There’s a movie making the rounds of parents: “Race to Nowhere,” a look at the downside of childhoods spent on résumé-building. I hope that as a culture we’re able to take the ideas presented in that film and think about what they mean for our society and where it’s going, because right now our educational system reminds me of nothing so much as the educational scene in Imperial China. (For those of you whose schools failed you, that’s not a good thing.)
We have two brilliant, talented children. (For the purposes of this discussion I treat that not as bragging but as baseline.) One of them was able to thrive in the environment addressed by that film, not because he was smarter or more talented than the other but because he happened to have been blessed with the correct set of temperaments and innate talents to do so. (He’s a sciences guy with high language skills who learned early how to work the system.) Our other child almost drowned. Though we have always been careful to tailor our expectations to personal bests rather than scores and competition, she possesses talents and temperament that make her a brilliant artist in several fields but leave her ill-suited for today’s school environment; and she breathed the air of a society that said the miracle of who she is was insufficient. By the time she was in 7th grade, she was on the verge of physical collapse from stress. Through careful therapies including homeopathy and intense, loving support, we were able to pull her back from the brink. But by 10th grade she was suffering stress-induced insomnia.
She’s doing much better now, after having bottomed out in ways with which I will not bore you. But in order to do so she’s had to completely abandon the notion of herself as a person capable of academic success, and focus her schooling entirely on art. I’m grateful she has the capacity and inclination to continue educating herself on her own terms, because no school we’ve met (and we’ve tried a few) is prepared to do justice to kids who are learners rather than regurgitators.
It’s tragic not only for these kids but for our society, which is unwittingly stamping out nearly all the kids whose brains operate in ways different from what this racecourse we laughingly call education is prepared to address. This incisive and original thinker, like so many others, will be lost to the places that might have benefited from her contributions.
If we’re prepared to take the necessary risks, as parents we can rescue the kids this system is designed to destroy. But the intellectual life of our culture is another matter. That will require a wide-scale rebellion: not by children, but by parents.