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Race to Nowhere: A Review

4 Mar

I was off-line last week because of winter break.  We visited a few colleges in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. area and I will be filing a report later.  I also saw Race To Nowhere – with the ominous tag line: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture – at a local public school in a neighboring town.  This documentary is so popular that I was shut out of tickets for the screening at our high school.  This film is being shown directly to audiences at schools, colleges, and community organizations around the country (to find a screening near you, go to the movie’s website).  Often a school will host a panel discussion after the film, as was the case at the screening I attended.

The film explores the pressures placed on teenagers from heavy academic and extracurricular demands, and has become a hit in part due to strong word-of-mouth and national media attention.  Another reason for its popularity, I suspect, is because it touches a raw nerve, especially in our upper-middle class suburban enclaves where competition to get into elite universities is acute.

The first-time filmmaker, Ms. Vicki Abeles, is a mother of three who decided to make this film after her doctor told her that her children’s unexplained ailments were due to stress from school.  She interviews kids and parents who talk about how the heavy homework load and extracurricular commitments leave little room for relaxation or family time.  On the go constantly from one activity to the next, the children forego adequate sleep or even in one case, eating, to get everything done.  To cope with the pressures, many take stimulants and illegal prescription drugs or resort to cheating.  The medical professionals interviewed report the effects of stress in their young patients that include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, exhaustion, insomnia, even suicide.

The 90-minute film attempts to examine some of the reasons that contribute to the overload: too much homework, the emphasis on testing as a result of the No Child Left Behind law, the expectation from colleges for students to load up on Advanced Placement (AP) courses, the intense competition to get into college, parental anxiety that their children do better than they.

Ms. Abeles did an admirable job of presenting a complex, multilayered problem, especially since this is her first film.  She has created a thought-provoking and powerful movie that resonated loudly for me because my daughter is in the thick of dealing with the stresses and pressures and I’m always in search of ways to lessen the strains on her.  Judging from the Q and A session afterwards, not everyone agreed with the movie’s message.  One parent questioned whether the film was encouraging mediocrity and lowering of standards; as it is, the US lags behind other European and Asian nations in international math and science tests.  A panelist, a child psychologist, took issue with the way anecdotes were passed off as facts in the movie and pointed out that stress was not always bad and prepared teens for the real world (I don’t have his exact words but this was the gist of his comment).

This movie is worth seeing for the compelling issues it raises and adds greatly to the on-going national conversation about education.  It is rated PG-13.


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