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Fight the Pressure

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I just finished watching a new film called Race to Nowhere. On one level it is yet another documentary about an education system that has run off the rails. But this one differs from Waiting for "Superman", The Lottery and The Cartel -- the reform triumvirate -- in some important ways.

Although Race to Nowhere has been framed by some as the anti-"Superman", it is in fact such a thematically distinct movie that such comparisons are meaningless. Sure, the 90-minute film takes brief swipes at No Child Left Behind and a testing-obsessed culture that sucks joy out of learning and renders schooling all but meaningless. It advocates for pumping more money into public education, barely mentions charter schools and leaves teachers' unions completely out of the discussion.

But unlike the other three films, Race to Nowhere isn't about how the education system is failing low-income kids. It's about how as a society we have put so much pressure on our children -- especially middle- and upper-income high achievers -- that we are driving them to despair and even suicide in pursuit of our dreams for them, which are little more than shallow fantasies.

In other words, to the extent that we view our children as extensions of our own egos, we are doing them tremendous harm.

The film is co-directed by Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon and produced by Abeles. Though not in wide release, it is being screened in conjunction with "community conversations" at various sites around the country. You can find a list of screenings here.

One needn't choose sides here. I saw a lot to admire -- and criticize -- in Waiting for "Superman". I loved The Lottery, I found The Cartel to be shallow and annoying.

Race to Nowhere
hit me in a different place and on a different level. The first thing I did after watching the film -- which a publicist sent me on DVD -- was walk into my daughter Marian's room and give her a hug.

She's 21 and left her private, East Coast liberal arts college last year, half-way through her junior year. In some ways she is a lot like the kids depicted in the film.

This film will be tough for a lot of my peers to watch because it hits so close to home. None of us wants to be like the parents in the film. Many of them struck me as suburban automatons, who, driven by internal and external forces they couldn't control, pressured and over-scheduled their kids with lessons and teams and tutoring sessions, mostly because that's what everyone else was doing. The ultimate in keeping up with the Joneses. Heaven forbid a child should have unstructured, worry-free time.

Because she is indirectly a subject of the film, I asked Marian to watch Race to Nowhere and give me a review. She made it through about half of it before she decided she got the gist. Here is some of what she had to say about the movie and its message.

"What struck me was how parents are overly anxious and the degree to which they are overly involved in their children's lives. The pressure within the school system was actually created by parents and now it has spread.

"The movie seemed very accurate in showing the pressure. But the kids also seemed like fairly weak individuals because they weren't doing jack to stand up to it. It's ironic. These kids probably won't succeed in the end if they're letting their parents and teachers boss them around that much.

"Working really hard and doing everything right only gets you to middle management. If you say screw everyone and do things your own way you're going to be happier and in a lot of cases you are going to be successful, if you're smart. The whole cookie-cutter thing just fills in the gaps around the people who really matter in society." (Interestingly, the movie in its final minutes, which Marian didn't watch, makes almost this exact point. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and other legendary entrepreneurs never finished college, and most CEOs were C students, the movie says).

What advice would she give to a 14- or 15-year-old feeling squeezed in the pressure vice?

"Drink a lot of caffeine, get at least six hours of sleep a night, tell your parents to back off when they're being jerks, and if your homework seems really stupid don't do it and read a book instead."

My sense is that the creators of Race to Nowhere would agree with every word of that advice, minus the caffeine. I'm not sure I agree to the same extent. But what do I know?