Four Reasons Why Jeff Bliss is Totally Wrong

Jeff Bliss is the young man who has recently made a name (or at least an image, with all that long blond hair) for himself by berating his teacher after she told him to leave the classroom.

If you’ve seen the video of the “mic-droppingly epic speech” of this high school student giving his teacher the what-for, then I know what you’re thinking: “Wrong? No way! That kid is totally RIGHT! This is everything wrong with our public education system! Test prep, packets, and lazy teachers! He called them all out!”

Fair enough. The content of the speech isn’t totally wrong. In fact, assuming the allegations are accurate, the class sounds intellectually stultifying, to say the least. And Mr. Bliss has a certain natural presence, a je ne sais quoi, a refreshing lack of profanity—in short, a talent—for public speaking. And I understand where he’s coming from. That self-righteous indignation, that breathtaking certainty in the revolutionary validity of his own words–I get it. I get it and I did it. I railed against the system, against “bad” teachers, against every injustice that came to my attention. That injustices usually came to my attention when they inconvenienced me in some way was, at the time, beneath my notice.

Fortunately for me, my mother, who believed that I was intelligent, talented, and worthy of a good education, also had an incredibly well-honed bullshit meter when it came to my teen angst. It is thanks entirely to her good advice, which I sometimes actually took, that I managed to stay out of the “dumping ground” classrooms—you know the ones I mean—and squeeze into the types of classes where my arrogance was, by and large, no match for the creativity and intelligence of my teachers.

I have a strong suspicion that Mr. Bliss has not managed to avoid the dumping ground. Everything in the video suggests this is exactly where he finds himself. It’s in the teacher’s voice, the reaction (or lack thereof) of the other students to his rant, and in the accusations he makes about the nature of the curriculum: He’s in the classroom where students go when they have been deemed “unteachable.” Every public school has at least one such room, and Mr. Bliss is exactly right: such rooms should not exist.

That said, Mr. Bliss, you’re going about this all wrong. Here’s why:

1. It doesn’t matter who or what is at fault. In the end, the only person you’re hurting here is you.

This was my mother’s favorite point, except she called it “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” I heard this phrase so many times when I was a teenager that I was almost tempted to actually cut off my nose just to get her to stop saying it. Of course, mostly what I hated was that she was right. Railing against your teacher will get you exactly nowhere. If you think your teacher doesn’t care, she probably doesn’t. Thus, shouting at her that she should care is worse than a waste of your breath—it’s going to get you in trouble, and no one in the administration is going to care that you are right and she is wrong. More importantly, no college admissions officer or future employer is going to be sympathetic to your plea that the reason you have a 1.5 GPA is because your teachers were all horrible people.

In other words, you can fight this all you want. You can be 100% right. You can refuse to do any work, to open any book (or packet), to get a decent grade until everything in the system is fixed to your satisfaction. Guess what? You will literally hurt no one but yourself in this process.

Let me put this another way: there are people, lots of people, people with PhDs even, people who are brilliant and clever and hard-working and passionate, who have dedicated their lives to trying to make it so that no student ever has to sit in a room and be bored. And those brilliant, clever, passionate people have not managed to fix the system. Maybe someday they will. Maybe they won’t. In the meantime, you are bored and you are pissed. Get over it. If you don’t want to be bored, do something. If you don’t want to be pissed, take a few deep breaths and then do something. And by “do something,” I don’t mean yell at your teacher and then storm out of the room. I mean DO SOMETHING. Read a book. Read 100 books. Practice chords on a guitar. Work on your poetry. Work on getting a date for Friday night. Whatever you do, remember this: nobody but you has the power to make you not bored and not pissed. It is entirely in your control. The sooner you learn that, the better you will feel and the more effective you will be.

2. Talent is not rare.

Many of the comments on the original YouTube video say something to the effect of, “This kid has nothing to worry about. With that kind of talent, he’s going to be just fine.” I beg to differ.

We’re sometimes led to believe that talent is rare, and that rare talent is all a person really needs to get ahead. It’s a delicious thought that has led many of us, my high school self included, to avoid working hard to hone an actual skill and, instead, cast about madly for the magical sport, artistic media, or musical instrument at which we are so incredibly talented that work is not required and fame will find us.

This, sadly, is not how it ever happens, no matter how often it may seem that it is. Behind every musician, every professional athlete, every writer, every scientist, every famous person you’ve ever heard of, is a history of long, hard work—work that was often boring, monotonous, and thankless. It may not have been conventional, may not have taken place inside a classroom, and may not be immediately obvious beneath the veneer of ennui that said artist or athlete has carefully constructed, but I promise you, it happened. Practice and hour after hour after hour of work happened before success hit.

