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A speech to teenagers about their education

A Speech to Teenagers About Their Education

“Ladies and gentlemen…This will be a short speech about education. Your education. The bottom line is that you must take responsibility for it.

“Many of you already know that you have to take charge of your hair and your clothes. Perhaps you know that all too well. You’re also figuring out that you have to take charge of your diet and exercise, of trying to look good and feel good. And you’re figuring out you have to make some tough choices about how you spend your time and whom you spend it with. But some of you may not have figured out the education part. One reason is that there tends to be an adversarial relationship between schools and students. The tendency is to resist what adults want, to say, don’t bother me with that serious stuff now. I’ll worry about that in a few years.

“My suggestion is to start worrying today. Now!

“The main thing you might not have figured out is that a lot of people don’t give a damn whether you become educated or not. Some of these people run the schools you go to. Some of you can’t read well, and I guarantee that is the fault of the school. Some of you can’t multiply and divide, and I guarantee that is the fault of the school. Some of you don’t know where the Pilgrims came from, which direction they went in, or where they landed when they got there. Some of you don’t know the names of the oceans, the freezing point of water, or what 8 times 8 is. And I guarantee that all this is the fault of the school. Some of you don’t know the most basic things that any second-grader can understand and learn. Why don’t you know these things? I guarantee it’s the fault of the school.

“See what you’re up against??

“When we study American schools, we see a lot of make-believe, of keeping kids busy and making it appear that they are being educated. They are not. You’re not. Schools used to push students toward excellence. Now they’ll let you drop like a stone toward mediocrity, if you let them.

“I think it’s fair to say that American education has been warped by ideology and politics. What’s that mean? Some people are all too willing to dumb you down so they can keep you in your place. Say no! Say to hell with you, buddy—I want to know more. I want to be educated. I want to be able to make intelligent choices. I want to be a good voter. I want to succeed if I go on to college. I want to be a smart educated parent when the time comes. I want to be able to help make this a better country.

“So, as I say, take control of your education. Learn what you have to learn; and keep right on going. Any time you see a word you don’t know, look it up. Any time you see a name or a subject you haven’t heard about, run to the nearest encyclopedia or search the web. Try to read at least one magazine cover to cover every week. Read a book a month. Go on offense. Take a look at the subjects you know and plan how you can extend that knowledge. Consider the subjects you know little about and figure the easiest way to move toward learning more. Take charge.

“Has this little pep talk been gloomy? That’s because I find myself worrying about education stats. Did you know that this country has 50 million functional illiterates; that SAT scores are dropping; that our A students can’t compete against the A students from other countries; that Jay Leno goes out on the street and finds apparently ordinary citizens who don’t know which way is north?…I just want to impress on you that in education, much more than you might realize, you are on your own. If you don’t do it, it may not happen.

“Thomas Jefferson said we can’t be ignorant and free at the same time. Ignorance is a kind of slavery. That has always been true. What’s new is the number of people who might be pushing you in the wrong direction.

I hope you’ll push back with all your strength.”

To dramatize that our schools do a bad job, I created “20: The Quizz—100 Facts That Every High School Graduate Should Know.” Find that—and much more educational wisdom—on Improve-Education.org. Join my crusade.

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