Race To Nowhere

Pat Kahn and Rev. Marti Keller


From the responsive reading we just did together, Channing’s words have resonated with me since first reading them over 25 years ago when I discovered Unitarian Universalism, but it wasn’t until recently that I recognized that all of the “not to’s” were exactly the kind of education I received when I started school in the early 60’s.    NOT TO stamp our minds upon the young; NOT TO give them a definite amount of knowledge; NOT TO bind them by ineradicable prejudices; NOT TO burden the memory; NOT TO impose religion upon them in the form of arbitrary rules.   I grew up stamped upon, bound by, burdened and imposed upon every day of the week at home, in school and at church on Sundays.  But in fact, I always did very well in school, making high grades, graduating a year early from high school and attending a prestigious women’s college, primarily because I was really good at memorizing and regurgitating back a “definite amount of knowledge”.  It wasn’t until college that I got a failing grade; not because I wasn’t interested in the class (one I will never forget – “England Under the Tudors and Stewarts”) but because memorization was not required.  Instead, I was expected to come up with my own opinions and engage in class discussion – and I realized that I didn’t know how to think for myself.  I did manage to graduate with honors, because most of the rest of my classes did require memorization, but it was a long time before I was able to “look inquiringly” with my own eyes and learned to “quicken and strengthen” the power of my own thoughts.  That part of my education began when I had my first child and discovered the Unitarian Church of Rockville, and I’ve been learning every day since.

Because I didn’t know anything at all about Unitarian Universalism in 1986 (after all, I had not set foot in a church since I “escaped” to college in 1971), I followed the wise counsel of the Director of Religious Education who told me that the best way to learn was to teach in the children’s RE program.  That wise woman is still the DRE at the Rockville church 25 years later and she continues to inspire me every day; her name is Deborah Kahn, my wonderful sister-in-law.  I volunteered as an RE teacher for ten years, until I moved to Atlanta in 1996, where I left my 21 year career in retailing and embarked upon my second career to became a DRE myself (but that’s a story for another day).

In those earlier, “pre-seven principle” years, we mostly taught Unitarian Universalism by learning about “famous UU’s” and it was there that I was first introduced to the amazing contributions to progressive education made by so many Unitarians and Universalists.  Let me name just a few:

Peter Cooper was a Unitarian inventor and entrepreneur who founded the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1859.  He believed that education should be, in his words, “as free as water and air”, so Cooper Union was one of first colleges to offer a free education to working-class children, to immigrants and to women.  Even today, every admitted student receives a full tuition scholarship.

Unitarian Horace Mann has been called the “father of public schools”.   He believed that every person, regardless of their background, should receive a public education based on the principles and practices of a free society.  (He also said that slaves should be free, women should vote and the mentally ill should be cared for).

Bronson Alcott was an educator, philosopher, utopian, and visionary, whose educational theories were remarkably ahead of this time.   In his classes, he discarded the practice of rote memorization in favor of encouraging the natural development of the children’s interests.  Based on his Transcendentalist beliefs that children were born knowing right from wrong, he believed that it was the adult’s duty to bring forth the child’s innate goodness.  Alcott asked children questions about God, life, and morality that were designed to help them find the answers within.

Dorothea Dix was considered by many the most visible humanitarian reformer of the 19th century.  Believing the work of a teacher must include community service, she ran a free evening school for poor children, one of the first in the nation.

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was a prominent Transcendentalist who opened the first kindergarten in the United States. Long before most educators, Peabody embraced the premise that children’s play has intrinsic developmental and educational value.

Joseph Jordan (Jerden) was the first African American to be ordained as a Universalist minister.  He started schools for African American children in eastern Virginia and believed that church and education went hand-in-hand (say quote) “to help people live life with dignity, purpose, and effectiveness, and to empower them and their community”.

Arthur Lismer was born into a working-class Unitarian family in Sheffield, England, and eventually found fame as an Impressionist painter in Canada.  Lismer worked tirelessly to provide accessible art instruction to children and described the purpose of the Toronto Art Gallery school this way:  “The aim of the Art Centre is not to train artists, or teach art, or instruct in drawing, but to lead out from the child, encouraging every spark of feeling and originality and to aid in the extension and co-ordination of hand, eye and mind toward the development of a more emotionally active and alive little personality.”

