by Abby Margolis Newman
I sat down the other night with my two older boys, Jonah (16) and Aaron (14) to watch "Race to Nowhere ," a new documentary by Vicki Abeles about today's teenagers and the intense pressure to succeed (particularly in high school), and how it is counterproductive and damaging in countless ways. The film looks at the definition of "success" held by a large segment of our culture - which includes getting into an Ivy League college or the equivalent - but which is, in reality, crushing our children's spirits, creativity and love of learning.
Abeles (a mother of three from Lafayette, CA) traveled the country - filming at high schools in California, Indiana, New York - to talk to kids about the obligation they feel to get good grades, to take AP classes, to get into one of "the best" colleges. Several high-school students in the film talked about the anxiety and pressure they have felt, going back at least to middle school, to be perfect academically, to be "well-rounded," to look good on college applications. I asked my boys if they felt that kind of pressure.
(In the interest of disclosure: my two older boys are freaks of nature. I have never had to push, plead, cajole, or bribe them to do their schoolwork. They just do it. So as I'm telling this story, I do recognize that my older boys are not typical. In fact, my youngest may yet present a whole different challenge. The gods are laughing at the prospect.)
Aaron, a high school freshman, responded to my question: "Mom, you just don't do that. You give moral support for good grades, but that's it. And I'm not going straight from freshman year to thinking about college." He mentioned that some of his friends' parents promise monetary rewards for good grades - or conversely, withhold things or create consequences for bad grades. Jonah, a sophomore, added, "If you go through high school just thinking about going to a good college, you're defeating the purpose of high school, which is to learn things." Aaron said, "If you don't like what you're studying, why go for all those AP's?" They both said they don't feel as stressed as the kids in the movie.
One of the things my husband and I have done from the beginning is never to make a big deal out of grades. We never wanted grades to take on that kind of importance, to have that kind of power; what we wanted was for the boys to be interested in learning, and simply to do the best work they could. And watching these kids in the film - one after the other - discuss the pressure they feel from their own parents, not to mention from teachers and peers, I felt we'd somehow dodged an epidemic.
One high school senior in the film talked about how kids are expected to have perfect grades, SAT's, tons of AP and honors classes, do sports, join clubs, play a musical instrument and do community service - that this, laughably, is what colleges view as "balance." Jonah observed, "There seems to be just one kind of model student... and it's sad that community service has become just another part of your 'image.' It's fake balance because it just turns into stress." Aaron added, "But it's hard not to get caught up in it, because you're going to have to compete. It's part of the culture. It's irreversible."
No, it's not irreversible, Abeles's film is trying to say. This phenomenon is man-made, and we can fix it if we really want to. But there are so many things working against us. As Madeline Levine, author of "The Price of Privilege," notes in the film, it's going to take brave parents, swimming against the tide, to really bring about change in how success is defined by schools.
The film addresses the testing culture ushered in (in 2002) with "No Child Left Behind," which has left many teachers and schools feeling hamstrung; if they want their schools to receive state and federal funding, they need to raise their test scores, and then it becomes all about that: teachers teach to prepare for the standardized test, instead of teaching in a way that is effective, interesting, creative, beneficial to the kids - in other words, teaching in a way that will foster a love of learning.
What has happened, the film argues, is that kids in the 21st century have figured out how to "do" school - increasingly, they've figured out how to game the system in order to get into college without actually absorbing any real knowledge. On-screen, the dean of Stanford's School of Education, Deborah Stipek, bemoaned this new matrix, which creates a community of learners whose knowledge is "a mile wide and an inch deep." Aaron summed it up: "We're screwing ourselves. But if you really absorb materials, if you care, if you really learn, you'll do better in college and in life." Out of the mouths of babes...
(In my next post about "Race to Nowhere," I will talk about homework and the culture of cheating in high school... stay tuned)