To get a sense of the commonness of talent, all you have to do is look at the number of people playing a college sport compared to the number of professional athletes. Take football: every single player who has gotten as far as college football is talented. Of those talented players, fewer than two percent—two percent!—will go pro. And that’s just the talented players who made it as far as college ball—imagine the numbers who play in high school who are “talented.” Add to that the numbers of children and teenagers who are talented at some other sport, or in art or music or writing or math or science, and you’ve got essentially, I don’t know, billions of talented people on the planet.

Which leads me to my next point:

3. Potential is worth nothing.

I know that you believe you have potential. I can hear it in your voice. And you are positive that this potential means something.

Sadly, no one has ever made a difference in the world on the basis of “having a lot of potential.” You know who had a lot of potential? Every convicted felon serving life in prison. Every lazy, horrible teacher. Every member of every lousy garage band that ever played in a shitty bar. In short, every baby ever born has potential. Really.

So you, sitting in high school, know that you have potential, and that the school is wasting it. You are “the future of this country,” for heaven’s sake! You know that if only you had teachers who cared, a curriculum that made sense, administrators who knew their ass from their elbows, your potential would flourish, well-nurtured in a sea of caring and highly involved people.

Right?

Wrong. Your potential will flourish when you decide to turn your potential into something that actually matters: Achievement. No one can do it for you, and waiting for someone to help you is a waste of your time. Does that have to be conventional school achievement? No. But it will make your life a hell of a lot easier if your achievements include being able to show a modicum of success in high school. Especially since:

4. Intelligence entitles you to nothing.

Surely the fact that you’re smart entitles you to at least a tiny feeling of superiority, right? If your teacher had half a brain, she obviously wouldn’t be sitting in there. Ditto most of the other kids. Clearly, the fact that you’re stuck here proves only that somewhere, someone made a terrible mistake—if they knew how smart you are, they never would have let this happen.

Well… no. First of all, like talent and potential, intelligence alone doesn’t mean much. Those who happen to score above average on IQ tests would love to believe that this actually matters in some gigantic (or even in some small) way, but it doesn’t. Most psychologists, maybe most people, would disagree with me here, but I don’t actually believe that intelligence exists separately from behavior. If a person makes stupid decisions (and I would define that as “decisions that hurt himself and no one else”), then that person is not very intelligent. Or, if he is, that intelligence is meaningless. Once that person starts making smart decisions (i.e. decisions that benefit himself and the people around him), he is intelligent. Ergo, if you want the world to treat you as though you are an intelligent person, then start making smart decisions.

Secondly, a person isn’t entitled to a good education because he or she is intelligent. A person is entitled to a good education because he or she exists. But being entitled guarantees (here’s the word again) nothing. If you’re not getting that thing, then being “entitled” to it isn’t going to magically make it happen. Therefore, if you feel entitled to a good education, then you are simply going to have to go out and get well-educated. I wish as much as you do that going to school and sitting down and waiting for someone to take an interest would do the trick. However, in this case, it doesn’t seem to be working. In truth, that’s really never how it works. Excellent teachers don’t stand in front of the room and pour information into your head. Excellent teachers find ways of getting you to pour information into your own head.

If you don’t have an excellent teacher, you’re going to have to take this bull by the horns, skip the middle man, do some damn hard work, and get that information into your head. The fact that you have potential, talent, intelligence, and the right to a decent education will mean nothing—and I mean nothing—when you are faced with the whole big wide world outside of high school.

So hop to it, young man! You have a lot of work to do. You have a whole world to save, an entire future to fix. It’s not going to happen just because you have half a million hits on your YouTube video.

Because here’s one thing that is true: when you’re one of the ones who has a little extra talent, a little extra intelligence, a little je ne sais quoi, and the ability to see past the crap, that means you have more of a responsibility to work hard and make a difference, not less.

Messing with Texas

I submit to you that the hardest challenge a writer will ever undertake is to use her words to change your mind about something. It’s child’s play to reaffirm ideas you already hold dear, it’s easy to strengthen ideas you’re already prone to, and it’s only moderately difficult to help you articulate something you believe but struggle to explain.

But to actually change your mind… that’s tough. Especially on a blog–how many of us even read blogs, or anything else, unless we’re already likely to agree with them? News articles with reliable, objective, new information might be the exception, except that journalists are continually thrown over for pundits, making such articles hard to find. And anyway, why read something objective and informative when you could read something with a little information and a lot of opinion that supports what you already think? I’m as guilty of this as the next person–it’s really easy for me to watch The Daily Show and call myself educated; it’s much more difficult to read the “World” section of the New York Times–which is to say nothing of how much I drag my feet to read, say, The Wall Street Journal. Bleh.

