Race to Nowhere (2009)

Directed by Vicki Abeles

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The United States is known to have one of the best higher education institutions in the world, and yet its primary and secondary public education systems are in dire conditions. Directed by Vicki Abeles, “Race to Nowhere” is a harsh critique of the American public school system, focusing on the problem of stress. The film argues that students today are subjected to unreasonable amount of homework, unreasonable expectation of students’ academic ability, and unreasonable emphasis on teaching to the tests that, in some cases, has led to suicides of young teenagers. I am very sympathetic to these issues, and therefore it is especially troubling that I do not enjoy the film at all.

“Race to Nowhere” has two main types of problems, structural and ideological. Structurally, 90% of the film is comprised of pure oral interviews from students, teachers, administrators, and (a few) scientists. It was 85 minutes of telling and very little to none of showing. The result is that the telling from students sound like petty complaints and the telling from adults seem to be hasty generalizations consisted of endless “I-feel-it’s-like” statements. The film fails to take advantage of the most powerful strength of documentary, which is its ability to show the audience bits and pieces of life that they normally would not see. Interviews should provide interpretations of what the documentary has shown; they should not be the center of a film (unless the topic of the film is about some kind of inward exploration of self, but even if this is the case, there are still ways to incorporate elements other than just interviews). I think it would have been much more effective to follow the students into their classrooms and homes and show what kind of dreary and ridiculous busywork they are subjected to do for six to seven hours every night and, instead of having someone talk about how college is not for everyone, interview somebody who actually chooses to go on an alternative path for opinions on the value (or the lack of value) of college education

Ideologically, “Race to Nowhere” lacks a cohesive narrative. A good documentary does not simply document whatever with which the filmmaker comes in contact–a good documentary strings the seemingly miscellaneous bits and pieces together and creates a story with some sort of message or purpose. “Race to Nowhere,” instead, is a boring hodgepodge of loosely connected comments that have very little significance to some very serious issues in educational reform. If anything, homework was perhaps the most prominent antagonist in the film, which interviews a wide range of people talking about the “unmanageable” of homework thrown at the students today. The film, however, misses a crucial point, and that is the amount of homework is not as relevant to a child’s development as the actual content and quality of homework. Hundreds of hours of unproductive busywork are very different from hundreds of hours of meaningful homework. If the content of homework is truly intellectually-stimulating, doing lots of work after school is perhaps just a necessary evil. I think we have to admit that not all learning can be made “fun,” and some forms of learning are nothing but painful. If we let our children think that everybody can breeze through school always having fun, then they might be even more stressed and depressed when they enter college or workforce and realize that life is not as easy as they used to experience.

I do agree with the film that we certainly cannot practice Taylorist “scientific management” on children’s education–we cannot set a standard that only the best student can achieve and then hold everyone else to that high standard. People are talented in different ways and there has been no and will never be a satisfying method to evaluate one’s talent and achievement. For those students who have many, especially non-academic, talents or commitments, I believe they must learn to balance their commitments by, perhaps, stepping back and giving up some commitments for others because no one can have everything. Schools, too, should prevent fostering a perverted environment that encourages students to be in the top 10%, the first violinist in the state orchestra, president of five clubs, a varsity basketball player, and a young scientist who is on her way to find a cure to cancer–all at the same time. Such perversion is a result of the intense competition in the job market today, which forces people to raise their goals just to survive even if the goals are not suitable to their nature. Schools, I believe, should try to protect students from being exhausted by unrealistic expectations and becoming disillusioned long before they actually enter the real world, but I do not think the solution is as simple as reducing the amount of homework, as “Race to Nowhere” seem to imply.

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