Sunday, August 23, 2009

Homework and the Rise of the 12-Hour Schoolday

Permit me to relate a little anecdote.

I know an individual who rises each morning at 6:30 a.m. He dresses, brushes his teeth, combs his hair, eats his breakfast. He then commutes to his place of work, a commute of an hour’s duration. Once he arrives, he is subject to a routine of work, occasional rests, and a short lunch before then departing for the day, 8 hours after he arrived. He commutes home, arriving at roughly 5:00 p.m. A day thus begun at roughly 7 a.m. ends 10 hours later. Hardly unusual, you might retort. Ah but you see, the individual I’m describing is a young boy, his place of work a school. His name and age are unimportant and of little consequence: he could be any number of boys at any number of schools. And this little boy’s day is not over yet. At the conclusion of his 10-hour day, he now faces the prospect of a further 2 hours of homework, making his grand total of work a blistering 12 hours (or put more strikingly, 3/4 of his waking hours).

When added up, these numbers are formidable, and although the situation I describe may be extreme, it is not necessarily unique. In too many schools, there is a cult of homework, where teachers have an almost touching faith in its usefulness. By virtue of their authority, wielded with the blunt force trauma of a stack of textbooks, they intend to “learn” their students. Homework is a means towards that end, its usefulness apparently unquestioned, its effectiveness unstudied. The cult of homework, however, is but an unfortunate aspect of a wider problem, whose import I hope to show by relating a personal experience.

I was, not long ago, horrified to hear an education expert unwittingly refer to students as “products.” Her ‘slip’ gave me some insight into the bureaucratic, technical mind. For my expert, education could be reduced to schemes, schedules, calculations: appeals could be made to cognitive research to justify such endeavors, as if the student was bodiless mind, or worse, soul-less mind. Intuition and inspiration were banished: education was now the realm of sophists and economists, who had calculated to a nicety the procedures and routines of a successful teacher and an efficient classroom.

This view of education might be best defined as education-as-an-industrial-process. Students are products, their minds receptacles, empty until filled by cheap labor. This process should be conducted with maximal efficiency and minimum cost, and the product should be duly delivered on time. Homework is but one of the ploys of industrial education. It greases the wheels of inefficiency, and it can serve the illusion, in the worst scenarios, that real learning is taking place.

I am not, however, taking aim at all homework. In fact, I believe homework can and occasionally does serve a salutary purpose. But it must have a purpose that is transparent or at least accessible to the teacher, the parent, and most importantly, the student. Homework as a mechanism for learning is not, so far as I can tell, particularly efficient, and it rarely is self-evidently purposeful. Too often, it can be reading-for-reading’s-sake or as bludgeoning 20 more long division problems into a beleaguered student’s mind. Lest I be misinterpreted, I am not an academic anarchist. There should be order to learning, students should be assigned challenging work, and learning should be constant. But there should be limits to the reach of a school or of a teacher. The tentacles of homework, stretching from school to home, too often bespeak an absorption into the industrial-education process, whose uniformity and predictability serve only to confirm the student’s suspicion that learning, after all, is a terrible thing.

I encourage teachers to allow fate, or Providence, some role in education. Little Billy may very well choose to spend his three hours of freedom watching television or surfing unsavory sites, if his teacher doesn’t load him down with homework. But he might, just might, read a good (and unassigned) book, play a musical instrument, take a karate lesson, help his dad fix the lawn-mower. These experiences are worthwhile and should not be overlooked as important contributions to the education of the young. There is a sheer and unalloyed delight in the unpredictability of learning: I needn’t rehearse the litany of scholars, writers, scientists, artists, saints, who found joy in learning only after their schooling was finished, when education could be had for 35 cents in library fines. The experience of reading a great novel can be ruined merely by being assigned, its content reduced to a host of irrelevant or unworthy questions, while the real substance, its philosophical or religious ponderings, its investigations into human nature, are ignored or rejected as unfit for student consumption. Homework can never ask (or answer) the questions really posed by the reading of a great book. It is hopelessly individualistic, solitary, unredeemed by the spark of intellectual curiosity and mutual comprehension that can only happen in the company of others equally interested.

A century and more ago, liberal experts rightly campaigned for the restriction of child labor; their present-day successors seem intent on undoing their work, replacing the child’s 12-hour workday with a 12-hour school day. The industrial wheel has come full circle.

I am everywhere and always the opponent of education as process, as a machine. I’m disgusted by it, and I find it insulting to human dignity. There is an older, wiser tradition, represented by the likes of Aristotle, Confucius, and Christ. For them, education is a way of life that is above all characterized by a penetrating insight into the realities, limits, and possibilities of human nature, an insight impossible to industrial education.


  1. I would think the issue is mostly one of balance. What I remember of homework from high school (I don't remember anything earlier than that) is that it was fairly easy and usually took the form of something like math exercises to reinforce and apply the concepts we'd covered in class. (I rarely ever took homework home. I'd get it done in study hall or lunch.)

    My more recent experience of homework, however, comes from graduate school, where we were given material to read or analyze ahead of class. The in-class discussion would build off of what we'd (presumably) done on our own time--usually some variant of students presenting their own findings, and the instructor responding with critique. We also spent something like 3-4 hrs/day, 3 days/wk in class (that was a full-time load), so clearly the expectation was that we were doing most of the work independently.

    Elementary school students shouldn't be expected to operate at the graduate level, but they probably should learn in some way the discipline of independent work as part of the overall learning process. There are surely better and worse ways of doing that, and I'll probably become more opinionated as my own first-grader encounters more burdensome assignments. From the homework he got in kindergarten, I don't see it as too excessive--it took him no more than five min/day, it provided some reinforcement, and it probably achieved the basic intent of getting him used to the concept of homework in general.

  2. This little essay was written after I discovered just how much time my little brother (a 6th grader) was spending each day at school.

    I must also admit that I've been influenced by Ivan Illich, John Holt, and John Taylor Gatto, and homework was the lens for a wider critique of a certain view of education.