Joshua Medcalf: Reflecting on the Purpose and Structure of Modern Education

Joshua Medcalf is a former soccer player at Duke and author of “Chop Wood, Carry Water.” In this podcast, he shares his opinion and experiences on the education system, and how he would like to reform it.

Listen to the podcast here!

Education: A Status Check

Medcalf’s current assessment of our school system is that it is in need of dire help (true). He says that right now, students and teachers are only concerned about what’s happening right in front of them- what tests do I have? What homework do I need to complete? Am I prepared for the midterm? This kind of teaching, Medcalf says, damages the natural process of learning. In order to actually learn is to live in the moment and gain experiences, because while you might forget how to solve parametric differentiation problems, experiences will stay with you long after you graduate. And the most important thing of all is your product: how will you leave an impact? Will you change the world? Will you improve the lives of those around you? All of these points are paramount in crafting the perfect education system, Medcalf says.


Student or Robot?

I think a few of Medcalf’s ideas are great and should definitely be incorporated into the school system. For example, his class is mainly about going out there and getting your own experiences, and then using those experiences as a foundation for your education (instead, say, a textbook, being your foundation). This is especially important because I feel like the do-or-die way that school runs right now robs kids of experiences- students literally never have time to do anything because they’re too busy making up a story for English about that time they Definitely, Like, Climbed A Mountain Or Something And Then Learned About The Importance of Friendship. Knowledge and experience should always go hand in hand. But on the contrary, these exact ideas are the ones that scare me.


I think a balance of both “taking risks/being left on your own” and “staying in the safe lane” would be the most beneficial for students (or at least for me). Guidance is important in education- I know personally when teachers just throw work in front of me and force me to teach myself all the material, I get very frustrated and give up. Their class is not the only class I take, and while I would love to work on what they give me, I simply cannot complete things without guidance and then be expected to pass the end-of-unit test.


Even if one TRIES to make a gradeless class or a self-taught class because studies say it’s beneficial, certain aspects of the school system will always be there. They will always be required to input some sort of grade, give us tests, and make us prepare for standardized tests. And if that’s what the education system is always going to be like, then yes, I want to conform so I can ultimately get good grades. It’s not good to set your students up for failure by not teaching them anything. This is where the balance comes in- let your students take the reigns sometimes and explore their interests. If they fail, help them get back up, guide them through the process, rinse, repeat. If anything, my 10 years of schooling has taught me that there IS a way to be a good teacher and prepare your students for the “real world” while also offering a useful, stimulating, and challenging class where students can experience things for themselves- teachers just need to find that balance.


Rule #1: Don’t Demean Your Target Audience (I thought I wouldn’t have to say this…)

A large part of the podcast is how the evolution of technology has shaped the experiences of the youth. The fact that both Medcalf and Wettrick just categorize an entire generation into mindless zombies who just stare at their phone all day is ridiculous. Adults in general are so quick to demean the generations below them because they think they know best. They call us “soft,” “lazy,” “entitled,” you name it. “Well, when I was your age, I was destroying the economy and the housing market, I didn’t have any time to frolic around on my phone and eat avocado toast!” Sentiments like these only hinder society’s progress. After a quick Google search, I found a myriad of ways in which Millennials have been shaping the world as we know it (note to Boomers and Xers: Google (link here) is a great tool! Now you can check if the outlandish things you’re saying are actually true before you write another vacuous opinion piece!). For example, millennials are starting businesses at much younger ages than their Boomer counterparts (27 to their 35). They’ve also lead the way in societal changes like the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage, pushed for granting citizenship to unauthorized immigrants, raising the minimum wage, advocating for diversity in the workforce, and so on.


