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Jewish Journal

Waiting for Nowhere

by Jason Ablin

April 12, 2011 | 6:07 pm

Two films have captured the country’s attention over the past year — “Waiting for Superman,” depicting the imploding landscape of American public school education, and “Race to Nowhere,” a highly flawed examination of the treadmill on which American students have found themselves.

“Superman” is a film we should be paying close attention to, as it depicts systemic and philosophical problems in the public school system that are a threat to our democracy and, ultimately, to our commitment to human freedom.

“Race” contends with a serious subject in an unsophisticated and simplistic way, both minimizing the problem and its possible ramifications. One teacher in “Race” calls the current test-crazed American educational system “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Unfortunately, the film addresses the issue in exactly the same manner.

What is particularly challenging in “Race” is that the filmmaker turns herself into a central figure, struggling with a middle daughter who is emotionally rebelling against her mother’s type-A dreams for her child, to the point of physical illness and a refusal to participate in her own education. The daughter is, to me, the hero of the film because she is using nonviolent Gandhi-esque behaviors, not in responding to school (school would be just fine for her if her parents knew who their daughter was and were willing to provide her with the proper support) but in responding to her mother, who has a deeply flawed approach to parenting. The filmmaker/mother, to her credit, recognizes this to a certain extent, but her solutions are equally alarming. The film itself looks primarily outward at schools as the source of the problem.

Unfortunately parents and schools are both to blame for this mess, and only when there is a real values-based and philosophical shift in thinking about this problem will the deeper issues resolve.

Designing children vs. raising children

Fundamental to the way in which we view children, in a country where fear and monetary success have become our societal mantras, is that they are all special, precious and in need of a perverse form of protection. As opposed to theories that suggest the nuclear family is disintegrating, what I see is families as islands, with significantly larger communities (previously characterized by deep obligation to religious communities such as churches or synagogues) left out of the picture. Parents find themselves hovering over their children, without trust in other adults to watch them, except for the hired help or the two-hour play date.

In more sophisticated communities, large networks of people raise children by necessity. For various reasons, parents now find themselves isolated from larger networks of their immediate and extended families, grasping onto their children as if they are eggs ready to break.

Coupled with the explosion of the pharma-psychiatric industrial complex in the early 1980s, parents are less raising their children than designing them. Children are seen as both so special and unique that, like glass, they might shatter and break if the wrong pressure is applied.

Schools, both public and private, have played into this wildly dangerous instinct by promising that every little bit of a child’s life will be monitored and examined, measured and quantified. Parents expect excellence from schools inside a completely cocooned experience, and schools are suggesting that they can provide it. Any breakdown of this social contract leads to a crisis, not for the parents or the schools, but for the child. Children are not so special. Neither are they at all so fragile.

The extreme crisis, as “Race” depicts, might be the suicide of a young middle-schooler as her world seems to collapse.  The film chooses the pressures of school as the culprit. The film, though, misses the point. It is the perfectly framed picture of the perfect child on the clean and unblemished piano top that leads to crisis. The tragic story is a about a child being molded, designed and programmed, not brought up in the messy, creative, expressive and idiosyncratic ways of successful families, communities and schools.

Purpose vs. jobs

The president of Bennington College, Elizabeth Coleman, recently commented that “we have gone from being a country which educates for democracy, to professions, to jobs.” Our filmmaker in “Race” even states that her own type-A upbringing was geared toward training, toward preparation to participate as a productive member of an economic system, not as a participant of a democratic and civil society.

When Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the mid-1800s, he marveled that every town he visited had two institutions — a church and a school. Both institutions were seen by the early settlers as fundamental components of a free society. Families and schools are doing a poor job of communicating to our children the true purpose of an excellent education and the reason for all of their hard work: to free their minds from the possible tyranny of others. In our Jewish schools, it goes one step beyond: to free our minds and souls from the tyranny of others and that which would oppress us. Instead, are we training our students and children? Are they merely being educated to produce? There is a fundamental dignity to giving any human being the skills and knowledge to make a decent living, to support a family and enjoy life. But this is only necessary, not sufficient. Children need to know why they are learning, what their larger purpose is. The film portrays these children as depressed slaves but does not provide the answer to this problem because it does not understand the real end game: to live free, obligated only to that which is right, true, fair and just. The filmmaker is only able to recognize that her own child feels imprisoned but is unable to articulate that the ultimate purpose of her daughter’s education is to free her mind, heart and soul.

Results vs. learning

Lastly, the most damning moment in the film is when our filmmaker/rehabilitated parent provides us with the ultimate solution to her child’s oppression. “I stopped asking her about her grades and test scores when she comes home from school.”

This is both an inadequate solution and a reflection of a deeper problem seen in our current educational culture. The answer to making sure our students understand the real value of their education is not to refrain from the conversation. Instead, it is to change the nature of the conversation. Battering kids with questions and interrogations about test scores and achievements serves no value in and of itself, but coupled with deep meaningful conversations about the substance of their learning proves essential.

This is where schools, their communities and parents receive the failing grade. Are the adults in children’s lives actually interested in what students are learning? Children are smart and wise. They will see right through the hypocrisy of adults who are results-oriented but claim to care about actual learning.

This does not mean that evaluative measures should be brushed aside. Grades and report cards are an essential way we measure growth and achievement. And, in my 20 years of educating children, teachers in our schools mostly get it right. They know who is working hard and who is not; who is capable of achieving and who is not; and who needs help and support.

In the end, however, the treadmill about which everyone is so worried, the relentless need to achieve, is motored by a careless sense of the real value of a child’s education, one left unarticulated and expressed in less than passionate and engaging terms. Children who are most happy in school are not the ones who are or are not working hard, it is the ones who feel surrounded by meaning and purpose and value. These students, with their caring parents and great schools, are racing toward something much greater than a good job or a great college acceptance. They are graduating into an adulthood filled with wonder, virtue and a lifetime of fulfilling learning.

Jason Ablin is head of school at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles.

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