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If School is a Race to Nowhere, Where’s the Somewhere We Should Be Racing Toward?

I recently watched a screening of the film Race to Nowhere, about how the pressure on our children in school is making them so stressed out that they become sick and depressed and cheat with abandon. It’s a powerful film — one that every parent and teacher should watch. It’s also an interesting counterpoint to other critiques of education: critiques about how our schools produce mediocrity, about the fact that so many of our teenagers can’t read and write, and about how we need to “race to the top.”

Obviously, there are different worlds out there in school-land. There are the millions of high school dropouts who’ve never learned to really read, think, write, or do math, and who are so underserved and neglected that there is a growing underclass that has no hope for traditional “success” (i.e., getting a decent job). There is also the world described in Race to Nowhere: a world in which there is enormous pressure to get straight As, be on varsity sports teams, star in school plays, perform in the band, and pepper a college resume with Model UN, Math Team, OM, Mock Trial, chess club, school council, and community service of every different variety to get into an elite college (now an expanding group of ever-harder-to-get-into institutions).

Leaving behind the completely disenfranchised for this blog post, I’ll focus on the Race to Nowhere students: those mostly middle and upper middle class kids who are facing depression, suicidal ideation, anorexia, and sleep deprivation, and who are resorting to cutting, performance-enhancing drugs, and rampant cheating to help them “succeed.”

No one in the film seemed to know the solutions to these problems, even though models of other forms of schooling exist and thrive in the shadows of the wreckage of both the schools depicted in the Race to Nowhere and the utterly failing schools depicted in other educational critiques. I’m not talking about KIPP schools which are addressing some of the underserved kids and bringing them up to grade level and traditional “success.” I’m talking about Waldorf schools and democratic schools and schools based on project and experiential learning and a range of other “alternative” approaches.

When I watched Race to Nowhere at a screening at a Waldorf school, it was moving to hear comments from some of the high schoolers in the discussion that followed. One felt guilty because she’d never experienced anything like the sickening pressure shared by the adolescents in the film. She has always loved school and always loved to learn – which is what happens at her Waldorf school; the kids learn. Another was in tears because she couldn’t imagine having no time to be with her beloved family, a recurring refrain in Race to Nowhere, as the kids juggled seven hours of school, several hours of sports and extra-curriculars, and hours and hours of homework.

Why haven’t these alternative education approaches become the pedagogy of choice for more schools? Because we have all bought into the current system, and what this spate of films pointing to (opposing) education problems should point out to all of us is this: It’s time to rethink schooling at the deepest level and determine our priorities and goals.

Why do we seem to have so much difficulty imagining good educational systems? At the end of Race to Nowhere, the film asks, “What is the solution?” The answers are varied, coming from the many people interviewed in the film. More resources? Abolishing homework? Eliminating AP courses? Having students evaluated through portfolios? Finally, one teacher, Darrick Smith from Oakland Technical High School, says that we must ask what makes a good educational system. Yes! We must ask not only this fundamental question but also a deeper underlying question. We must ask, “What is all this schooling for?” And if this film, titled Race to Nowhere, wishes to come up with an answer, it needs to have a sequel which describes the somewhere we ought to be heading.

Readers of my blog know what I’m going to say next. While one interviewee in Race to Nowhere asks, “What does it take to produce a happy, motivated, creative individual?,” implying a goal for our educational system, I think we have to go one step further. We have to envision our graduates not only as happy, motivated, and creative, but also ready and able to take up the mantle of responsibility for a world in danger and commit to directing their lives, energies, work, and volunteerism toward a healthy, humane, and thriving planet where we can live in some semblance of peaceful coexistence with each other and the planetary community of countless species with whom our fate is inextricably connected.

Until we ask the question, “What is schooling for?” with some commitment to seeking an answer, we will perpetuate the systems that are producing stressed out, unhealthy, dishonest kids, and we will try to fix the failing schools by doing more of the same. This is no answer. To break the cycle we first must create a new vision of the purpose of schooling. That’s how the Waldorf and Montessori and Democratic school movements began, and it’s how we need to begin in order to graduate an actual generation of solutionaries for a better world.

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education

Image courtesy of Vitamin C9000 via Creative Commons.

About zoeweil

I'm the co-founder and President of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE). IHE works to create a world in which we all live humanely, sustainably, and peaceably. We do this by training people to be humane educators who teach about the pressing issues of our time and inspire people to work for change while making healthy, humane, and restorative choices in their daily lives. We also work to advance the field of humane education, and to provide tools and inspiration to people everywhere so that they can live examined, meaningful lives. I'm also a writer. So far I've written six books and several articles.


