I’ve been immersed in childhood recently. The unfettering of it, the recollection of it and, most of all, understanding it; I’m a parent of this milieu, I have to understand all things. Straddling these three points, however, has me in a bit of a knot. Picture the children’s game, twister, and you have your image.
As I said recently to a swim coach from Lower Merion High School whom I’ve come to know and like, I am all about saving the entire world on any given day. Education, primary and secondary education to be precise, is a cornerstone of that intention. Watching the movie ‘Waiting for Superman’ twice, with friends, was a large part of that cornerstone and one I reflected on after. Watching ‘Race to Nowhere,’ came next.
Therein, the knots. Both movies are about education, but their points of intersection are few. While ‘Waiting for Superman’ bemoans a system that cannot reward excellence in teaching and tracks students from Kindergarten through High School – thereby trapping a child in years of low/high expectations – and advocates intensifying time spend in school, ‘Race to Nowhere’ demands the opposite. Less time spent in school and on school work. Perhaps that is not altogether unexpected: the first movie concentrates on the teeming masses of the under privileged, for the most part, whereas the latter focusses on the far smaller group, the severely driven children of the upper echelons who go through life with the whirring of helicopter blades above their heads. The only common thread is this: neither high pressure nor low is working.
So what is or will work, and who is responsible? I belong fairly in the group that is addressed by ‘Race to Nowhere.’ I live in a suburb where the public and private schools are only distinguishable from each other by the lack of uniforms in one and the presence of them in the latter. Their facilities do not differ, their students graduate and enter prestigious four year colleges in equal rates. Lower Merion High School has been ranked by the Wall Street Journal as one of the top 60 high schools in the nation, public or private. But through personal experience and anecdote I have come to understand that the drive for not only the perfect college but the perfect college application, has turned many Lower Merion’s students into young people who are riddled with self-doubt and low self-esteem (always guaranteed outcomes when one plays the comparison game as these students do, and incessantly). They – like those students profiled in the movie – are less interested in a particular subject as they are in the “right” combination of subjects – and activities – that will “sell” them to a college.
And then what? That is a question that has, it seems, never been posed to these students. They have, it seems, managed to go through over fifteen years of academic instruction (give or take a few depending on pre-K non/enrollment), without ever having understood that there is no externally imposed formula for happiness or success. Life, they seem not have been told, is not lived behind desks or inside glossy portfolios. It unfurls in the trenches. There is no “right” combination. There is no “right” college. And if they have been made to believe that getting into the “right” college is the be all and end all of their existence, I fear for the impoverishment of spirit and mind that is sure to follow in the wake of graduation four years hence. There is only one “right” and that is the student herself. She, made more interesting through her lacks and nuance, her gifts and struggles, her awkwardness and misfitting, her good or bad grades, her prancing on a stage or her awe as the audience, her gift of language or lack thereof, her poor singing voice and the amazing arrow of her body diving into a pool or flying along a track, she is perfect. And it is that flawed perfection – not the list of awards and mindless regurgitation of fact and figure – that creates the perfect school or college or other environment, and, eventually, the perfect family, community and nation.
We know this, as adults. How then has that disappeared from view when, last time I checked, we were the people in charge? I saw this movie at the William Penn Charter School, the nation’s oldest Quaker School. Screening this movie was certainly in keeping with the school’s commitment to intellectual curiosity and support of a larger community. But I was hard pressed, as I sat there, to reconcile the splendor of the newly dedicated Kurtz Center for the Performing Arts (which rivals the Kimmel Center here in Philadelphia), with the school’s mission statement that also embraces honesty, compassion and simplicity. The splendor of the auditorium in which I sat grated on the images that rose in my mind of the many different Friends Meeting Houses in which I had contemplated “that of God in everyone,” all of them simple, all of them devoid of ostentation, all of them remarkably well suited to the pursuit of simplicity. How does a school’s administration convince a student seated in such grandeur – an administration that saw fit to pursue the acquisition of such grandeur – that their lives should reflect the worth of scholarship acquired through diligence and innate interest and that their spirits should be nurtured through quiet reflection in places that foster such reflection? How does one speak the word, simplicity, on such a stage? Admittedly, I am biased toward the arts and a part of me does feel that if spending must occur, let it be in the direction of the arts, but still.
To their credit, the administrators who facilitated the discussion after the movie spoke candidly about the fact that theirs was a college-preparatory school, though they alluded to the fact that somehow it was parents paying $28,000 a year who were driving this focus, not themselves. So are parents the ones at fault? According to an article titled ‘All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting,’ in New York Magazine (July 10th, 2010), Jennifer Senior writes:
Martin Seligman, the positive-psychology pioneer who is, famously, not a natural optimist, has always taken the view that happiness is best defined in the ancient Greek sense: leading a productive, purposeful life. And the way we take stock of that life, in the end, isn’t by how much fun we had, but what we did with it. (Seligman has seven children.)
So, are parents to blame? Stay tuned, because you know I’ve got some feelings about that.