Sunday, March 27, 2011

Post-Race Commentary--#1

                This past Friday we hosted a screening of Race to Nowhere, followed by some discussion. I’m still trying to crystallize the essence of all I saw and heard. In most ways, it affirmed my thoughts in a pre-viewing post.
                The film provokes quite a visceral effect. When slapped in the face, the reflex is to hit back. In the film targets abound. Media; technology; demographics; a competitive culture and its definitions of success; parental pressure; a lack of appreciation of learning for growth’s sake; career and job fixation; demands of the next level; No Child Left Behind; messages sent by the school—all probably deserve some of the anger and associated blame. Certainly I have cast blame. I recall several years ago, when a dean at a leading university declared very publicly that high-pressure schools needed to stop sending them burned-out kids. I e-mailed her and asked when schools such as hers would stop making kids believe they have to burn themselves out to gain admission. I wish I’d received a response, because then I could better understand the pressures she had feeling from someplace.
                Now, as the leader of a school ending at 8th grade, I’m seeing the same issues regarding high school placement as I saw about college. I underestimated them, but they are very real and very understandable. I’m glad that as a parent I don’t have to go through it. For the past week I’ve seen the agony and the ecstasy piqued by a decision made by “the one perfect school for me.” First, among many good schools, there is no perfect one. Second, in this case the goal is in many ways beyond an individual’s control. A student and family can do many things to make themselves a strong, desirable candidate for admission. But they can’t guarantee it. The system can’t really be gamed, and many of the attempts to do so may hurt the student in the long run.  Plus, no matter how well a student may have positioned him- or herself, the school may desire something else in the applicant pool. Not to mention that many wonderful young people compete for each spot.
                I’m not suggesting a student not strive for the best placement possible, whatever that may mean in each individual case. I’m arguing it should not be the ultimate, defining goal and measure. Rather than external affirmation, we need to focus on the formation of a self. Resiliency, gratitude, curiosity, hope—these are some of the qualities that allow a person to thrive in any environment.
                That brings me back to the film and the notion of blame. It’s natural. However, it’s also vital we consider one other player. Ourselves. Watching the film, I wondered how much the filmmaker’s own anxiety contributed to her children’s. I also kept asking, “Okay, so how have you changed things in your own life?” Not until the end did she mention any changes. Now I wonder if they’ve stuck.
                One colleague’s comment truly struck me. She found the film to be as much about parenting as about education. So I’m thrilled we had so many people at the screening, and I am truly heartened by the points made during the discussion—including ones about our one role in creating and ameliorating the situation—and on the cards we collected (more on those and other thoughts  in future posts). People are struggling with this issue, and that’s healthy.  We live in anxious times regarding our children; we crave wonderful opportunities for them. But at what cost? What are we willing to risk? Those should be hard, even scary questions. Each family must answer individually. As a school we have to grapple with them. At the same time, we can give each other courage.

n.b. I want to express our thanks to Munger Place Church for allowing us to use their sanctuary for the screening. It was the perfect location—beautiful, intimate, and inspiring.


pam said...

I listened to an interesting story on NPR this morning:

What strikes me -- after watching RtN and listening to this story -- is that it’s important to distinguish who we ARE from what we DO. At the end of the NPR story, someone comments(I’m paraphrasing) that making the final acceptance decisions feels like target practice because they’re selecting from among equally qualified students. Both the film and NPR story seem to me like a call to help our children focus on feeling worthy just because they ARE, rather than because of what they have (or have not) DONE.

Sylvia Venable said...

I too attended the "Race to Nowhere" film and wondered and commisserated at complexity of the problem. With so many events, academic and extra-curricular, that keep swirling around students' and parents' lives, there is little time to decompress and witness the kind of wonder that you, Mark, talked about this morning in chapel as you went to Brushy Creek during spring break--a morning dappled with sunlight, set as a stage for wildlife (deer, birds), and intended as a great blessing to you, who were perceptive and receptive enough to partake of it. But when the authentic gets buried under the virtual and any of us resort exclusively to texting each other instead of having a face-to-face conversation, and when we live vicariously through an exciting movie and wonder when the thrill of life will ever become a reality for us, life gets waylaid and diminished in quality. I have been teaching for 27 years in all, and pride myself on knowing what makes my students tick. The wonder of learning and life can only take place when the passion for the real and authentic world around us, no matter what kind of mixed, unpredictable, messy bag it holds, becomes our mantra!