Educating a child is a hugely philosophical project. How does one become a fully-functional adult with a zest for all that life has to offer—and acquire the knowledge, skills, and habits to pursue it?
Homework, traditionally conceived, is not part of the answer. And when we consider the sadly large number of young people who are tuned out, dropped out, or more actively rebelling against their formal schooling, homework is often a major culprit.
A day has 24 hours. Kids need eight-to-ten hours of sleep per night. They need an hour for eating meals, and another hour for dressing, undressing, and bathroom time. An hour or two for helping around the house—picking up and cleaning, taking out the trash, raking leaves or shoveling snow or weeding the garden, sorting laundry, and so on. The school day, including travel to and fro, is seven or eight hours.
What’s left over? About six hours.
Into that six hours we want kids to have time for themselves, play time with friends, and time for family activities. We want them to do sports and music lessons, ride their bikes and go sledding, read books for interest, pursue hobbies, watch television, and—of course—play video games.
So we face a trade-off: The value of homework against the value of those other activities. Yet when school time has already been seven or eight hours, those other activities should count for more.
But education is important!, we might hear from homework’s advocates. Of course it is, I reply, but formal schooling is not the only source of education. Kids learn much from sports and games and television and over family dinners—and those other life activities are also important in their own right.
But there’s not enough time in the school day to get everything done!, homework’s advocates continue. Well, I respond, there’s rarely enough time in anyone’s day to get everything done—and one of life’s lessons is to learn to set realistic expectations given time and other constraints.
But we want parents to be involved and to show them how committed we are to their children’s education! Noble purposes, of course—and ones that can be achieved by progress reports, regular parent-teacher conferences, and actually accomplishing a lot in the classroom.
Yet the biggest argument against traditional homework is moral and political: It teaches children that what they do and when they will do it is decided by others.
Becoming a full human being means learning how to set our own important goals and how to achieve them. By the time we are adults, we choose our careers, our romantic partners, our leisure activities, and whether to have children ourselves. To put the point negatively, adult life is not about others deciding those things for us. Nor is it about others telling us when and how to do them. Of course, other smart and caring people can assist us with resources and advice. But all of education, including formal schooling, should model and practice the overarching purpose of achieving independence in life.
Children need to learn that they are the authors of their adult lives and how to do that.
Traditional homework, by contrast, is an extension of a different concept of formal schooling—one in which teachers and administrators are the authors who decide what will be taught, when it will be scheduled, and what the right answers are. Children arrive at school, wherein their day is scripted: the bell rings, the teacher speaks, and the students follow instructions, typically in one-size-fits-all fashion, as all students do the same thing at the same time and in the same way. The bell rings again, and the pattern is repeated.
Homework extends the control of school further into the child’s life: You will do these problems and complete that project. And at home, when children are reluctant to do the work their teachers have assigned, parents are expected to step in and become the enforcers.
So the issue is not simply about judgment-call-trade-offs about how to allocate scarce time. Homework is a contested practice in education—and often a battleground at home—because it is embedded in an authoritarian context. No healthy person, and especially no healthy child, likes to be ordered around.
Adult work life exhibits the same contrast between the freely-chosen and the authoritarian. Consider those who work in careers they have chosen and for whom work projects are personal commitments they have freely made. Now compare them to those sad cases who feel only that they have to work and that work is a matter of following orders from the bosses.
When we work because we have chosen it and like it, we find plenty of energy for it. We also find ourselves wanting to work outside formal hours—that is, to do home-work. But when our jobs feel like an imposition on our lives, then we become demotivated. We can’t wait for the workday to end, and we resent any overtime requirements.
The exact same pattern is exhibited in childhood education. Consider how motivated children are when they have chosen their own projects. Then they are alert, absorbed, inquisitive, and persevering. The distinction between “work” and “play” dissolves.
Everyone says that they want children to grow up able to live independent lives and pursue their self-chosen careers passionately. But that aspiration does not fit with a traditional practice of education that teaches children above all to follow others’ instructions whether they want to or not.
So: What kind of education will empower young people for self-chosen careers passionately pursued? Only one that from the beginning models and practices allowing children options in committing to their own projects. When children make the self-investment, homework becomes a natural extension of schoolwork, as they themselves want to pursue their projects as much as they judge necessary. They learn that life is about making choices, finding out what they really enjoy, and following through.
And by stark contrast: What kind of education will prepare students only for order-following and self-stultifying jobs? One in which their school projects are assigned by their authorities. When kids do the schoolwork primarily because they have been told to do so, homework then becomes merely an additional imposition. Kids learn that life is about doing tasks, whether they like it or not, and following orders.
In the latter system, most children will learn to accept and go along, hopefully grudgingly, and to that extent let subside their potential for a life fully lived. Only a few will fight to preserve their potential for full humanity by rebelling—often obnoxiously because of their youth—against their teachers, parents, and other perceived representatives of the System.
So we should listen carefully and read between the lines, so to speak, when our children start saying self-assertive things like You’re not the boss of me!
And we should reply, Damned straight, kid. You are the boss of your own life, and our job as adults is to help you become better at it.
[This article was originally published in English at EveryJoe.com.]
[Related: The full archive of my articles in The Good Life series.]