What’s Really Scary on Halloween (and every other day these days)? Homework, Academic Stress and Toxic Levels of Competition

October 27, 2010

Greetings.  I’m in two places at once today:  here writing about the terror lurking beneath education; and guest posting at one of my favorite haunts as a reader—The Kitchen Witch—where Dana hosts my tale of neurotic kitchen terror from a Christmas past.  Please visit her today (she’s a lot of fun) and then delve back here into the grim tidings of education and our individual and collective needs to adjust…

I recently attended a screening of the film Race To Nowhere by Vicky Abeles.  Vicky was there and the event attracted two back-to-back auditoriums full of parents followed by discussion focused on how and why we are putting too much pressure on our kids.  Topics raised by the film include homework and whether it is effective (both in terms of actually helping kids learn and in terms of the emotional well-being of children).

What the film reflects is our current culture—fraught with anxiety and ceaseless competition both conscious and unconscious.

While I absolutely feel that our culture is in the throes of tremendous pain, narcissistic (meaning clueless) and futile competition that is both a road to nowhere as well as a circular road to the eternal here and now, what I wish to facilitate with my post today is the furtherance of the discussion, the continuation of the consciousness that recognizes that more of what does not work (i.e. more, faster, harder, better, bigger, richer, thinner, more famous) will still not work.

We all just want to feel better.  And if we trusted, deep in our souls, that our kids would be happy, healthy and “successful” through being true to whoever they truly are, we parents might relax and get out of the way and simply allow our kids to learn, bloom and grow.

But we are mostly restless, anxious and insecure and thus we keep covertly saying, “be like us,” when no intelligent kid would want to be worked ragged and “living” (or rather ceaselessly striving) in a life that continually falls short of finding things to be good enough as they are.  Thus we do not generally possess, nor model, gratitude (which is not the same as saying, “you should be grateful because others have less”).  If we are not happy, we have little platform from which to inspire, much less teach, our kids to be happy.  So instead we compel them to achieve, inadvertently teaching a future-orientation to a degree that pretty much blocks presence to the here and now, and thus blocks the only chance for happiness.

Sadly, presence to the moment is a child’s inborn way of experiencing the world.  It is we who talk, and teach, and reward and frighten them out of it, into joining the group on a stress-test to nowhere.

Given that Vicky seems to be running all over the world now trying to help us discuss this issue, perhaps it would be an act of love, as well as enlightened Self-interest, for us to be part of this change so she might be released from the wheel to which she appears bound—even if for a good cause.

The point of view of the film, voiced by parents, children and numerous educators and experts was that kids are stressed to the point of depression, anxiety and physical illness as a result of the heavy workloads and an endlessly rising bar of expected activities and achievements… all in the service of getting into “good” or particularly “great,” colleges (and the deeply held belief that this will be the answer to every life problem ahead).

The film asserts that experimental programs employing less (and more constructive) homework, different approaches to grades and better learning environments helps kids actually master and comprehend material rather than memorize, spit it back out and then quickly forget.

Race to Nowhere depicts many kids openly acknowledging a widespread culture of cheating (out of desperation) which seems to come back to haunt when the University of California schools are admitting the top GPA and SAT kids, and only later having to “admit” that HALF of these kids require remediation in English and math.  In other words, they arrive burnt out and ill equipped.  It’s like salmon all getting to their spawning grounds too spent to actually spawn.

So, if you recognize this to be a problem, ask yourself what you personally might consider doing in order to be part of the solution.  Watch the film if it interests you, but participate in the discussion, which is happening all over our culture, as participation is key for change.

Take a look at your own expectations and beliefs about your child or children.  Do they truly want to go to the schools, or in the direction, that you want for them?  Are they being pushed into honors classes that are really grinding them down more than building them up?  Is your kid being chronically tutored?  Could this mean that he or she is actually out of his or her depth in the “high math” or the AP class?  And what is the point of all this misery?

And please, do not be so sure that you are not pushing your kid while kidding yourself that you are not.  The unconscious is like a shadow—it is behind us when we face the son (and the daughter as well).  My task today is to suggest a glance over the shoulder at your own shadow before pointing the all-too-easy finger at the gross example of the alpha dad or the monster mom (these are not my readers, never will be).  Trust me I check in at the mirror and stand guilty as charged (despite trying so hard not to be that parent).  But the past is sealed and done; what are we going to do to love and learn and enjoy TODAY?

