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To Those Who Question High School (A Statement By Aricelis Biel)

I’ve got very strong views on this topic, partly because I remember, as I am sure Jon does, as well, some very painful and melodramatic conversations with my parents about how I should balance debate and school. I was not a model student.

Therefore let me state this in the strongest possible terms for everyone who might read this: Learning is NOT what you do in a high school classroom. Learning is not, in general, what happens in schools (any school!) at all. Learning is what takes place in your own mind, as you sit in a library, your kitchen, your own room - and painfully read through a troubling paragraph over and over and over again, scribbling notes until the matter becomes clear to you. Learning is what happens when you (for example) read something out of a cognitive science journal that so fascinates you that you find yourself at the library at 8:00 pm on a Friday night, checking out 18 volumes, with the vain belief that you CAN read every goddamned thing mentioned in the that kindled your intellect in such a violent fashion. Learning is what happens when you realize, with a shock, that EVERY subject you study is connected to EVERY other subject under the sun, and that science, art, literature, philosophy, language, etc. function as a collective whole in everyone’s mind, not as separate subjects that live only in the stupidly separate “periods” of a stupidly segmented day, that requires stupidly disparate poly binders and stupidly fragmented make work.

If my vitriol seems excessive, it is because my high school teachers never made an effort to convey to me how texts were written. I missed the undercurrents; I was cowed into thinking the history of literature and philosophy was squeaky-clean; I was blinded, propagandized, railroaded, scammed into thinking that there were no personal arguments in academia; that everything that was published had equal merit; that *mature* authors never wrote about sex, death, themselves, or madness. I was *kept* ignorant, because public educations walk the fine line of what a state should teach, and private educations walk the fine line of what one group of people have decided to teach. No more, no less, is offered. Education is controlled by administrators and petty politicians or community members, at either institution. To understand how dangerous that is, look no further than the current debate on evolution that is taking place in many areas across our nation.

I want to make it very clear that I think it is every student’s obligation, to themselves alone, to strengthen their own intellect and pursue their own education. Your high school education does not prepare you for life as a thinking, sensate being. It is not guided by people who care about your overall intellectual well being. It is guided, first and foremost, by administrators, and a whole HELL of a lot of paperwork.

I suspect those of you who are graduating seniors are beginning to learn this. You academic life reduces to that college application. That is everything you know and how well you know it, on sheet of paper, is it not? Your life hangs on the balance of those very few lines and numbers. Or at least, that is what you are told. If you suspect it does not, I applaud you - because if there is one thing I can say for sure, it is that your GPA and SAT/ACT scores do not indicate how intelligent you are, or how much you know. They indicate only how hard you worked, and how well you tailored yourself to the system of hoops you had to jump through to be admitted to an Ivy, or that idyllic state school.

None of us are ever done learning. If you think graduation high school is an accomplishment, or a mark of your status as an educated being - You’ve been cheated. You’ve been duped. You have every right to be enraged, but more importantly - you have an obligation (to yourself!) to remedy that. Keep reading - especially things which are not assigned. Keep thinking - ask yourself what works and what doesn’t, or how you would have spoken to the issue you’re exploring - write essays you don’t need to write, do research you’ll never use for schoolwork.

DON’T PLEASE THE TEACHER. The teacher isn’t much more objectively intelligent than your average LDer, in most cases. Their education degree isn’t a Ph.D. in chem (if they teach chem) or a Ph.D. in English (if they teach English). You will, in time, learn more than they are teaching you, and possibly more than they themselves know. They are not bad people, but they are, for time being, in the way of the straightest possible path you could be taking toward a good education. Study to learn, not to get an A.

Be passionate about the academic worth, and intellectual vigor, of your work. Take it more seriously than your teachers do. Knowledge is the lifeblood of progress, and it’s damn near all our human race has to separate us from higher order apes. Don’t compromise the truth or the complexity of an issue when you write a paper on it. Ask for extensions if they’ll make your work better. Never go for the easy A. Demand that your teachers ask difficult questions of you, demand that they force you to think; if they give you a stupid, make-worky sort of assignment that asks all the wrong sort of questions, formulate the right ones and answer those, instead.

If you do all these things, I really do guarantee that your education and debate will no longer seem to be two disparate paths that you need to choose from.

Best wishes and best of luck,

Aracelis Biel
Smith College ‘07


  1. The only skill I've picked up throughout all my years of schooling is how to take tests. Very little learning has gone on in school.

  2. Anonymous10:34 PM

    Interesting. However, I think it should be said that a highschool education -isn't- an education on subjects, but rather an education on how to learn.


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