I wanted to write about this for some time, but only now I got the chance. American valedictorian high-school graduate Erica Goldson wrote a thought inspiring valedictorian speech, starting with its very beginning:
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.”
Strike one. I find it scary how much it actually resembles what I wrote two years ago:
I was completely aware that I was not learning anything (well not anything useful), because even for those few classes I thought were worth the effort, the global schedule was so insane that I ended up dedicating the minimum strictly necessary to each class, trying to get a passing grade for as many classes as I could—and learning zero or close to it in the process.
My mind was so focus on graduation, that learning became a secondary concern. Is there still anyone that doubts that we are transforming our universities into more specialized versions of high schools? I mean, it’s bad enough things are like this in high-school, but the university?!
Anyway, moving on:
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.
I don’t mean to convey the idea that learning is not important; rather, learning is not enough. But it’s far easier to just learn, than to actually learn to think. So it’s easy (and way too tempting) to overemphasize the former, while neglecting the latter. The result is a system that produces drones, unable, unwilling (or both) to question, let alone deviate, of the path someone else has already set for them. Drones for whom the term “freedom” has lost all meaning. This point is illustrated with the following (subtly subversive) comment:
[…] 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?
I’ll finish by quoting the paragraphs she addresses first to the students still within the current system, and next to those who “work with that system” (i.e. teachers et al.):
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.
The speech refers of course to the high-school system in the US, but the same could be said, with little or no modification, of the same system in Portugal. The fact that part of it could apply to Portuguese undergraduate education is worse still. But if it was possible to an eighteen year old to write such words, than I want to think that it’s still possible to beat that system, from within. As George Orwell wrote: “If there is hope… it lies in the proles.” (Nineteen Eighty Four)