WE, (myself included) are the problem.  But WE can also look into the mirror of each other, and into the mirror of our exhausted children and broken culture and see that this is not working.  Learning needs to be fun if we hope for kids to grow up and become life-long learners.  This doesn’t mean sugar-coating every fact they must swallow, but rather starting with ourselves and becoming open to learn anew about learning.

We are prepping our kids for the world we come from, the world we have already all but ruined.  The hope for the future is not going to look like the past, and we need to learn from our kids by listening to them.

This was the thing that most impressed me about Vicky Abeles:  when she fielded a question from the audience after the film, from a splendidly articulate girl from a turbo-charged public arts high school suffering from the on the ground reality of the film, Vicky truly listened to this kid.  I could see that becoming a filmmaker has taught her how to listen in a deeper way—and that sort of listening is a huge part of the solution to our societal problems not the least of which is broken education.

The example of authentic listening is something I hope most to follow and to inspire in other parents.  This is ironic in the context of my word-heavy blog, but I’m trying to learn, to listen to my kids, my clients, other people’s children… and hope that the process of talking and listening and learning together might conspire with all my fellow parents to catch a zeitgeist wave of enough is enough already sort of change.

As a reader of these words, deciding that you agree with me (or disagree with me) will do little to help our kids.  A shift in consciousness and attitude, however, I believe may help a little.

So ask yourself, in your private heart, “How much do I really care about other people’s children?”  “How much am I focused on my child “succeeding” and only then am I actually rooting for equal distribution of the left-overs?”

It is natural, at least for our conscious ego-selves, to favor our own kids and our own advantage.  But education is an arena where the good of the group must come before the good of the individual.  And the one place of equality across public and private schools is that of ceaseless competition and resultant misery.  We are turning our kids against each other with the ethic of scarcity.  How much might this cruelty exacerbate bullying, acting out, drug abuse to cope and even kid suicide?

There simply must be an abundance of compassion, love, teaching, attention and support for ALL our kids to thrive or else we are contributing to a dying culture.

A radical rethink is in order.  It is time to change or die as nation, for if we do not do better by, and for, our kids, what will be left of our nation?

And the irony here is that less is more:  less pressure, less competition, less manic and driven models of success that leave virtually everyone behind and leave the few “winners” miserable behind gates.

So, while I might like to think that I don’t push my kids, the fact that we have enrolled them in a demanding private college prep school makes that a bit of a hard position to defend.  Sure, we don’t push the honors classes upon them, only if they want to step up to this or that challenge… but the very fact of the school, great teachers and all, still meta-communicates that they are expected to hack it, to get good grades and go to a good college.

Thus I am part of my community, our community, and I am calling for a cease-fire, a lets-put-our weapons (overt, concealed and unconscious) down and see about empowering our kids and their teachers to actually learn and teach rather than continually get everyone ready for a future than never arrives.  I suffered through high school, not because of the workload, but still it was mostly suffering; I don’t want my kids to suffer and I just know in my bones that they would learn more and be happier if the flame was turned down on the vessel in which they co-cook with every other child in this big nervous world.

Change is the only constant.  Perhaps things will get more touchy-feely again for a while, maybe homework will decrease and everyone will feel better about that.  Maybe even scores will go up and the economy too.  But unless we realize that we are not, at least individually, “in charge” of much at all, we will keep thinking that there is a “right” course of action, a “right” amount of homework, a “right” school for our kid.  The truth is that we are anxious and foisting it over onto our kids, and then worrying about our kids rather than learning how to calm down, learning how to learn how to calm down.

All us parents love our kids, but are we truly serving them?  (And by “serve” I do not mean waiting upon them hand and foot, nor do I mean doing their homework for them).  Beyond actually listening to our kids, and considering the ways our unconscious fears and desires impact them, the challenge at hand is to truly open our hearts and want the other kids to do as well as we want our own kids to do.  You might say that this goes against Darwin.  Well I hope so, and I hope it also goes against Isaac Newton and all the “rational” and “objective” thinking that has lead to the state of things as we have it.

I accept the world as it is, but I’m also in favor of being open for whatever might happen now.  Thousands of parents are currently having this very discussion about how to re-think education.  This is not something that has to happen (as in some day), it is something that absolutely IS happening right now.

So on this Halloween week I wish all my readers a treat rather than a trick:  the treat of an open heart.

Namaste, Bruce

p.s. for more on Race to Nowhere, perhaps to get involved in facilitating a screening and discussion at your school click on http://www.racetonowhere.com/