Valedictorian “Schools” her Teachers: A Sign of Learning

The valedictorian stands at the podium, in front of a row of beaming adults (I can only assume they are her teachers and administrators).  She begins with this fable of a Zen student who is disappointed when his teacher says it will take 10 years of study to find Zen.

“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, 20 years.’

 “But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?’ asked the eager student. 

 ‘30 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.’"

The valedictorian is Erica Goldson. Her 2010 high school commencement address – in which the fable becomes a harsh critique of her education and the “educational system” — went viral with more than a million views on YouTube.

A cartoon version made the rounds on social media.

“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,” she says.

 She describes her education as a “period of indoctrination,” preparing her for university, “the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work….”

She equates achieving valedictorian to being “the best slave” of the system. (see the full text of her speech here)

This particular criticism of the educational system is not new or unique. But it is new and unique to hear it from a cap-and-gowned high school valedictorian graduating at the top of her class.  I came across the video, as I prepare to co-facilitate Education 2.0: Teaching in a fast-changing world at University for Peace in Costa Rica.  I find myself watching the reactions in the row of teachers behind her. They stop beaming. They fidget; they cut glances at each other.  It is uncomfortable. I feel for them! It would be easy to interpret her words as a description of their failure as educators. That is pretty much what she is saying.

 However, if we reframe it – if we ignore, for a moment the whole subject of education, and instead focus on learning – they could easily celebrate her speech as evidence of a wild success.

 Here she stands, a high school graduate, delivering a thoughtful, eloquent and brave speech. She is able to take a step back from her experience, to question her own choices:

“While others sat in class and doodled to later go on to be great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker.”

She can raise questions about a system that has rewarded her.

“I wonder; why did I even want this position? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful? Or forever lost?”

She uses the platform they gave her to challenge them:

“You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system.”

Her very act, her questions, her comments belie her message – clearly she had been learning deeply!

Jane Vella is fond of quoting Paulo Freire, “Only the student can name the moment of the death of the professor.”  This is the moment when the student realizes that she (or he) can question, disagree, challenge the professor. It is evidence of the beginning of great learning, which is, after all, a solid reason for us to pursue great teaching.

Erica’s commencement speech points not only to the problems she met in her education. It also points to the possibilities she saw and used. The possibilities lie in keeping our eyes on the path, as the fabled Zen master noted. That path is learning.

What would that look, sound and feel like for you and your school?


Join GLP Partner Christine Little, Mohit Mukherjee, and talented and passionate change makers from around the world for this year's UPEACE session, Education 2.0: Teaching in a Fast-Changing World, taking place July 5-10, 2015 in Costa Rica at the United Nations mandated university for peace. 

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