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.