18 thoughts on “If School is a Race to Nowhere, Where’s the Somewhere We Should Be Racing Toward?

  1. I completely agree that we always need to ask, “Why teach this? Why spend time on that?” We should always have in mind the target we want to hit for our kids. What kind of thinkers do we need leaving our schools? Knowing a bunch of stuff, running the stress treadmill, and learning compliance does not an active agent of change make. We need thoughtful, questioning minds who know how to respectfully challenge systems, and who know how to live joyfully.

    Posted by Kathy Mann | December 6, 2010, 1:34 pm
    • agreed!

      Posted by Zoe Weil | December 7, 2010, 9:31 am
    • the need to learn is the target. teachers instruct the kids to teach each other. to consider there surroundings, to know the need of unity. 1st, enjoy learning,2nd, know what they want to be. example, to be a nurse, what does it take? to be an electrician, what should be taught. schools as early as junior high even middle school, the students should be shown what they must become. you see students must become. to be or not to be is thee answer.

      Posted by alex mckneely | June 12, 2011, 10:50 pm
  2. After getting away from the “system” and really taking a look at the education system, I completely agree. We need to take a step back. The system a majority of schools follow is not doing what we want it to. We need to take the system back to the foundations and rebuild. Whether that’s through “fixing” the system or instituting alternative programs, it’s a change that could lead to great things.

    I’ve been writing and education related blog for the past year. One entry stands out as focusing on some of issues you brought up in this article.

    Keep up the insightful writing! I thoroughly enjoy. ~Tobe

    Posted by Tobe | December 6, 2010, 1:53 pm
  3. Zoe… thank you for the post. i love your Institute for Humane Ed.. spent a little time at your site.. can’t wait for time to look around some more.

    i love your take.. very much like Bill Strickland.. look like the solution, not the problem.

    and i agree – as we just change education – as we let learners change education – the world will become a better place… (your 25 min video exactly)

    here’s what we’re doing to that end.

    Posted by monika hardy | December 7, 2010, 1:06 am
  4. Hi Zoe, Upper middle class anxiety, and harsh, attainment-oriented values have helped to create and perpetuate the world that high-status high schoolers live in. Denise Clark Pope wrote a great book about this, and when I took one of my own children for a college visit at my alma matter, I too wrote a reflection on what a bizarre world it is where the purpose of the admissions office is to seduce you to apply, so that they can reject you. With all the beautiful credentials you’ve amassed in high school.

    In my experience, people have more trouble talking about the purpose of education than about nearly anything else. It seems to me when we talk about educational purpose, we are actually talking about the purpose of life–what makes a meaningful life–to you, within the context of your community. Many of us have been raised in a culture that overvalues things that, according to happiness literature and neurocognitive research, don’t actually make people very happy. (Consumption, amassing material goods, individualistic competition, constant comparison with others.) Our educational system is designed to produce and reinforce those values, and for many Race To Nowhere-ers, it does so really effectively.

    My strategy is often just to approach the question of education purpose straight up: what makes a meaningful life for you? For your children? Will the school you’ve enrolled your children in support those goals?

    Many parents though feel like they don’t have real choices about this. And they’re scared to step off the attainment spin wheel.

    What do you think prompts helpful conversations around this?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | December 7, 2010, 10:04 am
  5. its not that we need educational system,our mindset must regenerate. we were so enthusiastic about learning, art,music,grades,outlook, so on and soforth,we have forgotten the sun that shine on the schools. the excitement of school. this same goodfeeling we have forgot. the direct response is still, find out what the student wants to see we must become somebody,a productive citizen.

    Posted by alex mckneely | June 16, 2011, 12:49 pm
  6. by further looking into this, i would say that parents must somehow get closer to there children than ever. the situation is not going to be fixed over night. it will take time, believe-it or not we do have time. fear has no place in any parent child relationship. yes things are going to come up. yet , we have to conquer this if we don’t we’ll be going against ourselves. a great problem only shows that we have it in us to solve it. it brings the family together. this will bring about a lot of things that need to be addressed. this will strengthen the relationship and give birth to unity in the home. the many obstacles that has caused all this estrangement can come to past. parents and children have to stop fighting eachother and begin to study and learn together.

    Posted by alex mckneely | June 23, 2011, 11:20 am


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