Hoards of youth today have such creative imaginations and a pure drive to make the world better, and we need to foster this within our school system and allow it to grow. If we give kids a good learning environment and an opportunity to explore their interests, there is no doubt that they will all achieve great things. Will they cure cancer or colonize Mars? Maybe, maybe not. But don’t yell at that kid who draws all over his notebook in class- give him a computer and he’ll become a web designer. Don’t punish the outgoing kid who loves to talk and talk and talk in class- give her an outlet and she’ll become a famous writer.  Our youth WANT to change the world- we just need to give them a chance. While each generation might have had their downfalls, they also all contributed their own unique and important things to the world- that is undeniable. However, we, as a society, cannot brutally dismiss our youth because they are the basis for the generations to come.


All in All…

This was overall a rollercoaster of a podcast- I wholeheartedly agreed with some things Medcalf and Wettrick talked about, while other things were outright insane. For example, one point that really sums this up is when he talks about how privileged and lucky he is to be white with money (and named Josh) because it opens up a lot more opportunities for him than if he were a person of color from a low-income community. Which is completely true. Yet, ironically, he doesn’t take the opportunity presented to him. If you have a privilege and can use it in a positive way, then take it. What he did by throwing away his education in its final phase is, quite frankly, extremely selfish and brainless. And, I quote, “Move your family to Africa, move them to the Philippines, go somewhere where struggle is a daily part of their existence instead of trying to manufacture opportunities for that to take place in your daily environment.” (around 15:15) What??


When I first heard this, I honestly had no idea how to respond, but I’ll try… if you are blessed with opportunities to make your life great, then by all means, do it! Go to school, get a degree, get a job, change the world! Why not? I’m going to be brutally honest- going to Africa or the Philippines isn’t going to make up for your white guilt. Appreciate what you have, make the most of it, and if you still feel that guilt, then use your education to better their situation, instead of looking at struggling communities like you’re window shopping for the “perfect life experience.” You shouldn’t need to exploit those who are worse off than you just to put your life into perspective. Experiences will come to you through your education and through your day to day life– going out and saying “I’m going to look for an Experience™ today!” completely defeats the purpose. Education is an amazing way to not only better your own life, but the people around you, and ultimately leave an impact on the world– so while you should never stop pushing for change, also appreciate the education you were given.

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

                                                                                                                         -Albert Einstein


Haroun and the Sea of Stories: Final Project on Hero’s Journey

     Group Members: Jeremy Kohn, Stephanie Land, Matt Tremba, and Connor Roop



The Pre-Process

     From the beginning of this project, our group was very certain in what we wanted to do. We felt that a game board would best represent how the Hero’s journey works: hitting all the steps, going on adventures along the way, and eventually restarting. Not only was it a way to clearly explain the Hero’s journey, but we could be creative with it as well. We designed it after Candyland (pictured below), with different blocks to land on and different adventures in each section, as well as game cards that tell you things like “you’re doubting your adventure, move back 4 spaces” or “you met your mentor, take another turn!” We also decorated the board with aspects of Haroun, which I’ll get into later. 


Symbolism & Drawings

            My group member Jeremy and I decided to split the board between the “ordinary world” (left) and “fantasy world” (right), just like the Hero’s Journey is split up. I wanted to include symbolism and characters on my side of the board. So, I split the middle of my side of the board between the happy-go-lucky land of Gup and the dark, depressing land of Chup. The sides of the board also correlate with the steps: Haroun crosses over onto the land of Gup, meets his allies and enemies in both gup and Chup, and goes through an ordeal and seizes the sword in Chup, and so on. On the tests, allies, and enemies section, I drew Mudra the shadow warrior, as he is first thought to be an enemy but ends up being a crucial ally. For the approach, I drew Iff, Butt, and Haroun staring into the distance at the dark ship, deciding on whether or not they should risk their lives and go there. For the ordeal, I drew two hands sword fighting to symbolize the war. Finally, for seizing the sword, I drew two things: one, Kahani turning again, and two, the two sides of the moon combining again. Apart from specific parts, I also put Haroun and Iff peeking out from the top of the board. However, my favorite part of the board was the sea of stories. I drew the different “strands” of stories in the sea as colored strings intertwining, and at the bottom, I drew the “pollution” coming from the land of Chup and combining with the stories. In the corner, I drew a book with the pages flying away, and each page is losing more and more words, until the entire page is just blank. This was symbolic for Khattam-Shud and how he wanted to get rid of all the stories on Kahani.



