahead of the parade, and people will not be able to see where you are.

What are your experiences of education and teachers? What are your thoughts on modern education systems? Have you had any teachers who inspired you? Feel free to comment, below.

Here is the video and the actual transcript of Erica’s speech. I have highlighted a few important sections of the text.

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."      

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!


  1. Very well defined. But this is not limited to American Education system only. Education is the world spread crime today. Where 'Human resource' is being produced to work as ATM.
    Many time I ask students to make a list of problems they see at personal, social, national or global level. Then I ask them to classify these problems into three catagories a. because of uneducated people only, b. because of educated people only and c. because of boath. Most of the problems are found to be because of educated ones, eventually by people having higher degrees. So, where are we heading with this education system.
    Today we are having human beings full of skills who can handle any problem in mobile, computer, ca etc very intelligently....but we hardly have people on this planet who can handle problem with spouse, son, daughter, father mother, neighbor, colleague or any other human to human relationship. That's our education system today,
    No wonder there is so much of global warming and family warming.. all together killing us, society, nations and planet....
    Manish Sisodia (India)

  2. Hi Manish,

    Good to hear from someone from India! I like your student-as-future-ATM-machine analogy. I don't know too much about the Indian education system, but I do realise that India, like much of Asia, has embraced capitalism full on. It seems as if the pendulum has swung 180 degrees from the traditional Buddhist and Hindu rejection of the material. Maybe it will begin to swing back soon. Maybe there will be little choice, as I will write in a blog post soon.


  3. I couldn't be more proud than if this had been my own child! I totally agree with everything she said, and I encourage my children to question every system they can, until the 'powers that be' understand - we're mad and we're not going to take it anymore! Some of those children of the sixties may be working in corporate environments, but believe me - many are encouraging their children to pursue a different course in the years to come. Wonderful post, thank you for posting in its entirety.