Friday, April 1, 2011

Reflections on "A Race to Nowhere"

On Wednesday evening, 300 people gathered here for the screening of "Race to Nowhere" a film that has generated intense conversation all across the country. I am gateful to our Sisterhood for having the wisdom to bring it and to Kulanu for partnering with us. As one reviewer noted, the film is "A call to mobilize families, educators and policymakers to help disprove the notion that the educational system is 'one-size-fits-all.'" It has become more than a film - it has become a movement. Even before the opening credits were shown, the mood in the room resembled the buzz just before Yom Kippur. A severe judgment was about to be passed, a judgment on ourselves and our society - guilty as charged. Guilty of murder in the first degree.

What are we doing to our kids? Are we literally killing them by piling on the homework and constantly demanding more, forcing them to poison their bodies with stress, stimulants and sleep deprivation? Are we killing their souls by giving them no choice but to cheat in order to keep up and by viewing their accomplishments solely from the prism of a college resume or GPA? Are we denying them a real childhood or preparing them for the pressures of the real world? And is all this "teaching to the test" actually robbing them of the ability to think, to intuit and to explore? Are we robbing them of curiosity and creativity - and in doing so, are we robbing this nation of what it says it wants, a generation of truly educated young adults?

I've collected some Jewish sources to help us respond to these tough questions. They are filled with wisdom. Essentially, the Talmud presents an educational theory designed to get us way beyond that infamous verse from Proverbs, "Spare the rod, spoil the child." I have a feeling that the rabbis would have loved to get rid of that bit of un-sage advice. Why else would they have come up with gems such as:

The parent who instructs by personal example rather than mere words, his/her audience will take his/her counsel to heart.

Never threaten children. Either punish them or forgive them.

If a small child is capable of shaking the lulav correctly, his parents should buy him his own lulav.

The parent who instructs by personal example rather than mere words, his/her audience will take his/her counsel to heart.

Even within Proverbs itself, there is an aphorism that, in itself, spares the rod, asking us to see each student as an individual endowed with singular gifts and a unique learning style: "Train a child according to his way."

People will debate whether the current system is a total failure or simply a demographic blip, a result of the baby boomlet that has reduced spaces in elite colleges to an all time low - and that has driven the level of competition through the roof. That's debatable, but what's beyond question is that the current white-hot degree of competition is also being fueled by the system itself and not simply by the demographics, and in fact by our obsession with all things numeric, specifically with test scores. We are grinding our children through numbers machines, turning them into little walking computers, squeezing the humanity out of them, willingly sacrificing quality at the altar of quantity - always asking them for more (or as one girl in the film said, she hates the word "and" because no matter how many accomplishments she can rattle off, the response is always "and???")

And because of that, we're killing our kids, body and soul.

What can we do about it?

First, we all need to admit that we are part of the problem. All of us. We feed into the mania and many have caused irreparable damage to our own children. No one on Wednesday night denied that. In the film, in fact, a professor who wrote a book on stressed out kids 'fessed up to some culpability with his own family. It is also is a documented fact that not all colleges are created equal, both in terms of the quality of education and the opportunities available to graduates. That intense competition will not go away. The film's website gives some helpful hints as to what parents and educators can do to change this culture. The movement to reduce homework and "teaching to the test" seems a promising beginning. Other suggestions are helpful too, like avoiding over scheduling and having family dinners together. That is something that my family has stressed over the years.

It is never too late to change. For years I've felt guilt over driving a gas guzzling S.U.V.; so yesterday I bought a Prius. Take that, Ahmadinejad! It's never too late.

For all its helpfulness, the film failed to focus on one area that deserves attention. Today's students are so pressured in part because so many of their families have severed ties with faith communities. At a time when families have become so atomized, with grandparents often thousands of miles away and, increasingly, with only one parent at home, the role of the "village" in raising a child has never been more important. Additionally, at a time when academic and social pressures have led to an epidemic of cheating (the numbers cited in the film are staggering), a moral anchor is needed more than ever. And finally, with kids untethered, released like so many helium balloons unto in a forbidding sky filled with dark clouds of hopelessness and despair, with drugs and even suicide becoming real options to them, parents alone can't possibly bring them safely home. Children need another home, a larger community, a place where people know their name and extend unconditional love. For Jewish kids, that place is the synagogue.

That place is this synagogue.

That place is also the Jewish youth group or camp, and it's why I'm so happy about how such things as USY, Kulanu and Ramah have taken my kids by the hand and steered them through that storm, toward adulthood. I know that other youth groups and camps are very helpful in accomplishing that as well, but they don't have the added advantage of reinforcing the tie between teens and their faith community, a tie that only increases in importance as they get older. I feel sadness for those kids who have had to attempt that journey on their own, and for families that decide that once bar mitzvah is over, it's OK to cut that communal cord. We want them here, under our watchful eye, where multiple generations can teach them the coping skills to help them get through the storm.

This is the place, and right now perhaps the only place, where no child is left behind.

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