When it isn’t about education anymore

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.

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2 Comments on “When it isn’t about education anymore”

  1. Stephen J. Simmons Says:

    She isn’t “lost” to those places, necessarily. But only the cleverest among them will make themselves available to people such as she. The companies that have rigid “passport-stamp” based hiring criteria (degree in X, GPA of at least Y, minimum of Z years of related experience …) will take themselves out of the running, never offering interviews to the candidates they genuinely need most to overcome creative hurdles.

    I had the enormous good fortune to be born in a town of less than a thousand people. My high school class graduated 27 people. So, I was in a school that was nearly capable of coping with someoneas differently-brained as I was. (“Nearly-capable”, in that my mother had to move a few mountains to land me a hefty alumni scholarship at a military college-prep school to get me across the finish line …) Armed with knowledge of the genes I had stuck them with, we were annoyingly (to the system) proactive in our kids’ school experience from day one. Even so, they’ve both spent far too much time being the taffy in a pulling contest between us and the system.

    Yes, the system we have evolved over the course of my adult lifetime is a trainwreck. And the solution should be obvious to anyone with an IQ of at least two digits: Move the control closer to the student, instead of establishing bland and soulless “standards” in some antiseptic ivory tower, and DEMAND parental responsibility for their part of the process.


    • You’re right, Steve. The smartest among us learn to look past superficial certifications to the real people involved; and the places and people that can’t aren’t worth the time of the differently-brained, because those people and places will only make them miserable.

      That’s been one of the most important lessons of this journey for us: how liberating it is to say, “We need a divorce” to the system. I’m sorry she had to go through this journey, but I am glad for the way she has shunted those toxic things out of her life and the way she is blossoming since.


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