Race to Nowhere

One of our local high schools offered a free screening of the documentary Race to Nowhere the other night, and not even the plow berm could keep me away from it.  The audience was packed with parents and teachers, and about an equal number of students, which surprised me until I discovered that they got credit towards their community service requirement for attending the film and participating in the discussion groups following.  Ah well…  I guessed that a bunch of adults sitting around talking to themselves wouldn’t be very interesting, esp since that is how education got in such straits to begin with!

The film itself was nothing new to me; I grew up in a pressure-cooker school system closely akin to the kind portrayed in the film.  94% of my high school graduating class went on to four-year colleges, and having to go to a school one had considered ‘a safety’ was kind of embarrassing.  I knew the all-nighter back at age fourteen, PSATs were serious business, and it was a given that one viewed course and extracurricular choices through the lens of how it would look on one’s applications to the Ivy Leagues.  None of this kept me from having to consciously relax the death grip my neatly folded hands had on each other by about half an hour into the movie.

After the film, I sat down with four freshman and two (non-related) parents, ostensibly to discuss the film.  None of the four said that they felt the academic pressure depicted in the film, but that they did have very overscheduled lives, and could use some downtime.  Fair enough. 

Since we had time to kill (they had to stay until the end to get credit, and if I got up and left, they’d be told to move), and I was the token educator at the table, I took over the moderation seat, and asked them several questions somewhat tangential to the theme of the evening, but still in the spirit of rethinking how education works.  

I asked them if they were learning what they thought they should be learning, and they stated that they trusted that they were being taught (by the school and their parents) what they needed to know.  I asked if this made it easier to swallow lessons they might not see the relevance of, and a couple of them actually looked sort of guilty, as if they hadn’t thought of it that way before, and now think they may have acted petulantly in the past.

When I asked what they wanted to learn that they were not learning in school, they couldn’t think of anything, which pretty much horrified me.  I hoped that this meant that they are learning what they want to be learning for themselves *outside* of school, but somehow I doubt it.  With so little time left in their days to even sleep, I’m unsure when they’d find the window of opportunity to study their own interests, and that’s even presuming that they have even had time to *discover* what they want to learn.  What can I say: my delusions keep my worry list pared down to what I can reasonably fit into one or two sleepless nights.

Wanting to steer into more proactive territory, I asked what the adults in their lives could do to facilitate their taking more control over their own educations.  One of the parents liked this question, but the students looked at me completely blankly; the idea that their relationships with their educations could be other than just swallowing what others fed to them was 100% foreign to them.  We talked some about what taking some control of their learning might look like, and several of those at the table (and those I spoke with in the hall afterward) left the evening energized, while most of the others looked dazed (and still processing), but one was just pure apathy, which kind of freaked me out, to be honest.  (I can’t get her out of my mind, either, which isn’t helping.)

But, *I* came home on an adrenaline high; there are few things in this world I like more than watching lightbulbs go off in a teenager’s head, and I feel very fulfilled when I am able to even vaguely pretend that I had anything to do with them. 

I have my own reflective process on this too, naturally.  Obviously, I am writing this post about it, but I am also rethinking my original judgement that offering community service credit for participation was sort of an administrative cop-out to get students in the seats for adults, who would get something out of it, to talk to.  Seeing the looks on those kids’ faces as they left, either full of promise or shell-shocked, I think now that this really *was* a valid community service experience for these kids; they have had their eyes opened a bit to what personal accountability is, or at least *can* be, and will hopefully be more tuned into the possibilities and limitations of any educational system when they are voting and having teenagers of their own. 

One thing that the movie showed very clearly was just how little learning has to do with the standard ways in which we school and ‘do school’ at this point in America.  Teaching is only half the issue – students need to *learn* too, and the more active and fully participatory that learning is, the better.   Unfortunately, so many of the ways we use to educate in this country do nothing but get in the way of just the education we are theoretically delivering, but getting us to agree on which parts to keep and which to eliminate is a political quagmire.

What I do know is this: when it is the metrics of performance that *drive* the performance, you get just that – a shallow performance; a recitation of memorized lines, an assumption of character while one is on stage.   Applauding while the curtain goes down is cultural suicide.

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