Stealing Childhoods One Student at a Time

Sam MillerDecember 31, 2016A Lens on LearningMedia

The United States is currently faced with a great educational crisis. With the public school system plummeting, never before has our nation experienced such a fraught issue.

Students are lost in a whirlwind of perplexing teachings and inadequate educational theories. Vicki Abeles’s 2009 film, Race To Nowhere makes an attempt to answer the baffling question of why our system is failing.

Our education system is clearly not working. Students are overwhelmed with extreme stress and other negative side effects of school. According to the Human Development Report, our illiteracy rate (of people over 15) has hit an unbelievable 24%, and students are lacking dedication and commitment. Perhaps the expectations for excellence in the United States are far too low, yet children are granted far more privileges than most cultures. Success appears to be a given, rather than a goal that requires rigorous work to achieve. At the moment, approximately 30% of high school students are dropping out. This shocking statistic is a powerful example of the unacceptable education we are providing our children with.

Abeles decided to create Race to Nowhere after realizing the increasing pressures put on her children from school. “It was kind of a gradual awareness as a parent,” she recalled in a 2011 interview. “I started to see my kids were up late at night doing homework when they were 11 and 12 years old, then one of my daughters developed a physical condition related to the stress.” After speaking to several parents in the community, she began interviewing parents around the country for her first movie. The documentary captures the enormous anxiety and struggle that comes with school and provides a behind the scenes look at the hidden trauma. It profiles several students, interviewing and briefly documenting their school lives. “We see kids in all kinds of communities who are being asked to fit into a box that we define as the successful, high achieving young person," Abeles later commented with displeasure. When the film was finally released in 2009, it was screened in over 1,700 schools across 20 countries, quickly becoming a both controversial and well-known movie.

Race To Nowhere provides many shocking accounts of school life. This includes recollections of sleep deprivation, stress-derived illnesses, and even teen suicides. Yes, these accounts are interesting and horrifying, but they are presented in a way that is completely blown out of proportion. These odd cases are applied to students in general, and the film fails to acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of children are not experiencing these things. Rather than point out that these are isolated cases; the movie seems to become a never-ending sob story of traumatic memories that seems to serve no other purpose than to frighten viewers. Although Race To Nowhere touches on many vital issues, specifically the dangers of excessive homework, the film raises more questions than it answers. No real solution is presented, and it focuses almost entirely on academic troubles.

There are certain topics in Race to Nowhere that should be discussed in a greater detail. Since some topics only make a brief appearance, it leaves the audience confused. A notable example is the introduction of cheating, which is more than a reference, but occupies less than a sensible portion of the film. The fact that a mere 3% of students claim to have never cheated on a test is mentioned, but not evaluated in further detail. This monumental problem is increasing, evident in the 2011 Great Neck scandal, where youth paid great sums of money to cheat on SAT tests.

Perhaps too much negativity has been applied to the film, because in fact it breaks some new ground. The movie exposes a darker side of school, revealing what has been unnoticed for so long. It shows changes must be implemented, and the goal of education must be shifted from memorization to intelligence. Race to Nowhere will hopefully awaken people, yet the uneven production detracts from the viewing experience.

Race To Nowhere certainly isn’t brilliant from a cinematic stance, lacking in both technical and story-telling areas, yet it painfully shows what the future of the United States will look like, unless we make other reforms. If our school system continues to turn out intellectually incompetent people, the United States will fall behind on the worldly education scale even further. The idea of success must be redefined, and we must begin to educationally progress. Perhaps Race to Nowhere can help.

Sam Miller is 14 years old, lives in Connecticut, and has been on the Editorial Board of KidSpirit for four years. He enjoys playing the drums, listening to music, and making films.