You all remember Food, Inc. and what an eye opening film that was: questioning, criticizing, exposing America's very broken food practices and culture.
And now comes Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture, a new documentary film in screening and pre-distribution, hopefully coming soon to a theater near you. If there's any way you can get to a screening, do yourself a favor and get to it. If you're very ambitious, see about scheduling a screening in your area.
I saw such a screening at a community center in Morgan Hill, CA last evening. I didn't know what to expect. My school teacher wife, Beatrice, told me I might want to go because it's about how screwed up the education system is in America and it's all the buzz with teachers just now. I half figured I'd get railroaded, ending up seeing the standard rot that schools need more money, teachers need higher pay (...y'know, 'cause failure is to be rewarded) and generally, a film with an underlying theme that schools exist for the primary sake of teachers, administrators and unions (because they kinda do).
And was I ever wrong because I'd have to say that in my view about 99% of this film was dead right on. Here's the trailer and let me just say that it doesn't even begin to signal the wide reaching importance of this film.
So essentially, what's documented here is that everyone from the federal government to state & local governments to teachers unions to school districts to administrators to teachers and yes, parents have contrived -- not conspired, because the "good intentions" thing is definitely present -- to royally screw kids up, steal their very childhoods, stress them out to the max and generally do them the double disservice of both wreaking havoc in their lives, and for most of them, not really educating them. It's all downside, or mostly so.
And it's a damn shame. As one teacher interviewed in the film explained: kids naturally want to learn, are excited, inquisitive, motivated. Let's just not take that away. Ring a bell? First, do no harm. And ultimately, the film documents in the words of educators, students and parents alike how great harm is being perpetuated in a systematic fashion, daily, relentlessly. It's all about performance, productivity, testing and not teaching, all adding up to meaningless "achievement." There's no depth. There's ultimately no conceptual understanding. There's no real critical thinking. There's no ability to identify and ultimately operate through a series of internally consistent principles. There's no love of life and of learning. It's all toil and drudgery, but man oh man is there a lot of it. We do quantity like no other.
America's education system is a mile wide and an inch deep.
That's the essential message. That, and that Testing is not Teaching.
After the film we went and sat down to a nice dinner in the ville, and I began to contemplate, and we discussed how this could really impact things. It's that powerful. The beauty of it is, unlike being addicted to awful "food" as we talk about a lot, who's addicted to endless and meaningless homework? Who's addicted to tests that test nothing important? Who's addicted to athletic programs that aren't fun anymore and don't teach the sorts of values that sports for kids were once primarily intended to do? Who's addicted to high achievement classes that, if failed, send the message to a young student that their life is over? Who's addicted to an atmosphere where learning through mistakes, trial, error and failure is no longer tolerated?
For worse, America has created an "education" system that's more suited to the attributes of a zoo than to those of a proper human animal. America is rapidly turning out Zoo Humans, not human individuals.
But the good and bright news is that, individually, it can be changed overnight and parents (and teachers and administrators too) are doing so. While all are working within the system -- in many cases very effectively -- to change things, there's something that can be done instantaneously.
- Tell your kids you don't care about them doing their homework assignments.
- Don't ask to see their report cards or inquire about their grades. You shouldn't care.
- Let them know it's fine to pursue a different passion per week until they find their true one, and if it doesn't involve going to a top university, or any university at all, that's just fine.
You really can't cheat human psychology and its evolution. If you can ultimately succeed in getting your children to achieve success in the human zoo in some passionless endeavor that merely rewards with lots of dollars, then you've achieved no real success at all. Success in life is measured in terms of personal happiness and meaningful achievement in areas an individual is passionate about.
Nothing else counts and everything else, ultimately, is true failure.
Addendum: I just found that Oprah.com has an article on the film. Can't vouch for it as I haven't read it yet, but here's the link.