Jezebel is so much easier to stomach.

But the whole point of education is to learn something new–and not just learn it, but apply it. It’s not enough to know that “The God Particle” is just a nickname for the Higgs-Boson. In order to really be educated, I have to look beyond the headline and read a lot of difficult and dry scientific stuff–as close to a primary source as I can manage, not just an op-ed piece–to begin to understand just what the Higgs-Boson actually is. Then I have to call up that information every time I read about what the Higgs-Boson means regarding, say, religion, so that I can judge the new information against the old and decided for myself if I agree, disagree, or want to withhold opinion.

That is education. Not just the memorization of facts (though this is an important element as well, no matter how dull it seems), not just the understanding of those facts (again, still an important part), not even just the application of those facts to, say, a theory or principle, but the analysis of ideas–this is what critical thinking, and, thus, education, is.

As adults, it is up to us whether or not we pursue education. We can either read about Syria or we can read about the Kardashians. Or we can read about Syria, but only from the perspective of people who are likely to say something we like. Or we can read about how much better it would be if we were reading about Syria instead of reading about the Kardashians.

No matter what we do, it’s our choice. We’re not in school anymore, and we have every right to choose not to better ourselves.

We also have the right to choose for our own children. If I don’t want my child to be exposed to ideas with which I may not agree, whether those ideas seem too liberal for me or too conservative, I can keep her out of school. I can homeschool her or send her to a private school. I still have to pay my taxes to the public school, of course, because it’s not a free public education if the only people paying for it are those who are using it, but my child never has to darken the door of the facility. In fact, I’m well within my rights to prevent my kid from ever once being exposed to a piece of information or a line of thinking to which I have not already given my stamp of approval. (Well… sort of. But anyway, that’s a different conversation.)

I hope it goes without saying, though, that I don’t have the right to choose that for someone else’s child.

The truth is that free public education is a radical idea. We the people have all come together and said, “We want children–all children–to be taught to think for themselves,” and we want that education to be free, high-quality, identity-affirming, and nurturing. We want to pay for it even if we don’t have children ourselves. Even if we can’t stand our neighbors, we want to contribute to their children’s education.

Because we hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal.

In fact, the idea is so radical that I’ve suspected for some time that many people don’t actually believe it. They’ll pay it lip service, but when it comes down to the dollars and cents, they’d rather scream about teacher’s unions, illegal immigration, and school vouchers–in other words, issues that are so divisive, so complex, and, ultimately, so dry (if you really read the full-text primary sources on the subjects) that they muddy the waters and everyone forgets we’re all together here–we do have a common goal, and the road map for getting there is clearly marked.

That is, it’s clearly marked if we all agree that our founding fathers were right that everyone is equal and everyone should be educated as such.

Texas GOP crush your head!

I would actually get it if someone stood up and said, “You know what? I don’t agree with our founding fathers. We shouldn’t educate everyone equally, because everyone isn’t equal. The founding fathers didn’t know we’d be unable to close our borders. Christian, English-speaking Americans are equal, but everyone else is unwelcome, and we don’t want to educate them unless they want to become Christian, English-speaking Americans.”

I wouldn’t agree with them–I’d don my critical thinking cap and decide that these people were xenophobic, racist elitists–but I would at least have a little respect for the fact that they stood up and told the truth as they saw it. After all, I have respect for people who stand up and say, “You know what? I think the founding fathers had no idea that someday there would be AK-47s, and when it comes to gun control, I think we need to deviate from the road map now that these things exist.”

But what I don’t have any respect for, and what I find quite terrifying, is people who stand up and say, “Our founding fathers believed that only Christian, English-speaking Americans should be educated, and if you don’t agree with me, you’re an amoral, godless liberal who is launching an assault on America.”

Oh, I guess it’s not really terrifying that they stand up and say it. That’s common sense–if you want people to agree with you, throw around words like “founding fathers” and “morality” and “God.” What’s terrifying is that so many people buy it.

In fact, they buy it so much that the Texas GOP has now literally ratified, as their 2012 platform, their support for removing critical thinking from the curriculum. Here’s their actual language:

“We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

They also believe that “the current multicultural curriculum is divisive” and they “support school subjects with emphasis on the Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded.” They also want to make it illegal for non-citizens to go to school.

In other words, if you aren’t a Christian, English-speaking (white) American, they don’t want you to be educated. Even if you are a Christian, English-speaking (white) American, they don’t want you to be educated–unless “education” means “being told things you already know and believe.”

