The Race to Nowhere, Nowhen and Nothing

Following up on yesterday’s documentary list, a relevant article in the NY Times about the […]

David Zahl / 12.9.10

Following up on yesterday’s documentary list, a relevant article in the NY Times about the encouraging response to the new film Race To Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture. Lots of great stuff about performance, pressure, and the increasingly cracked-out meritocracy of America’s prep-schools. I’m personally not sure how much of an effect the film can/will have on the absurdity of today’s college-admissions process (Oprah’s endorsement notwithstanding…), but at least it’s giving exhausted parents and burned-out students a chance to vent. Of course, one could make the argument that such an oppressive system actually “serves the cause” by putting such a premium on Grace. Supply and demand and all that… Just saying (ht BH):

“Everyone expects us to be superheroes,” one high school senior in the film says. Another tells of borrowing her friends’ prescription for Adderall to juggle her many commitments. “It’s hard to be the vice president of your class, play on the soccer team and do homework,” she says.

The movie introduces boys who drop out of high school from the pressure, girls who suffer stress-induced insomnia and worse, and students for whom “cheating has become another course,” as one puts it. “When success is defined by high grades, test scores, trophies,” a child psychologist says in the film, “we know that we end up with unprepared, disengaged, exhausted and ultimately unhealthy kids.” 

While Waiting for Superman lionizes urban reformers who embrace standardized testing as a necessary yardstick to hold schools and teachers accountable, Ms. Abeles believes that the testing movement is what has caused education to go off the tracks.

“You would not believe what reactions you get from other parents when you mention what colleges your children are looking at — you’re so judged,” Tara Vessels, a mother at New Canaan Country School, told about 40 other parents and staff members who discussed the movie last Friday in the school cafeteria.

“Imagine if a sign out front of school says ‘Mistakes Are Made Here Often,’ ” mused one teacher, echoing a theme in the movie that schools should accept failure as part of learning. “No one would come here! But why not?”