Critical Unthinking

So yesterday Robb Allen of Sharp as a Marble sends me a link to a story at about a high school valedictorian and her graduation speech. Robb said he thought I might find it interesting because young Ms. Goldson mentioned John Taylor Gatto in her speech. She also quotes Mencken. Unfortunately, I don’t think she found quite what she’s concluded she found.

Let us fisk:

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.”

And a severe case of strabismus.

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.

She has a valid point here, but . . . well, I’ll come back to this.

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.

She is, at least, aware that she’s been indoctrinated – something her peers probably don’t realize.

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.

That’s what a high school diploma used to mean. Now it requires a BA?

But I contend that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker.

Here we begin to see her problem.

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.

No young lady, you were not a “slave.” No one beat you if you didn’t study. (Ask the slackers.) No one threatened to sell you if you didn’t perform. You were a conformist, and particularly adept and successful at conforming. There’s a great difference between a conformist and a slave. Ask real slaves.

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.

“Great artists,” eh? How many can make a living off their art? This kid is a “great artist.” Most of your doodling classmates will be lucky if they can get a job at McDonalds. And then they will be unable to make change without the aid of the electronic cash register. If even one makes it as a commercial or fine artist, they will be the exception rather than the rule. And even artists have to work to earn their livings.

While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment.

Those people may succeed, as long as their extracurricular reading interest wasn’t Lady Gaga or who Paris Hilton is banging these days.

While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it.

So all of the people who didn’t do their schoolwork are great artistes?

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.

Scared is good! Scared is better than cud-chewing obliviousness. Fear, when properly channeled, can tend to focus the mind. From my youthful reading:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. – Bene Gesserit litany against fear, Dune by Frank Herbert


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.”

And here’s a beautiful example I received in my email box at work this morning. (It’s a joke:)

Our teacher asked us what our favorite animal was, and I said, “Fried chicken.” She said I wasn’t funny, but she couldn’t have been right, everyone else in the class laughed.

My parents told me to always be truthful and honest, and I am. Fried chicken is my favorite animal. I told my dad what happened, and he said my teacher was probably a member of PETA. He said they love animals very much. I do, too. Especially chicken, pork and beef.

Anyway, my teacher sent me to the principal’s office. I told him what happened, and he laughed too. Then he told me not to do it again.

The next day in class my teacher asked me what my favorite live animal was. I told her it was chicken. She asked me why, just like she’d asked the other children. So I told her it was because you could make them into fried chicken. She sent me back to the principal’s office again. He laughed, and told me not to do it again.

I don’t understand. My parents taught me to be honest, but my teacher doesn’t like it when I am. Today, my teacher asked us to tell her what famous person we admire most.

I told her, “Colonel Sanders”.

Guess where I am now…

So yes, the school system encourages conformity. Encourages hell, demands it. But that’s the nature of the system, as Gatto is well aware. It’s also one of the reasons I strongly recommend taking off and nuking the entire site from orbit as the only way to be sure that the failure that is the American education system is “reformed.”

Continuing with Ms. Goldson’s speech:

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 here, I’m afraid, I have to whip out the Reynold’s-Wrap yarmulke and suggest – just suggest! – that the “avant-garde” Donna Bryan is an acolyte of Paolo Freire‘s “Critical Pedagogy.” Ms. Bryan exposed young Ms. Goldson to some information she has never seen before, and suddenly it all became so very clear!

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.

How many Leftist buzzwords and phrases can you pick out of those two paragraphs? Who wants to bet that a Ché poster or T-shirt is in her immediate future (assuming she doesn’t have one already), capitalism be damned?

Do I think the teacher, Ms. Bryan, is a member of the Tuesday Night Socialists Club? No, but I have no doubt that she’s a true believer who has found her calling in the educational system where she sees it as her duty to “save” as many kids as she can reach. From the site 21st Century Schools:

“The fundamental commitment of critical educators is to empower the powerless and transform those conditions which perpetuate human injustice and inequity (McLaren, 1988). This purpose is inextricably linked to the fulfillment of what Paulo Freire (1970) defines as our “vocation” – to be truly humanized social agents in the world. Hence, a major function of critical pedagogy is to critique, expose, and challenge the manner in which schools impact upon the political and cultural life of students. Teachers must recognize how schools unite knowledge and power and how through this function they can work to influence or thwart the formation of critically thinking and socially active individuals.