Abigail Adams Eliot was a pioneer of the nursery school movement, best known for her work with young children and for teaching other people to work with young children. As her name suggests, she was a member of two of the most illustrious Unitarian families of New England: the Adamses and the Eliots. Abigail was part of the leadership that formed the National Association for the Education of Young Children as well as the National Association for Nursery Education.

I’ll end with one of my heroines, Sophia Lyon Fahs, who is known as the “mother of liberal religious education”.  She was deeply influenced by John Dewey, a close friend of the Unitarian movement, in developing her strong belief in experiential learning that enabled children to develop their own ideas about religion and spirituality.  The quintessential lifelong-learner, Fahs was ordained as a Unitarian minister at the age of 82 and lived to be 101.  Contrary to the norm, she delivered her own ordination sermon in which she dreamed of (say quote) “church schools with at least three hour sessions: time for dance, for art, for dramatics, and for meaningful spiritual growth…ministers educated not only in liberal theology, but also trained as progressive educators in laboratory schools sponsored by the seminaries”.  Revolutionary for her time and still relevant today, I think that Sophia would be thrilled with how we “do” religious education these days, especially with the production of Tapestry of Faith, an integrated series of faith development programs and resources for all ages that nurture Unitarian Universalist identity, spiritual growth, a transforming faith, and vital communities of justice and love.  You can hear the influence of Fahs in the goals of the programs for children, which read “Children need… to learn with their minds, hearts and hands, to engage in integrated experiences that are anchored by soul-stirring narratives, to learn faith by doing faith, to be empowered as knowers, practitioners, and creators of Unitarian Universalism, and to know the transformative power of justice and love.”

Sophia and all of the Unitarian and Universalist luminaries in progressive education I spoke of earlier espoused Unitarian Universalist values of education that is accessible to all, that is the very foundation of a democratic society, that values the whole child as well as lifelong learning, that is accomplished best through direct experience, all in the service of creating a more just, equitable and compassionate world.

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What our director of religious education—who I have known and loved working with for more than  a decade – and I have in common in this story is a shared admiration of her favorite Unitarian educator Sophia Fahs.  Not only that she was so persistent in pursuing ministerial ordination ,and at such a venerable age, but that she was ordained at the very same suburban Maryland congregation I first attended as a small child. It was there, while we did not spend three hours on Sundays dancing, drawing, and doing dramatics, we did indeed spend the hour during the service learning with our minds, hearts, and hands.

I remember being read wisdom tales from many lands, acting some of them out; working with clay, exploring the wooded grounds. This how I came to learn about the Buddha and Jesus the Carpenter’s son, and to first   know Mystery in the form of an acorn or an blazing red autumn leave.

But that was one day a week for 60 minutes or so. Unlike my colleague, I had a progressive education from the very beginning– but only during my mornings in Sunday school.

The rest of my education came after riding a school bus several miles away to a newly constructed, overcrowded post war public elementary school where I spent no less than 25 hours a week. With double sessions and 30 children or so per classroom, where I do remember fondly being given a juicy role in a second grade reading of “The Cat in the Hat” and in the fourth grade being recognized favorably for some painting or another, hung prominently in the hallway.

But where I also recall — with a sense of shame– being scolded for clashing my cymbal or was it striking my triangle after we had been told to stop making music during rhythm band, and excruciating handwriting exercises, and lessons about what to do if there was an atomic bomb warning.

Because, you see, I was not only a Boomer baby,  I was a Cold War baby, born in that long era of fear of Soviet attack, and by 1957, when I was still a young girl, a child of the post-Sputnik era, following the launch of a small  Russian-made  satellite . Triggering even more fear and competition, and an interest in producing a generation of scientists or high achievers in general who could assure that we would win this race for world supremacy on as many fronts as possible.

According to the creators of the documentary many of us saw in this sanctuary a week ago –“Race to Nowhere,” with the hurling of that metal ball into outer space, around 50 years of respite for American schoolchildren who had been freed up by labor laws and changing cultural standards about childhood from excessive work inside and outside the classroom, had ended. We had to be taught more and faster, and tested more and with more intention, about our aptitude for and achievement in our school subjects, especially in math and science.