The early stages of the product. 


          The product overall was very satisfactory. Throughout our research, we learned about the different stages and the different versions of the Hero’s journey that exist, as well as the stories that apply to it. Once we learned about the Hero’s journey, it really opened up my eyes- I can now spot the Hero’s journey in most fiction books I read, even biographies. And the best part was that we created a tangible product to show what we’ve learned. Learning feels much more satisfactory when you can hold the knowledge in your hand than when it’s crammed into the back of your brain.

If I had to rate us on the designs specs rubric, I think we most definitely hit the requirements for “make it beautiful, poignant, relevant, and unique,” and the “Surfer on the Sea of Stories.” We worked to make our project as unique and creative as possible while still describing the process of the Hero’s Journey as it related to Haroun, and I believe we were successful. The other groups also did a great job at relaying their information back to the class- I especially liked how the different skill sets of each group resulted in many unique projects. 


While the Hero’s journey might be a lot more simple and “clear” than, say, allusion or allegory, it provided a lot of insight into the book itself, especially towards the question of “what’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” The Hero’s Journey showed how Haroun progressed and grew as a character through meeting his mentor, deciding to go on an adventure, being tested by man and nature, failing, and eventually coming through in the end. Once a character goes through the Hero’s Journey, they gain knowledge and experience that fundamentally changes who they are as a person. So, the Hero’s Journey answers Haroun’s question: once he embarked on this fantastical adventure through the land of Chup and Gup and literally living his fathers stories, he learned the importance of friendship, family, perseverance, and yes, stories.


If you haven’t already, head over here to view all of the posts I made on Haroun and the Sea of Stories!


Romeo and Juliet Tarot Cards

For this final Romeo and Juliet project, I drew my inspiration from traditional tarot cards, which are used by fortune tellers to predict what will happen to a person. In tarot cards, the simple details are the most essential parts: a snake can stand for revenge, a star stands for guidance, and fire stands for destruction. I decided to do tarot cards as one, it gave me room to be creative and interpret the characters/events as I imagined them, and two, it allowed me to add symbolism and depth to the characters. Below are my reasonings for why I did what I did.

Section One: Characters


Romeo and Juliet: I

The focus of this card is Romeo and Juliet kissing on the balcony as they did in the book. I wanted to make this card relatively simple and free of any intricate details, as the main focus should really just be the characters. I added some symbolism in the colors of their clothes: Juliet’s dress is red (the Capulet color) and Romeo’s shirt is blue (the Montague color). However, I also added in some hints of purple, which happens to be the color you get when you combine red and purple. It was meant to symbolize how their love brought the two houses together (well… eventually). The roses that surround them are probably the most symbolic part of the card. Roses stand for beauty and love, but in tarot cards, when you consider the thorns, it stands for how to achieve new hope, we must first endure the sting of the thorns. It also shows how we have to appreciate beauty before it’s gone. Romeo and Juliet had to die before their families could come together, so I thought the rose would be a nice way to express that.


Mercutio: II

I based Mercutio’s card off of three things: his Queen Mab speech, his characteristics, and his role in the play. For Queen Mab, I tried to make the background like it was “dreamy,” with his “head in the clouds,” as his rant about dreams before the party was his longest and one of the most important lines of speech. There are also six dominoes behind him, with the first one knocked over, and the rest are falling. This symbolizes how his death was basically a tipping point: once he died, it lead to everyone else’s deaths (six of them), hence the dominoes. He is also holding two swords because he was the type to fight before he thinks, especially when he took up that fight with Tybalt. Around his shoulders, he’s wearing the …things… a joker would wear around their neck because he was one of the few consistently humorous characters. They are red to signify his connection to the Montagues through Romeo.


