Why conventional education is failing us – Interview with valedictorian Erica Goldson (Part 2)

Common: Realizing that 18+ years of education may not provide the foundation it is said to deliver.

Uncommon:Every so often an individual’s curiosity, frustration, and/or inspiration urges them to break tradition and challenge the status quo.  The goal of such Maverick thinkers is not to appease a subjective moral duty, but rather to encourage others to revisit their assumptions in an effort to avoid complacency, groupthink, or mediocrity.

Sometimes these Mavericks speak a language that the majority immediately understands and other times their ideas are met with opposition, but most importantly, they instigate a new discussion that leads to new ideas.

In my last post, high school Maverick and valedictorian, Erica Goldson, delivered a graduation speech no one expected by encouraging her classmates and the faculty to reexamine the conventional education system and their role within it.  I think it is both inspiring and alarming to watch this growing number high school students step forth to speak out about the quality and “process” of their eduction.

As I mentioned in my previous post:

It used to be a select group of social leaders pointing out the deficiencies of our education system, but the academic-disconnect has become so immense that students in high school also cannot recognize how their “education” relates to their life outside of the classroom.

The following is a recent interview I conducted with Erica Goldson:

Based on your impressive graduation speech in Part 1, it’s clear an “awakening” took place while on your path to becoming Valedictorian, but what ultimately led you to this awakening?  How you describe your relationship with conventional education from childhood?  Positive? Negative? Were you always a motivated student?  Did you always have your sites set on becoming Valedictorian? How have your parents influenced you?

From childhood I was always an A student. Looking back, I remember all of the incentives I had to do well in school. I liked being a favorite of teachers; being a good student made me feel special (although later on in life I realized how common that actually is). Also, my family would give me presents or money for having good report card grades. I remember even being upset in first grade for getting an A-.

I was so used to perfection, and it just came easy to me to do what I was told. It wasn’t until high school when I started realizing that there must be more to life than the normal routine. I got into partying and drugs, but still maintained my high grades. In junior year, when I found out that I was second in my class by only about a few hundredths of a point, I became more motivated to become valedictorian. Coming in close second just wasn’t an option. In senior year, I attended Hudson Valley Community College as an early-admit student. All my grades were weighted because of that, so it was an easy win. I had certainly learned one valuable thing throughout school – how to work the system.

For readers who have not yet read Part 1, can you please share an abbreviated version of the message from your speech to the graduating class or 2010 at Coxsackie-Athens High School in Coxsackie, NY?

My message was more or less “open your eyes.” I wanted to tell everyone about my feelings of apathy toward the public education system, so perhaps they could relate, or even be a bit shocked. It’s an interesting contradiction to hear that the star student isn’t happy with those that crowned her. Like I said in the speech, “I want to make sure that no other child will have his or her potential suppressed by powers meant to exploit and control.”

The system we have now suppresses our basic human tendencies of creativity, of which I am now trying to regain by taking a breather from it all. My most important point was making the connection between education and the working world. We are taught to be obedient, so we will continue to be obedient. It seems obvious, but it didn’t hit me until only about a year ago, and it probably hasn’t hit a lot of other people. We are raised to believe so much non-truth, the most important lie being that we are free.


The message in your graduation speech was very forward and certainly a challenge to the current education system.  Did this catch most people off guard coming from a Valedictorian?  How did the faculty, parents, and students respond to your message?

It must have caught them off guard. I heard through the grapevine about all the people who were upset by my speech, including the administration, but there was nothing that they could do. No one that disliked it confronted me directly, but those that could relate and appreciated my effort to expose truth commended me. I was happy to see some peers of mine that agreed with me. However, others just thought I was calling them stupid, which I certainly was not.

What was most frustrating about your high school academic experience?

The most frustrating thing about my high school education was the pressure to “be something.” I had to be “on the track.” Yet, now I’m finding out that the track is not for me. I can make my own path, and I don’t need to change my mind about a career constantly because I realize one doesn’t need to have the same job his entire life or even have a “job” at all.  Anything is possible.