They’ve since come out and claimed that they opposed “the teaching of critical thinking skills” by accident, but I don’t buy it. Why? Because critical thinking is by definition the “challenging of fixed beliefs.” In the sense that teaching a child to think for himself–which is to say, teaching a child–means teaching him not to believe everything he’s told by an authority figure, yes, education undermines parental authority. Yes it does. It also undermines the authority of the church, the authority of the government, and the authority of the teacher.

Because when child learns to think for himself, he learns not to believe everything he’s told. She learns not to believe everything she reads. In order to learn this, she has to learn to question her elders–not overthrow them, not disobey them, but question them.

And if you think the founding fathers would have been against this, you should really read up on your history.

In case you don’t want to take my word for all of this, here are some links:

Texas 2012 GOP Platform

Washington Post Article/Blog

Huffington Post

Dear New Teacher,

Dear New Teacher,

I made mistakes that still keep me up at night. But I also built a classroom library. Isn’t it beautiful? I dismissed it at the time because it was easy and fun. Now I realize how cool it is.

I have a teensy, weensy bit of bad news for you: This year is probably going to suck. You’re going to work very, very hard, lose sleep, care so much, and still be convinced that a potted plant would teach them more than you can.

Here is a short list of the mistakes you will almost certainly make:

-Forget to make copies of an assignment in time to give it to students before the due date. Or forget the assignment entirely.
-Answer a student question TOTALLY incorrectly, and be corrected by a student in front of the class.
-Lose important papers.
-Give a student the benefit of the doubt even though you KNOW she is lying.
-Choose the wrong moment to be a hard ass.
-Write a bad test.
-Confuse your students and then yourself.
-Plan WAY too little for one day, and spend a very uncomfortable 20 minutes waiting for the bell to ring.

You’ll do lots of great things, too, but you’ll dismiss those things, or fail to realize how great they are. You’ll be wearing goggles that allow you only to see your shortcomings, and there will be many of those.

The good news is that the first year ends. You will learn from it. You’ll start your second year with a much better sense of self, and you’ll be much less worried about things like whether or not you’ve got chalk on your butt. You’ll stop feeling like an imposter. You’ll let fewer things slide, and have more days that go smoothly. More and more, you’ll feel that you don’t have enough time to teach them everything you want to teach them. The period will end and you will think, “Wow, that went fast.”

You’ll reach someone. You’ll take things less personally. You’ll work hard, but more efficiently, and you’ll enjoy the work more.

By your third year (and I know that sounds like it’s a million, billion years from now, but it’s not. It’ll be here so fast it’ll make your head spin), you’ll have a few lesson plans you love. You’ll have moments you feel proud of, and students whose lives you’ve improved, if only by a small margin. You’ll be more pragmatic about the students who’ve slipped through your grasp, and, while you’ll keep stretching yourself to reach those difficult students, you’ll recognize that they do have to meet you halfway, and that you can’t force them. You’ll know when you’re being lied to, and feel more confident about how to deal with it. You’ll be a hard ass when you need to be, and you’ll be forgiving when you can. You’ll begin to know what kind of teacher you are. By now, you’ll have a reputation among the students. Don’t worry–they’re quite perceptive. If you’ve been working hard, and if you like them, and if you are passionate about your subject, you’ll have a good reputation. That reputation will help you. Students will conform to you more quickly, and test your boundaries less often.

You’ll suddenly realize that you haven’t worried about whether or not your butt was covered in chalk for weeks. When a student asks you a question to which you don’t know the answer, you’ll simply say, “I don’t know,” and then you’ll find out.

You’ll ask the class a question, and be comfortable letting the silence stretch for longer than 5 seconds.

You won’t be scared of your students anymore.

You won’t hate Sunday nights anymore.

You’ll love summer, but you’ll also look forward to September, because a fresh slate is now more exciting than it is terrifying.

You will remember that first class, and you’ll remember the students who were sacrificed on the altar of your first year. You’ll remember the student whose face fell when you made an ill-timed and overly harsh joke. You’ll remember the student who showed signs of needing real help, the one who might’ve had an eating disorder or whose parents might have been neglecting him. You’ll wish you’d gone to the counselors, and you’ll wonder how that student is doing now.

And you’ll remember that student when one of your new ones comes to you with a problem. You’ll stay on top of that problem. You’ll follow up. No matter the outcome, you’ll know that you took action.

You’ll be organized, and aware, and you’ll love your job.

Because nothing worth having is easy to get, and being a good teacher is very, very worth all the pain it takes to get there.

Good luck, New Teacher. You’re gonna need it!

Sincerely,

Me.