'Race to Nowhere' Should Think Outside the School

02/10/2011 08:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Kate Fridkis Author of Growing Eden, blogger at Eat the Damn Cake

"Race to Nowhere." Great title. I love that a kid says it, in the film. He's trying to put his life into words. He pauses, searching for the right phrase. "It's like a... race to nowhere." Well done, kid.

What a disturbing film. It's full of teenagers patiently, articulately explaining how they were hospitalized for severe anxiety. How they developed anorexia. How they want to die when they fail. How school is killing them.

These kids stay up all night, doing homework, they go to school and then to sports, and then to something artistic, and then to the tutor, to help them keep up in school, and then they have five minutes for dinner, and then homework starts again. Who are they? They are The American Teenager. The ones who don't just drop out in disgust and frustration, that is. The ones who are fighting to get into a good college, or just a college, as colleges close their stately gates on more students every year. The kids from affluent families are fighting to have the same opportunities as their parents -- it's harder now. The kids from poor backgrounds are fighting to have opportunities their parents never had, and their options are constricted by lack of scholarships and inability to pay for the colleges they do get into. Everyone is fighting desperately to get in somewhere.

College, explains one of the students in the film, is where you finally start learning. It's where your life starts. All of this, right now, this is just the business of getting into college.

A teacher interviewed in the film mentions that his father works in a psych ward. He always knows when finals are, because the beds are full of college students who can't cope. It's not so surprising, really, when you consider how critical it is that students succeed in college. After all, their entire lives have been focused on getting there.

But the worst part of the tragic story about the state of American schooling is not the tremendous effort expended by students towards goals that don't even make much sense, or the sacrifice of childhood, or the anorexia, or even the suicides that occur when someone gets a bad grade for the first time. The worst part is the helplessness.

No one can do anything. It's as though there is simply nothing to be done.

Parents watch helplessly as their children suffer. They drive their children dutifully to the emergency room and the therapist and the psychiatrist and the pediatrician. And then they drive their children to the tutor again. They ask, "How was school?"

Vicki Abeles, the filmmaker, tries to save her children. She finds a new school for her daughter, after the girl exhibits physical symptoms of anxiety on a regular basis and can't remember liking school since fourth grade. Two weeks later, her daughter reports that things are pretty much the same. Abeles institutes family dinners and stops checking on her kids about their homework.

But the solution to school is more school. Or slight changes to a system that is clearly damaging and even dangerous. Abeles argues that homework should be abolished, or at least scaled back significantly. I think this is a fantastic argument. Homework doesn't seem to be helping kids learn or retain information, Stanford researchers report. Especially not when there is so much of it. Homework is monopolizing everyone's free time. Even little kids, who receive a shocking amount of it these days, and parents, who are supposed to help their children with homework, make sure their children are doing homework, and check over homework.

But even if homework was eliminated, that wouldn't be enough. Kids are cutting themselves. They are crumbling. They are cracking under the pressure, and they are even killing themselves.

I was homeschooled. I look at Vicki Abeles' life, and I wonder. She is driving a Lexus. Her family lives in an enormous, gorgeous house in an expensive Bay Area suburb. They are willing to pay for tutor upon tutor upon piano teacher upon therapist. Why not take the children out of school entirely? Even if Vicki and her husband don't want to sit at the kitchen table and work through math problems with their children every day, they could bring in a tutor for that, just like they are doing now. They can't even make that old, tired argument about traditional school and socialization, because their kids don't have time to see their friends. Friends are a luxury. Why not give their kids back their social lives and their sanity? Why not remove them from the problem?

It seems so simple. Yet it doesn't occur to anyone.

Even alternative schools don't seem to occur to many (one family in the film enrolls a son in an alternative school when he can't go on any longer).

Believe it or not -- alternatives already exist. They aren't always accessible to everyone, and it's definitely always harder if you don't have money to spare, but in the case of the affluent families of Lafayette, Calif., they have about a million more choices than they are aware of. If only they would learn to think outside the school. Their children's lives may depend on it.

This article also appears on Un-schooled.