The Race to Nowhere
My most vivid memory of middle school (that didn’t involve getting to slow dance with Amanda) was the shocking afternoon that I got my report card and learned that I got a B in 6th grade English.
That B gave me a jolt of fear of shame that haunted me for the rest of my childhood. I remember crying as I reported my failure as a son to my father.
I didn’t get anything lower than an A- again until I got to college.
To be clear, I am not telling this story to brag. I was absolutely ridiculous. I guess that in the mind of 11-year-old max, grades were the only thing about my life that I could control. So I had to be perfect.
This notion that good grades are extremely important is as logical as it is preposterous. Thank goodness my dad shrugged the B off and didn’t encourage my misguided perfectionism.
“The Race to Nowhere” shows the ugly consequences of a culture where parents and school administrators are as crazy about grades as I was.
In “Race,” the documentarians interview dozens of children who have been told by parents and teachers that straight A’s are the only way to get into a top-tier college and have a good life. But grades aren’t enough, kids are told; they also need to ace the standardized tests, take the hardest AP courses and fill their resumes with extracurricular activities.
The result of this pressure isn’t an army of super kids; it’s an epidemic of unhappy, sleep-deprived teens. According to the film, there is a dramatic rise in children having to go to therapy, having nervous breakdowns, and even being committed due to the counter-productive stress.
“Race to Nowhere” has a few sensible ideas of how to make school more sane.
First, cut down on homework. The film rightly observes that hours of homework every night causes stress to children and strife between school kids and their parents. Seven hours of school is a demanding full-time job as it is. The emotional benefits of a few hours off each evening far outweigh the intellectual benefits of those insipid algebra worksheets.
Second, eliminate standard testing. All that preparation for national standardized tests has the effect of increasing workload at the expense of real education. Great educators are forced to become robots repeating the same boring lessons instead of instilling a passion for learning to their students by teaching what they love.
Finally, the film reminds over-competitive parents that admission into an ivy league college is not the only mark of success or a guarantee of happiness.
To you parents out there who pressure your children to get A’s and who display bumper stickers about how your kid is a middle school honor student, remember that what happens in grade school really isn’t all that important.
After 15 years in the same office, I’ve slowly learned the life skills that actually matter. You should show up every day with a smile on your face. You should do your work without complaint. If you aren’t sure what you’re doing is correct, try your best rather than bothering management with your questions. They don’t want to hear them. Your manager would rather you do an average job on your own than be the top performer while asking 10 questions a day.
I didn’t learn any of these skills in school.
I could have become the reasonably successful, reasonably happy man I am today even if I had gotten all B’s. Heck, a few C’s wouldn’t have killed me.