Film Review: Race to Nowhere

Race to Nowhere | promotional photo courtesy of IMDb
The Race to Nowhere | Promotional photo courtesy of IMDb

The School of Education Student Government hosted a documentary screening of The Race to Nowhere at the School of Communication last Thursday.

The documentary brings up the many topics in education: how to balance academics and extracurriculars, preparing for high stakes exams, and getting into college. Interviews with students, teachers, professors, and parents bring multiple angles of insight.

However, the title is a bit discerning. Without watching the film and just reading the IMDb description, you would think that the theme is about students focusing on having a stellar academic record, being leaders every club in high school, taking every AP exam – all in order to get into college and, ultimately, to get a successful career. This idea of success is obviously short-sighted, as students may not necessarily be  doing what he or she really enjoys. This is where the “race to nowhere” comes in.

The Race to Nowhere introduces this theme but for the majority of the film focuses on academic stress. The interviews with the students, lacked a variety of opinions, and conveyed the idea that most students are stressed because they are struggling with their academics. What about the students who are stressed because they are aiming for perfection? Or how about the students who are pressured by their parents?  It is normal for students to feel stressed in school, as stress motivates students to work harder to achieve their grades. Nevertheless, the film really opened my eyes to how stress can be a huge toil on students, such as when stress starts to impede academic performance or turns students to wanting to commit suicide.

For instance, the film documented a family with two kids of different ages stressed out by their academics for different reasons.  Not surprisingly, the girl in high school felt stressed by the amount of homework she was suddenly receiving. However, the boy in 4th grade was seen on film crying about not being able to please his teacher. I start to wonder if maybe it is not academics stressing out the students but the parents themselves. It is hard to believe that a student so young can be stressed out by elementary homework; if so, it must show that compared to when I was a 4th grader, school has become a lot harder.

If school is become increasingly difficult, it is because students are becoming increasingly more competitive. In high school, students are warped into the world of high stakes exams. As one student said in the documentary, high school is simply the stage preparing you for college. Students’ visions become tunneled, as they believe that not getting an A on the exam will be the end of the world.

As the film revealed, when students are pushed to the brink of perfection, in order to cope with the stress they have been self-inducing, students resort to cheating on exams. I think this is a great point that the documentary highlights on, because when you think of cheating, it is not necessarily associated with stress.

Learning becomes disengaged when cheating becomes the path to excelling. Students focus on the tests and not so much on the interest in academia. As the film nicely ties in the end, and which relates to a wider student population, having an interest in your academics and finding a passion in something is necessary to deal with the day-to-day stress.

The Race to Nowhere challenges the way we think about education and although the film is a bit outdated (the documentary was created in 2008), we continue to see these same struggles in education today. It becomes increasingly difficult to not focus on the grades and the numbers when getting into college is becoming more competitive, as nowadays, every career seems to need a degree. Since the number of students going into college is increasing, a current issue in education that is starting to rise, is the achievement gap – the disparity of students who are actually achieving in academics. Socioeconomic background becomes a huge factor in separating the high-achieving students from the low-achieving students. As we can see, education constantly needs to be changed to keep up with the changing demographics and culture.

The current issues in education close the many opportunities that education can provide. Stress – due to struggling with academics, dealing with the increasingly competitive nature in academics, being pressured by parents, and striving for perfection – is one factor that can prevent us from going after the opportunities.  Although The Race to Nowhere focuses more on secondary school, the documentary definitely made me take a step back and reflect on how far I, personally, have come and grown – and think about how far I can go.

About Michelle Cheng

Michelle Cheng (COM '17) is the Managing Editor of The Quad. She writes about higher education, digital culture and lifestyle. She has previously interned at Forbes, New York Family and Upworthy. Reach her at

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