The second half of my childhood was spent in what is now called the Silicon Valley, home of the computer, especially the computer software industry, but then might just as well have been called the Cold War Valley, where major defense industry think tanks and providers of intelligence equipment cropped up after the apricot orchards were bulldozed. And where an educational textbook publishing and consulting industry also was planted, producing materials, including tests, aimed at maximizing the kind of learning that would both identify and produce the kind of adults  we were told our country needed.

So my town’s school system, including my high school, which was often called Stanford Prep School, became the pilot site for many of these education experiments as it were, and the students the guinea pigs for a series of new tools and curricula. It was here that the SRA approach to reading and other subject learning was tried out- those cunning boxes of cards, the purple ones being the final and superior ones—and of course the New Math. It was there we were tested – that word again—and put into academic tracks ( remember those) from basic to advanced placement.

It is here my story—and I am representing I imagine for many of us and our children and grandchildren—diverges from that of our religious education director who spoke earlier. Or that of my own husband, who told me that he always performed well on standardized testing as the number one thing they tested was rote learning and  he was very good at that.

I, on the other hand, was spotty at best, doing well on the English language and reading comprehension tests, and poorly, to put it mildly, on the math tests. Ask me what I thought about what was going on in the world or in a novel or in a play or film, I was there. Ask me to give you the geology fact I was supposed to have memorized ,or work an advanced math problem, I was lost.

So I was put in the highest track in English and the bottom track in math and science. And experienced first- hand the upstairs and downstairs of public school, with the bells and whistles, pressured, but at least occasionally affirmative atmosphere of the college prep classes, and the graffitied classrooms, battered textbooks, and indifferent teaching in the “bonehead” classes where I came to know and even be fond of the girls who smoked and occasionally kidney punched each other in the bathroom and who, some of them, disappeared by our senior year to have babies too young. Other than this socialization, for those of in the poor testing and achieving track, our time together in that period  was a dead end every day.

Fortunately—instead of barring me from college or in fact preventing me from even graduating high school– standardized testing did not keep me from getting into a major university, and thriving, graduating with honors. To my advantage, during that time and in that place my grades in general, my particular gifts, verbal and dramatic in particular, and yes, my other school and community activities were also weighted in.

And truth be told, my twin brother only made it into a state college nearby because his tests scores indicated an academic aptitude he had almost never demonstrated  in his actual schooling. And went on to be successful in higher education and a kindergarten teacher himself.

But there we were, on the cusp of a relentless teach for testing ( or what one critic has termed a test and punish) trend in American education that, with perhaps a small respite in the free to be you and me late sixties and early seventies in some corners of the country, has escalated ever since.  Escalated in the eighties due in part to the Nation at Risk Report, which documented lowered test scores post Sputnik, a high rate of functional illiteracy and failure on other standard educational indicators.  Our nation is at  risk, the report began, and our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological  innovation , we were warned, was  being overtaken by competitors throughout the world

A pressure to test well and in particular on standardized, objective tests, for all children   to be uniformly excellent in the subjects that would lead us to excel as a country, and ready to contribute to our society as we identified the needs. We needed, we were told then and are still told, to win the race. This call for action, for a renewed insistence on objective testing and on increased expectations, with more homework being one of the battle cries, was reiterated in the passage of  the No Child Left Behind Act in 2003, which I will return to momentarily.

The documentary on the current state of our educational system, Race to Nowhere, was so titled from an observation of one contemporary high school student who said that he spent all of his time either in the classroom, or doing the sports and clubs that would polish up his “resume” for college, or the hours of homework he was assigned every night and weekend- -racing around, he asked, to where? To a place of success and achievement he could never meet.

The filmmaker, a mother of three children, began this project partly out of her alarm at what was happening in her own family as a result of this climate of learning. Their high levels of stress and exhaustion that came from the hours of schooling, the after school activities meant to boost their marketability to a first rate college, the hours spent being coached by a for profit tutoring company, the months of studying for one standardized test or  another, and the make or break it consequences. The horrible headaches, the debilitating stomach aches, and in the case of a 13 year old schoolmate, the suicide , due perhaps to a single failed math exam.

In this film, she and other parents advocate for changing family norms around schooling. Simple changes any of them could  make and immediately,  like instead of what can sound like grilling their children at the end of a day about how they did on one test or another and what homework they had, asking who they hung out with, how were their relationships, what did they enjoy .

