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Race to Nowhere (2010)
Friday, September 10, 2010
Director Vicki Abeles turns the personal political, igniting a national conversation in her new documentary about the pressures faced by American schoolchildren and their teachers in a system and culture obsessed with the illusion of achievement, competition and the pressure to perform. Featuring the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids, Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.
Race to Nowhere (2010) | Review
Is Homework Ruining Education?
Vicki Abeles was concerned about the amount of stress her children were having to deal with in school. So much that one of her daughters ended up in the ER with stomach problems that were diagnosed as stress-induced. Her son had frequent headaches. All were having trouble doing all the homework they brought home, as well as the various extracurricular activities in which they were involved. When she discovered how common this is, she decided to make Race to Nowhere, a documentary that takes a look at our education system and asks if it is helping children or hurting them.
This is one of many education docs around. Earlier this year, The Cartel offered its indictment of public schools. Waiting for Superman will be coming to theaters around the same time that this film will be having one-night screenings in various places. What sets Road to Nowhere apart is its premise that what is wrong with the school system is the drive for success—be it measured in test scores or college admissions. Abeles believes that the striving toward that kind of idea of success is putting far too much pressure on children. It has led, according to the film, to mountains of homework that children can't deal with, encouraged cheating of various types, and taken away any chance of family time.
The pressure on children begins in elementary school. By the time of middle school they are already being told they have to get excellent grades to be able to get into a "good college." Not just grades, but they also must have loads of extracurricular activities and community service to have an application that will show a well-rounded person. The irony may be that the struggle to achieve so much actually prevents children from actually mastering the life skills needed to learn.
This is a very personal project for Abeles, which is both a strength and a weakness in making a documentary. The strength is in her passion to find something that will help her children (and other children). It puts a very human face to the issues. The weakness is that it may be something that she is too close to if she is to see a larger picture.
It is easy to see the way stress builds up in children. It comes from many sources: school, parents, themselves, physical changes they have to deal with. The film makes the case that the intense demands of school to perform and produce test results, which may or may not reflect actual learning, are doing tremendous damage to young lives. It also makes the case that the whole understanding of what success is and how it can be achieved is at the root of the issue. That root question is one that calls for a deeper examination—ne that involves not just education, but cultural and spiritual aspects as well.
The film seeks a grassroots effort to reexamine the premises that make up our idea of education. How much homework should children have? Some schools have found that having no homework produces better learning. How much time should children have scheduled in a day? How can families find the time to spend time together other than being driven from tutor to sports to home?
While the film offers good suggestions for parents, students, teachers, and administrators on the issues of the film, it needs to be seen as a systemic problem—not something that will be solved within families, or within a particular school. It has to be a complete rethinking of what makes up education. Perhaps all the documentaries coming out about education are a symptom of the deeper problems of the educational system. Each film has a different idea and set of solutions. Probably none is right for all situations, but each has an insight that needs to be examined.
Note: Except for short theatrical showings in Los Angeles and New York, this film is playing various one night stands in places around the country. Check the film's website for a screening near you.
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