Tybalt: III

Tybalt is arguably the most hot-headed character in Romeo and Juliet. From the initial brawl between the Montague and the Capulets, to him raging when he sees Romeo at the ball, to Mercutio’s death, he is constantly looking for a fight, so I based the card on that. First, the two clouds above his head- first, clouds mean a message from the divine. Knowing that, a crown means judgment: basically that all those who sin will ultimately have their final “judgment” (which is appropriate, as Romeo kills him). There’s also a diamond, which stands for money but also greed (as he only wanted to avenge the Capulet name). Fire stands for two things: destruction (which Tybalt certainly caused) and the measure of one’s purity through their actions, which goes back to the whole divine message. I also just had to add a cat, because Mercutio is constantly called the Prince of Cats. Finally, the symbol behind him is the symbol of chaos, except made out of knives.


Benvolio: IV

Benvolio’s main role in the play was to act as a peacemaker. While he might be unsuccessful, he is always trying to make peace between the Montagues and Capulets (especially in the beginning fight scene), so I based my card off of that. His clothes have mostly purple tones, which, again, is red and blue combined, or the two families coming together. The two stone columns are meant to symbolize strength and finding a middle ground. Numerology is actually very important in tarot cards, so I paid close attention to the amount of a certain object I put on the card. There are also olive branches behind him, which universally signify peace. He’s also holding an ankh, which is an ancient Egyptian symbol of life and prosperity, which is at least what he tried to achieve. The two sunflowers at his feet stand for looking away from the dark things and instead towards the light.


The Nurse: V

While the Nurse does not have as many speaking lines as the previous characters, I thought she was definitely one of the most important characters in terms of Juliet’s character and how the plot moves. I always imagined her as this little old nun, so that’s how I drew her. It also appears as if she’s in a church. Both the stained glass and the two columns (like Benvolio’s card) behind her have hints of both red and blue. This was meant to symbolize how she was committed to the Capulets, but since she was so in love with Juliet, she still helped with her affair with Romeo Montague. This ties into the meaning of the stained glass itself, as it stands for how our mental vision can change according to our perception. Because she works for the Capulets, she should by extension hate the Montagues, but her perception changes since she loves Juliet who loves a Montague. She’s also holding a book with the pages flying away, which represents her old memories of Juliet and how they’re drifting away from her because of death.

Section Two: Themes


Love At First Sight: VI

Love at first sight is one of the main and most prevalent themes of the book, and it’s what Romeo and Juliet are remembered for. In this card, they are the main focus, and all they are looking at is each other. Drawing away from the whole red=Capulet and blue=Montague thing, their clothes are red because red is generally symbolic of passion, desire, and love, which is what Romeo and Juliet experience. I also added two arrows, which stands for how love is often represented by Cupid and Cupid’s arrow in the book. They meet on an eye, which I added mainly because of Friar Lawrence’s quote: “Young men’s love then lies/ Not truly in their hearts,/ But in their eyes.” In the background, there is a sun in the middle of them, which in tarot cards stands for new beginnings, and going full force into something, which is certainly what Romeo and Juliet did.


