Melchior has been dipping into the Nietzsche and other radical thinkers of the late 1800s. He proclaims that God is dead and seriously questions the ideological underpinnings of his nation’s religion, culture, morality and education system.
He also sees his good friend Moritz struggling with a horrendous homework load that is, literally, driving this sensitive young man crazy. Moritz will be up all night cramming for tests, but his galloping mind, racing with hormones and new ideas, interrupts his focus.
The sorrows of young Moritz offer a strong example of how Spring Awakening’sdepiction of Germany’s 1890s education industrial complex is not so different from what many say America has in place in 2012.
It’s interesting to note that the United States owes some of its philosophical and structural ideas about public education to 18th and 19th century German reformers. Even before then, Martin Luther advocated for compulsory schooling so that all citizens would be able to read and interpret the Bible. In the 18th century, the Kingdom of Prussia was one of the first countries in the world to introduce the idea of free basic, primary education that would teach skills for a newly industrialized work force. School also needed to provide students with a moral education, to turn out disciplined and obedient citizens who would help advance the nation’s progress in Europe and on the world stage.
In the first decade of the 21st century, many American educators and scholars have watched in puzzlement at what’s happened to our American education system, notably after the federal No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2001, ostensibly to improve schools and make them and teachers more accountable.
Among the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind has been the “shrinkage of time available to teach anything other than reading and math,” wrote renowned education scholar Diane Ravitch in an article “Stop the Madness” on the National Education Association website.
“Other subjects, including history, science, the arts, geography, even recess, were curtailed in many schools,” Ravitch continues. “Reading and mathematics were the only subjects that counted in calculating a school’s adequate yearly progress, and even in these subjects, instruction gave way to intensive test preparation. Test scores became an obsession. … Test-taking skills and strategies took precedence over knowledge.”
The documentary film Race to Nowhere, by Lafayette filmmaker Vicki Abeles, similarly critiques our out-of-balance education culture. Since its release in 2009, Race to Nowhere has been screened in communities throughout the country and prompted schools and school districts to adopt new policies surrounding homework loads and easing student stress.
Abeles says: “Childhood has become indentured to test scores, performance, and competition.” The result, according to Abeles and her film, is “an epidemic of unhealthy, disengaged, unprepared kids trying to manage as best they can.”
Although Melchior aces his examinations in school, he is disengaged by what he had to learn for the tests. Meanwhile, his friend, Moritz is a walking nervous breakdown. If Moritz doesn’t score high enough on his exams, he won’t be able to advance to the next level of school. If he fails, he knows he will bring great shame to his family, particularly to his father who has told him he won’t be able to show his face at work. Moritz makes a desperate, final choice that has tragic consequences.
Abeles says her desire to make her film gained momentum after the suicide of a 13-year-old Danville girl in 2008. Apparently, this bright, outwardly happy and successful middle school student committed suicide after receiving a poor grade on a math test.
The Pleasanton high school senior I talked to said she has likewise known classmates who have become despondent over poor grades on tests. One, she said, attempted suicide after receiving a B on an AP test.