“Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture” is an independent documentary by first-time filmmaker Vicki Abeles. The premise of the movie, which is being shown by local PTAs and community groups across the state, is that parents and schools place too much pressure on kids. It played to packed auditoriums last week in towns from Tewksbury to Hingham, and can be seen in Weston, Newton and Concord in early February.
Abeles is the anti-Chua. Where Chua argues that parents should expect (and, yes, pressure) their children to develop their talents to the fullest, Abeles contends that such expectations hurt children’s self-esteem. Where Chua wants to set the treadmill to “sprint,” Abeles urges kids to get off, even before they have warmed up.
The film is indeed poignant. We are introduced to numerous young people who feel completely overwhelmed by pressure to succeed. Many of the kids in the film (like the girl who wants to go to Harvard but can’t pass her state’s baseline academic assessment) are in way over their heads. Many suffer from emotional issues, from anxiety and depression to anorexia and abuse of prescription drugs. What’s not clear is whether academic pressure caused these problems (or even exacerbated them) or whether the problems would have existed regardless of pressure to excel.
It is true that a one-size-fits-all academic curriculum serves many students poorly. Interestingly, however, the movie takes great pains to avoid the obvious conclusion that not all students are capable of performing academically rigorous work. “Race to Nowhere” instead advocates reducing academic rigor and eliminating objective evidence of academic differences.
Thus, it features several teachers, psychologists and activists who rail against homework, grades, class rankings, advanced placement classes, state assessments (such as the MCAS) and the SAT. It is the theory that, if we can’t give every child a trophy, by golly, get rid of the trophies! (Is it me, or did you just hear a loud blood-curdling scream coming from a certain Tiger Mom in New Haven?)
“Race to Nowhere” takes aim not just at academic pressure, but extracurricular pressure as well. According to Abeles, kids today are expected to be good at everything. They rush from play rehearsal to soccer practice to piano lessons to dance, only to come home to hours of homework. The result, Abeles argues, is a nationwide epidemic of sleep deprivation and depression.
Again, Abeles makes some worthy points. Some kids are stretched too thin. But the notion that hyper-scheduling creates unhappy, stressed out kids runs contrary to current research.
In a recent nationwide study of 2,125 young people, psychologists found that the more time children spent in organized after-school activities, the more likely they were to have good grades, high self-esteem and positive relationships with their parents. Children who engaged in no activities were more likely to struggle with low self-esteem, negative relationships and substance abuse. So, contrary to Abeles’ assertions, busier may, in fact, be better.
The problems that Abeles raises in “Race to Nowhere” are real. And some of her suggestions for dealing with them make sense. But her overarching message — that, in the name of self-esteem, we must dramatically scale back activities and abandon academic distinction — is foolhardy.
Educators and parents would be wise to consider whether attempts to create an American childhood free from pressure will only set kids up for failure as adults.
This column appeared in the January 31, 2011 edition of the Boston Herald.