Education America

Today I discovered (thank you Ryan) Kareem Elnahal’s speech as valedictorian of Mainland Regional High School and I discovered new hope, new faith in our country’s future. When high school students can step up and speak truth to power, as Elnahal did so well, I become a believer in the strength of human spirit. “We study what is, never why, never what should be. …[T]his pattern, grade for the sake of a grade, work for the sake of work, can be found everywhere,” said Elnahal.

Ladies and gentlemen, the spirit of intellectual thought is lost. I speak today not to rant, complain or cause trouble, and certainly not to draw attention to myself. I have accomplished nothing and I am nothing. I know that. Rather, I was moved by the countless hours wasted in those halls. Today, you should focus on your child or loved one. This is meant to be a day of celebration, and if I’ve taken away from that, I’m sorry. But I know how highly this community values learning, and I urge you all to re-evaluate what it means to be educated.

Bravo. Of course a press report notes that “he was interrupted by school officials when he started to talk about the shortcomings of the American educational system. He finished quickly and walked off the field.”

Fiteen years ago I read an essay by John Taylor Gatto, 1991 New York state teacher of the year and three times New York City teacher of the year. I’ve no idea whether Elnahal has ever seen The Six Lesson Schoolteacher — the essay that helped me through my highschool years — but I find surprising concordance in the arguments.

Gatto’s lessons are, in short: know your place and stay there, nothing matters (except what I say), you are powerless, you are dependent on authority, your worth will be judged by “authorities,” and we are watching you constantly.

Lessons two and four ring out every time I read them:

The second lesson I teach kids is to turn on and off like a light switch. I demand that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor. But when the bell rings I insist that they drop the work at once and proceed quickly to the next work station. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any other class I know of.

The lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? Bells are the secret logic of schooltime; their argument is inexorable; bells destroy past and future, converting every interval into a sameness, as an abstract map makes every living mountain and river the same even though they are not. Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.

The fourth lesson I teach is that only I determine what curriculum you will study. (Rather, I enforce decisions transmitted by the people who pay me). This power lets me separate good kids from bad kids instantly. Good kids do the tasks I appoint with a minimum of conflict and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to learn, I decide what few we have time for. The choices are mine. Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.

Bad kids fight against this, of course, trying openly or covertly to make decisions for themselves about what they will learn. How can we allow that and survive as schoolteachers? Fortunately there are procedures to break the will of those who resist.

This is another way I teach the lesson of dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. This is the most important lesson of all, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. It is no exaggeration to say that our entire economy depends upon this lesson being learned. Think of what would fall apart if kids weren’t trained in the dependency lesson: The social-service businesses could hardly survive, including the fast-growing counseling industry; commercial entertainment of all sorts, along with television, would wither if people remembered how to make their own fun; the food services, restaurants and prepared-food warehouses would shrink if people returned to making their own meals rather than depending on strangers to cook for them. Much of modern law, medicine, and engineering would go too — the clothing business as well — unless a guaranteed supply of helpless people poured out of our schools each year. We’ve built a way of life that depends on people doing what they are told because they don’t know any other way. For God’s sake, let’s not rock that boat!

But not in my schools you say? Daniel Loggi, superintendent of the Atlantic County, NJ, School District might argue with you. “I know Mainland is one of our top high schools in this county. They’ve been a Blue Ribbon school and received a lot of awards.” To emphaisize the point, Loggie added “The education [Elnahal] received there is permitting him to go on to Princeton.”

Gatto left teaching, Elnahal is moving on. Is there room for criticism or self-inspection from active insiders? I doubt it when I read the story reported here, of a school administrator tearing down a group art project and openly questioning the the art teacher regarding a project that appeared to truly engage her students. I doubt it as I remember the experience of Steve Geluso, a student who received an “F” for writing an essay questioning the current copyright dogma.

Still, we have Kareem Elnahal’s example. Perhaps free thought is not dead.