Draft of a Letter to a Former Teacher, Which I Did Not Send Because Doing So Would Be a Bad Idea

Dear [name redacted]:

So, I'm trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to stop being bitter, because I'm powerless to change anything, and so being bitter is a waste of time when I could be doing something useful instead, but I still don't understand how a good person like you can actually think our so-called educational system is actually a good idea. I can totally understand being practical and choosing to work within the system because it's all we've got; there's nothing wrong with selling out as long as you get a good price. If you think you're actually helping your students become better thinkers and writers, then that's great, and you should be praised for having more patience than me. But I don't understand how you can unambiguously say that this gargantuan soul-destroying engine of mediocrity deserves more tax money without at least displaying a little bit of uncertainty!

You said in a previous message that a lot of your students are sheep-like, that they'll never do anything valuable that they're not told to do—but doesn't it seem likely that the system's bureaucratic, anti-intellectual, anti-curiosity culture of death has made them that way? I'm finishing my math degree at SF State (because I'm a coward, because people expect it, because my father is paying tuition and it's easier than getting a real job), and trying to talk to my fellow "math majors" is a source of constant heartbreak, because as far as I can tell, it has never occurred to most of them that knowledge and skills are useful for anything other than pleasing local authority figures. You try to tell them about some new idea you've been working on (see my posts at http://zackmdavis.net/blog/category/mathematics/ for examples of the sorts of things math people think about), and they just stare at you blankly and say, "What class is this for?"

You can't think of a polite answer to that, so you say to them: "Well, what have you been thinking about lately?"

Another blank stare. "Nothing."

"Well, what have you been doing, then? "


"Okay, but presumably the homework was about something ..."

"Calculus three."

"But what particular topi—you know, with respect, I don't think you understand what I'm trying to do here."

Quite often, to my horror (but not shock), it turns out that my interlocutor is planning on becoming a high-school teacher.

But people have been complaining about the incompetence and bad morals of youth for millennia—that's nothing new. Surely at least the University itself is designed to help young minds aspiring to something greater than earning a goddamned piece of paper?

Well, no. They don't give a fuck. They don't even pretend to give a fuck. (Individual professors are wonderful people, but you can't just directly pay them for tutoring; everything goes through the institution.) Earlier this year, after having wasted two years taking mostly worthless so-called "general education" classes at Diablo Valley College (including one in which we spent two class periods watching The Wizard of Oz, including one in which we were instructed to use colored pencils to indicate on a map which states belonged to the Union and which to the Confederacy), it seemed clear to me that the next step in my mathematical development was to study real analysis—the rigorous underpinnings of the differential and integral calculus which all educated people are familiar with. (Right?) But there's a mandatory prerequisite. I asked if I could take the prerequisite course concurrently with real analysis. Two different professors told me that I could not. I emailed the professor scheduled to teach real analysis, attaching a little paper I had written (admittedly rather trivial, but not bad for a mere undergraduate, I thought) about analogues of pi in the Lp spaces over ℝn. I did not receive a reply.

Oh, well, I thought, my proof skills aren't actually that great; maybe it's for the best. I show up to the prerequisite class, and what's the first topic? Basic propositional logic, something I have known for five years. What's the last topic, in these final weeks of the course? The uncountability of the reals, something I have known for six years. And I am expected to sit there and obey, even though it is completely obvious to everyone in the room that I am not drawn from the same distribution as the other students, because large hierarchical organizations are structurally incapable of nurturing individual minds; all they can do is shove people around and treat them as fungible cogs.

And this is what passes for "education"? This is the system that everyone has to go through in order to be respected as "college educated"? This is the beneficiary of the endless stream of blatantly self-serving propaganda I had to endure this fall (on Facebook, on campus), which the voters (most of whom are monstrous hypocrites who have never voluntarily picked up a textbook in their entire lives) actually fell for, raising California's already-high taxes even more, and for what? Taxes are great if they're being used for something that will actually help people, like roads or libraries or a guaranteed minimum income—but to have this hugely expensive system just to pointlessly boss around young adults who (presumably) already know how to read? Pardon me while I puke, [name redacted].

I realize that I'm being a complete jerk to you by actually sending this [n.b., I did not actually send it]; you have no reason to bother enduring such a bitter screed from one of your former students [...] But, you know—it was only by the sheer luck of happening to read the right blog at the right time that I managed to avoid being permanently intellectually crippled by this credential-mad society, and sometimes, in a moment of pain, I actually feel entitled to be angry. Terribly selfish, I know. Am I morally justified in sending this to you, who have nothing but good intentions? Is it right for me to complain about something so trivial as sitting through a few classes, when I'm so incredibly privileged in so many other ways? Probably not; I think I'm just being a villain. But you know, I'm really not sure I care about that anymore. Really, I need to learn the skill of not paying any attention to mainstream society. My plan is to keep studying and hopefully (and finally, after having wasted so much time) make some money writing software that will actually help people. If the entire civilized world considers it their duty to crush all intellectual initiative out of its children, then it's really not my business. I wish you well, and hope that [names redacted] are also well, and I remain,

Faithfully yours,

Zack M. Davis

3 thoughts on “Draft of a Letter to a Former Teacher, Which I Did Not Send Because Doing So Would Be a Bad Idea

  1. AMEN (modulo this comment).

    Suggestion: instead of writing software that will help people, you might consider the following: write software to earn money, use that money to help people (possibly including yourself), and use the rest of your time to do things that are interesting or otherwise worthwhile (free of the corrupting pressures that exist when one tries to earn a living from the latter) .

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