11 March 2011
5 Adar 2, 5771
How do we define success? Our answers to this question, whether explicit or implicit, shape the culture of our society, our schools, our families, and our own lives. Yesterday I previewed segments of the challenging new film Race to Nowhere with my sicha (discussion group). The movie is an expose on teenage culture and an indictment of the way our society and our schools place unhealthy and unmanageable pressures on children. It challenges many conventional notions of what defines excellent education and excellent schools, such as homework, grading, and tests and raises significant questions about whether our students are actually learning or whether they are merely “doing school.” It asks us to consider what it means for educators and parents to prepare children for “successful” lives and what role we play in our children’s happiness and overall well-being.
Next Wednesday night, March 16, at 7:00 pm, we will be screening Race to Nowhere here at Gann, followed by a short panel and community-wide discussion. As difficult as the movie is to watch, I encourage everyone to see this movie and to take the issues it raises seriously. For those who are not familiar with the movie or its thesis, you can visit the website www.racetonowhere.com to learn more about it.
In the meantime, I have been ruminating on this fundamental question about how we define success and the messages we send about success to our children, our teachers, and ourselves. Too often we equate success with perfection. As one mother in the movie commented when describing her teenage daughter, “if you’ve always had A’s, there’s only one way to go, and that is down, so a B feels like a failure.” Instead of accepting our natural imperfection, embracing our God-given talents and abilities, working hard, and trusting that we will develop and evolve into the human beings we are capable of becoming, we vie to meet externally defined standards of achievement and settle for nothing less.
We need to address the “race to nowhere” by talking about what we mean by success. As just one place to start, the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) has something to teach us about perfection. In his introduction to Vayikra, the Ramban explains that, after the book of Shemot (Exodus) concludes with the presence of God dwelling in the mishkan (tabernacle), Vayikra comes immediately to teach B’nei Yisrael how to atone for transgressions so their inevitable shortcomings do not drive the divine presence out of their midst.
Built into the Torah’s vision of building a spiritual community is the acknowledgement that we are human and, therefore, we are imperfect. We need guidelines to help us learn, grow, and be our best selves, but we, inevitably, make mistakes and fall short. This is what it means to be human, and falling short does not mean complete failure. The word for sacrifice (korban) comes from the Hebrew root karav (close), for sacrifices bring us closer to God. Making mistakes or falling short actually creates an opportunity to approach and reaffirm our relationship with God. Is this also true for the relationship between children and parents or teachers? When our children fall short, do they feel they can approach us for support and reaffirmation, or do they live in fear of our disapproval?
One way to uncover the pressures that both we and our children feel is to explore our beliefs and the messages we send about success. Because Gann combines academic excellence with belief in the higher purposes of a high school education such as self-knowledge, character development, and identity formation, we are poised to begin this important conversation. I look forward to learning with all of you.
Rabbi Marc Baker