In your graduation speech you mention an “avant-garde” English teacher, Donna Bryan, who taught you in tenth grade.  How did this teacher make such an impact on you?

I first met Donna in study hall in ninth grade. She had been working there for a few years and became known as “that crazy English teacher” among some students. I think they just weren’t used to someone with such a different teaching style. I had her for tenth grade Honors English class, and she often used social justice issues in her curriculum. She had us write a paper about how teenagers are viewed in society, which really let us express our feelings about how youth aren’t appreciated enough.

One of the first things introduced in our class was the literacy rate in America. My eyes were opened to an alternative view of our country – that we may actually not be number one. One of the best parts of the class was when we went on WAMC NPR to discuss the importance of dissent. We had the opportunity to research things like Gitmo and the Patriot Act. I would’ve never looked into these things on my own, but only when I had to for a grade. That’s how I was trained, so luckily there are teachers who can operate around the constraints of the system to further their students’ growth in critical analysis.

What do you think inspired Donna Bryan to become an avant-garde within such a rigid academic system?  And do you have faith other teachers can do the same?

Perhaps I should ask her myself. She’s had a lot of experience in life. She didn’t just jump right into teaching (which I don’t think anyone should). I believe a teacher’s purpose is to be there as a resource, to relay wisdom that s/he has received throughout life. But now we have people who go to school all their lives, then go to school some more to learn how to teach.

But what do they really learn? How to choose a textbook and give out homework and tests? That’s not helping anybody. Donna is a compassionate, informed and extremely intelligent human being, and I’m sure she figured out that the youth are the ones who can save this world. We are the change that we’ve been waiting for, and even if no one else will treat us that way, at least she will.

Other teachers can do the same, but they really have to want to. I’m tired of teachers who are just there for a paycheck, or because they were good at the subject in high school, so they will just go into teaching it since they think they need some kind of career. And the more teachers that are passionate about helping to mold an insightful youth, the more will challenge the system, and the more power will be back in the people’s hands.

What three pieces of advice would you give to a freshman or Sophomore student in high school?

1. Don’t take school too seriously. Sometimes that picture you’re drawing is more important than studying for your Spanish test.

2. Get involved. Find your passions and explore them even more by joining or forming clubs.

3. Meet a lot of people. Learn as much as you can about what other people think and how little you actually know.

4. (Sorry, I have to include something else.) The Internet is your friend. There are so many more resources online than in your History textbook. I highly recommend StumbleUpon.com.


What would you tell a high school graduate about to enter college?

Are you sure you want to? So many students just go because they are expected to, yet there are so many other options out there. For example, I’m going to travel. I could live in international communities, join Americorps, or perhaps apprentice with Cal-Earth. Later on, I might start my own business or non-profit. I don’t need a degree to do what I really want to do in life. I only need a degree if I want to show employers that I know how to do what I’m told.

If you really do want to go to college, then make sure you’re really getting the bang for your buck. Find the most interesting classes with the best professors. Join clubs and meet lots of new people. Get involved with the community and continue to follow your passions. Don’t become overwhelmed with school and work to the point where you have no time for yourself, and try meditation. At this stage of your life, spirituality can become a great friend.

Finally, what are 3 or 5 changes you would like to see occur in conventional education?

I’d like to see more freedom in choice. Right now, the government has too much control over how each school operates. NCLB and RTTT are standardizing children, some states’ restrict homeschooling, and authoritarian administrations aren’t allowing students to steer their own education.

Most people have a strict definition of education. They picture textbooks, pencils, and tests. But what if education meant playing cards, watching movies, planting flowers, talking to your grandfather, or climbing a mountain? We learn things everyday through play, through our own experiences, and through dialogue with other people. And now, with the internet, we have more potential for knowledge than ever.


How do you feel about conventional education and Erica’s thoughts?  Share your comments below.

Stay uncommon,

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