Changes that do require outside reforms, like working with groups like stophomework.com to question the number of hours their kids were forced to spend, and their parents and other adult caregivers were forced to monitor doing outside the classroom work. Arguing that there is no evidence that homework in elementary school buys any additional results at all, and that at most a couple of hours a day would end in any sort of gain in middle and high school. That their children deserved, and adults needed to help them take back their childhood, a childhood with more time for play, for simple pleasures, for mealtimes together, for adequate sleep.

Additionally, the Race to Nowhere documentary and other critics of current policies point out huge changes called for in the federal education system and its mandates. Policies like the previously mentioned No Child Left Behind Education Act ,which was so named  despite the  continued and strenuous objections of leading  advocate Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund, whose original No Child Left Behind initiative  she protested had been hijacked.

She could not, despite a cross country effort to take back her language and her intention, persuade the Bush administration (and now by default the Obama administration)  to remedy at the very least this violation of copyright . And  more than that– the misappropriation of her mission to promote and attain educational achievement and whole and healthy childhoods for all children by a truly comprehensive program of poverty reduction, support to families, and age appropriate and early childhood learning. Real reforms with real funding for them, contained in a piece of legislation which was introduced  in 2001 but failed to pass


Resulting instead in the substitute policy that one former defender, Diane Ravich, describes in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System as measuring success only in relation to exams in reading and mathematics and stigmatizing and sanctioning schools that do not make “adequate yearly progress”.

Ms. Edelman has said that instead of being a sincere effort to help children, especially low income children succeed, the school testing and accountability legislation with its teacher and administrators’ bonus carrots and fund reduction sticks that was passed with a stolen title is, she believes, a single issue under- funded smoke screen designed to impose budget cuts on poor children and give tax cuts to millionaires.

Strong and frustrated language, but echoed in other ways by teachers who work under this mandate, teachers like my sister in law, a middle school teacher,  who told me: I am set to retire at the end of this school after working in public education for over 30 years. In theory NCLB (No Child Left Behind) was supposed insure that all students made academic progress.  The proper funding was never put in it to provide the support for this to be achieved.  Because it relied on standardized testing, it was only a matter of time for instruction to be geared around passing these tests. The schools in the most need with high poverty and ethnic diversity often could not meet the standard and consistently failed.  More and more emphasis has been placed on passing the tests.

I went into this profession because I love the art of teaching children. With all this emphasis on testing preparation the creative art of teaching is disappearing. Because of the high stress involved in this testing climate, many teachers entering the profession only stay for 3 – 5 years before burning out. Because of all this focus on testing, my school district tests the students 3 times a year in math, reading and writing besides the one , Big Test!

Since, my subject, Social Studies, is not tested, many teachers particularly don’t teach it. After all it’s not tested. Therefore student’s knowledge of World History, American History, Geography, Civics is shoved to the back burner in elementary school, because they must achieve in Math, Reading, Writing and Science. How can students participate in our democracy, without such knowledge?

How indeed. She went on to say that it is no surprise that there is cheating by students and cheating by teachers in achieving the needed test scores, no surprise where she teaches in Arizona, no surprise here in Atlanta.

Alfie Kohn, author of Feel Bad Education and other books and essays on children and schooling, says the test score changing cheating scandal that has captured our attention this summer is not the real cheating that is taking place for our children. Our children, he suggests, are being cheated out of meaningful learning by the focus on test scores. Accountability and testing, or at least the over-emphasis, are crushing the spirits of both teachers and students. And rather than nourishing children’s excitement, he says, about learning and helping them to become good people and whole and authentic adults, school acclimates them to years of mind-numbing chores and drills.

The aim he insists is not to promote thinking or the joy of discovery, but to raise scores.

Kohn looks at the inspirational posters hanging  in our school hallways as a telling indicator of what we want for our children, decrying what he describes as “chirpy hallway posters” that proclaim ‘ I know I am smart’ or ‘Achievement is within your grasp’”

His preferred poster would be something like Question Authority.

Somehow I would like to see one paraphrasing the words of our own William Ellery Channing, substituting “education” for “religious instruction,” saying the  goal of education, truly progressive education for our children, as our tradition has always furthered, is to not to give a definite amount of knowledge but to inspire a fervent love of truth, to awaken the conscience, and to awaken the soul.

Our homework begins now.