Race to Nowhere: Film Review

As a bystander, watching the speedy parade of schoolers rush by—hurrying from one extracurricular activity to the next, doing homework late into the night, taking SAT prep classes and AP classes and heaven knows what other weighty acronymic tickets to the future—I often wonder if they are racing to nowhere, spinning their wheels in a futile effort to achieve some mythic state of perfection that will bring monetary security and happiness. Vicki H. Abeles, the director of the shattering new documentary Race to Nowhere, has wondered, too, and she has molded her concern into a powerful piece of reporting about the world American children live in today.

Nobody knows me at all,” is the song that begins the film, and, thinking back to my high school days, I realized that the lyrics describe how I felt. The teachers who passed out endless quizzes and tests and homework assignments didn’t know the real me. My parents, who saw my good grades and came to expect them,  didn’t know the real me. Everybody knew me through the prism of my academic record. That model is still the case for students today, and, the loneliness and and sense of disconnectedness they feel is much, much worse than what I felt in the 1970s.

Vicki Abeles made Race to Nowhere after having a personal epiphany about the education system in America; her own child became ill due to the stress of school, and a child she knew committed suicide because of school stress. Abeles began a mission to interview students and educators in order to learn about where the frenzied race (now officially christened the Race to the Top) was leading the country’s most valuable assets, our children.

Here are some of the things she found:

  • Parents have let their love and concern for their children and their children’s futures be warped into a fear as strong as love, a fear that makes them blind to the pressures they are heaping on their kids from a very young age.
  • Kids, who inherently want to please their parents, are getting the message that “their future is on the line, every  moment,” and that any slip on the path to college acceptance is a tragic downfall.
  • This race has been going on since the 1980s and shows no sign of letting up.
    • The once-accepted bell curve understanding of student’s grades has given way to a model in which the majority of students are taught at a level applicable to the top 2 percent. In other words, the idea that the super-academic students and the slightly academic students are small groups at either end, and the average student is the majority, is no longer tolerated by many schools and parents.
    The Old Way of Looking at Student Populations
    • Many students now realize that high school is nothing more than a rigorous preparation for the college application (that’s right, for the application) and believe that college is the place where their real learning will begin.
    • Despite this belief, and because of the impossible amount of information high school students are expected to absorb instead of learning how to think critically, students with high grades in high school quite often need to take remedial courses in college.
    • The American culture of achievement and monetary success needs to change in order for learning to be able to become the focus of the country’s educational system. Ironically, if we stop aiming for excellence and aim for simply facilitating learning, we will achieve excellence as a by-product of that learning.

      Race to Nowhere presents its arguments at a good steady pace and fills the screen with articulate people—parents, students, teachers, and authors—who all feel the pain of the problem and desperately want the pain to go away. Among the books mentioned in the film are The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Children and What Parents Can Do About It and Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. A book I thought would have been perfect to include in the conversation is The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, but no one in Race to Nowhere brings up the option of homeschooling in any form. These people are interested in reforming the traditional educational system, and I think that’s fine, because that’s where most children are going to spend their  time, for good or ill.

      I highly recommend Race to Nowhere to anyone who cares about the welfare of children.  The students who wake up in the middle of the night to do homework will break your heart. The teacher who quit her job because she saw the insanity of it, but cries when she tells how much she cares about her students, will break your heart, too. But the overall effect of Race to Nowhere is  invigorating; it makes you want to fix the problem, for the sake of the children.

      The film is not showing in theatres commercially, but you can find a screening near you, host a screening, or pre-order the DVD.

      Some final notes:

      • I recently attended my high school reunion. Everyone I spoke with seemed to be leading a happy, productive life, regardless of where his or her place had been on the bell curve that existed when we walked the hallowed halls off Woodbridge High.
      • Race to Nowhere is dedicated to the child whose suicide was one of the factors leading to the film’s creation. I found it ironic that the dedication statement describes her as  “an honor student.”  With all due respect and sympathy, I think   those words speak more to who she was through the prism than to who she really was.

      When I was a child everybody smiled, nobody knows me at all . . .


      7 Responses so far »

      1. 1

        Cristina said,

        Thanks for the reminder about this movie, I’ll have to see if I can get a copy of it. As someone who stressed through high school, I’m glad to see someone is working to change things. Still glad I didn’t subject my own children to this, it really seems like things are getting worse.

        Peace and Laughter!

        • 2

          sgaissert said,

          I hope you can see it, and I’m sorry you stressed through high school. I was fortunate; since I was there in the 1970s, the pressure wasn’t really on yet. No one “studied” for SATs, and to my knowledge no one did homework all night.

      2. 3

        Nancy from Sage Parnassus said,

        This sounds fascinating. The attitude towards students as academic machines is so prevalent. It is the opposite of what I believe and have practiced in our home, while I witness many, many friends and relatives participating in this very world of high-stakes learning. I will watch for the dvd.

      3. 7

        […] are seeing a definite downturn in picture book sales. Blame the same pressure that is causing the Race to Nowhere syndrome. NYT writer Julie Bosman tells of parents pushing “big-kid” books on toddlers, […]

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