Fate: VII

“Fate” cards are common in tarot card packs, so I drew my inspiration from the traditional fate cards but packed in a load of my own symbolism. I’ll work clockwise around the card. The cloud again stands for a message from the divine, which is commonly associated with fate. The two angel wings in the cloud represent “rising up to heaven” which… many of the characters end up doing. The moon then deals with new stages of life but also power- the moon has constantly guided humans and it even controls the oceans. Fate is also a kind of power that is completely beyond our reach. The ocean in the middle of the card symbolizes an extreme amount of depth and mystery. I based the hanging stars off of a quote Romeo said early on in the book before the party: ““I fear…/ some consequence yet hanging in the stars…/ By some vile forfeit of untimely death.” So, I literally drew hanging stars. Even throughout the book, Romeo constantly mentions stars as some kind of fate, like when he learns Juliet is dead and he says “I defy you, stars!” Next, the ocean’s vastness shows how we can’t really control everything in our lives, which is a defining factor of fate. I mainly added the ocean because of the quote: ““My bounty is as boundless as the sea,/ My love as deep; the more I give to thee,/ The more I have, for both are infinite.” The sunset stands for new possibilities and new things on the horizon, although they might be unknown. This really symbolizes how Romeo and Juliet went into their affair blindly and without much direction. The lion on the bottom is a paradox in tarot cards- both a savior and destroyer, just like Romeo and Juliet’s deaths. While it brought their families together, they now have to deal with knowing that their hate killed the two lovers. The fortune ball by itself universally stands for fate and looking into the future, but I also added smoke going around it because of the quote “Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs.” The “smoke” of Romeo and Juliet’s love basically blinded them from being able to see the future, in which they would die. Finally, the two hands reaching out to each other is supposed to be a play off of Michelangelo’s painting The Creation of Adam, except with Romeo and Juliet. The fortune wheel behind them is common in fate tarot cards. It is divided into nine sections, which happens to be the number of fate. Written on them are Viking symbols, starting clockwise from the top of the left hand, they are: constraint, separation, partnership, joy, possessions, the self, wholeness, fertility, and gateway. They all stand for different aspects and themes of the book.


Hate and Revenge: VIII

Hate and revenge is one of the main themes of Romeo and Juliet, and other than fate, it’s the main driving force of the death of six characters. I tried to keep this one simple and uncluttered. The crest in the middle is the combined crest of the Montague and Capulet families shaped into a heart, which obviously represents Romeo and Juliet’s love. The background is black because black is associated with death and evil. The blood dripping on the top stands for the “bad blood” the two families have with each other but also the blood that was shed because of their hate. The snake on the bottom is a universal symbol for revenge.


Youth and Age: IX

While often overlooked, youth and age is a major theme in Romeo and Juliet. The two kids, Romeo and Juliet, are in a conflicting battle with their parents, whether it be Capulet forcing Juliet to marry Paris, or just the general hate the parents foster between each other. However, the two kids in the book lack that kind of hate, and it shows the contrast between the two themes. The children’s lives are eventually sacrificed to their parent’s hate. While the skull in the middle stands for age, it also stands for humanity’s mortality and how not everything can be forever. The skull shows how all things eventually change, for the better or for the worse. The flowers growing out of the skull are meant to represent the “youth” side- while the adults nurture them, they still grow up to be independent from the adults’ beliefs, just like the flowers are. The infinity symbol, or the lemniscate in tarot cards, symbolizes how things are forever. While on one hand, it may be a good thing, it is also a sign that the consequences of our actions can be infinite- for example, the hate that the “age” side had, had infinite consequences on the “youth.”


Death: X

The final tarot card of the set is death. Death is constantly in the forefront of the play, and it is always being foreshadowed in some way or another. Eventually, six characters all die. The empty hourglass in the middle basically means that “time ran out,” hence the roman numerals. The bottom of the hourglass is a poison vial, which Romeo used to commit suicide. The roses enveloping the poison again stands for how we must endure the pain before we can get to the good things, and it shows how while everyone in real life might have been opposed to Romeo and Juliet’s love when they were alive, they are together in death. The upright cross stands for when they were alive, while the inverted cross stands for when they died. The hands at the bottom are similar to how the hands looked in the fate card, which was meant to symbolize how their death was all fate.


Overall, this project was very enjoyable as it was fun to explore the characters and the play while doing art! Hope you enjoy, leave some comments if you wish.

Special thanks to that helped me understand the meanings behind tarot cards.