“Unlike traditional perspectives of education that claim to be neutral and apolitical, critical pedagogy views all education theory as intimately linked to ideologies shaped by power, politics, history and culture. Given this view, schooling functions as a terrain of ongoing struggle over what will be accepted as legitimate knowledge and culture. In accordance with this notion, a critical pedagogy must seriously address the concept of cultural politics y(sic) both legitimizing and challenging cultural experiences that comprise the histories and social realities that in turn comprise the forms and boundaries that give meaning to student lives. (Darder 1991, p. 77)” Antonia Darder, 1995

Sounds about right.

As I told Robb, I find it constantly surprising, though I don’t know why, that such intelligent people as Ms. Goldson can be so easily led around by the nose. First it was conforming to succeed within the educational system, now it’s conforming to her new-found philosophy. She believes that she is now thinking for herself when instead she is absorbing – again without question – the revolutionary mindset of the Left. But youth is where this capacity is best exploited, because the young have no experience.

Ms. Goldson has been exposed to the Received Wisdom of the Left, and her first impulse is that of every convert to a new religion – proselytizing:

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.

Like, say, Cuba’s? 100% literacy!

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.

I seem to recall that this nation – a nation of thinkers, dreamers, explorers, artists, writers, and engineers – managed to get to the moon and back several times with a school system that had very little influence by the pedants of Critical Pedagogy. In fact, John Taylor Gatto himself marks the date of the change in the educational system to 1965, long after the people responsible for the moon missions were out of primary school. Of course, it started long before 1965, but that’s when critical mass in the Schools of Education and Boards of Education were reached. Now, 45 years later, we have the nationwide disaster that public schooling has become, in large part (I argue) because schools aren’t teaching basic skills and knowledge. Too many are too busy “critiqu(ing), expos(ing), and challeng(ing) the manner in which schools impact upon the political and cultural life of students.” Again, an education joke I’ve used before:

Teaching Math in 1950:
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100.
His cost of production is 4/5 of the price. What is his profit?

Teaching Math in 1960:
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100.
His cost of production is 4/5 of the price, or $80. What is his profit?

Teaching Math in 1970:
A logger exchanges a set “L” of lumber for a set “M” of money.
The cardinality of set “M” is 100. Each element is worth one dollar.
Make 100 dots representing the elements of the set “M.”
The set “C”, the cost of production contains 20 fewer points than set “M.”
Represent the set “C” as a subset of set “M” and answer the following question: What is the cardinality of the set “P” of profits?

Teaching Math in 1980:
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100.
His cost of production is $80 and his profit is $20. Your assignment:
Underline the number 20.

Teaching Math in 1990:
By cutting down beautiful forest trees, the logger makes $20.
What do you think of this way of making a living?
Topic for class participation after answering the question: How did the forest birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down the trees?
(There are no wrong answers.)

Teaching Math in 2000:
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $120.
How does Arthur Andersen determine that his profit margin is $60?
How many documents were shredded to achieve this number?

Teaching Math in 2010:
Un hachero vende una carretada de madera por $100.
El costo de la producciones es $80. Cuanto dinero ha hecho?

Teaching Math in 2040:
ومسجل تبيع حمولة شاحنة من الخشب من أجل 100 دولا

تكلفة الإنتاج هو صاحب 5/4 من الثمن. ما هو الربح له ؟

Ms. Goldson is just another victim of that system. She does have some advice for her fellow victims:

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.

This setting is known as “detention.”

Demand that you be interested in class.

LOL, whut? “Demand” that of whom?

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.

Education isn’t a “tool,” it’s a path. Schools are tools. Education is what you can pursue there if it is in good working order and you do your part of the job right.

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.

They can’t? Your potential might be at stake, but their jobs are. Your “avant-garde” Ms. Bryan is in no danger of losing her teaching certificate, but woe unto anyone who attempts to violate the edicts of the Administration by, you know, actually requiring students to work in order to pass. Woe unto the teachers that deviate from the Accepted Plan. Woe unto teachers who try to get disruptive students removed from their classrooms, etc. etc. etc.

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.

In other words, destroy the system, but it’ll be OK because now the RIGHT PEOPLE will be in charge!! It’ll be UTOPIA! There’ll be rainbows and unicorns!

It’s the same siren song the Left has always preached.

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.

No, they’re the ones you were measured against. You are now one of the Intellectual Elite, and you will be assured and reassured by your new peers that you – and only you – are capable of understanding how things really are and deciding how things ought to be. That you and your new-found friends ought to be in charge, but aren’t only because of the greedy rich.

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!


If you’ve read this far, you might find this Thomas Sowell piece interesting as well: Cheering Immaturity

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