By Barbara Edtl Shelton
How the practice of homework got to be such an American tradition is something I do not understand. It's considered to be "the American way." The way to get better grades, the way to do better in school and, supposedly,
in life. But is it really accomplishing what we think and hope it's accomplishing? Or is it actually UNdoing some of the things we hold most valuable? Let's take a closer look...
A student in "traditional" school (either public or private) spends about
six or seven hours at school a day. But then how much more time must be spent to complete the added homework for those classes? This varies from student to student, of course, but it's probably safe to count on at least one or two hours, more likely three additional hours of homework a day.
As I was told by one public school girl who got straight A's, three to four hours of homework is the minimum. Obviously much more time is required for not-so-gifted students who want good grades. Even if the student has time for other interests, the energy needed to do them has already been spent.
I know one mom whose kids were in school, coming home with hours of homework every night. She finally got tired of it one day, and went in to one of the children's teachers and told her that she did not feel her child needed to be doing so much, if any, homework. She told the teacher: "You've got my child for six hours a day! That ought to be plenty of time to get everything done that you want done. When they come home, they are MINE. They will not be doing more work for you on MY time." The teacher told her that if she insisted on that, her child would fail. The mom then told her that she would then just have to take her child home to be homeschooled. And that's exactly what she did!
I know another mom who is at the opposite end of that spectrum. When her child was in second grade she was lamenting about it to me about the fact that her little seven-year-old child didn't have enough homework!
Children attending public or private school ~ and most parents ~ are gone all day, apart from each other. They come home, fix dinner, do dishes, and then what do the kids have to do? Homework! These school years are the time to prepare for adulthood. Not enter it! I want my children to be kids as long as they should be and can be, and to have time to enjoy being kids! And that is part of why I don't feel they should be heavy-laden with a burdensome pile of academic studies and homework that would fry even an adult's brain.
Homework divides families. Instead of finally being able to be together at the end of a day, they've got HOMEWORK. I sometimes think that perhaps this isn't something inflicted on families from the outside, but that they actually *welcome* it because it gives them an excuse to *not* spend time with their children, especially if relationships are strained. "Don't you have some homework to do?"
The public and private school system is not the only place that high achievement is sought after. I know someone who, when she started out homeschooling, was very concerned with grades and achievement.
I saw a high school girl who was sitting in a waiting room with her Trigonometry book. I asked her if she was taking that class and she said she was. I then asked her how much math she plans on taking in hihg school and she said "Oh, all four years" with a look on her face that told me I'd just asked a dumb question. Undaunted, I asked her if the math she was taking was for an area she was going into and enjoyed, and she said "No, I just need it for college."
Okay, let's pause for a moment and take a closer look at this picture. This girl is taking advanced math classes that are not only taking up one hour of her day in class, for every day of her four school years of high school, but since it's advanced math, you can be sure she has at least an hour of homework in that class every night. Let's do some quick math here (I only went up to Algebra I, but I can DO this!!): There are 180 school days, so that's probably 180 hours of home-work at one hour per day (and this isn't counting pre-paring for tests) plus about 150 clock hours of class (which are usually 50 minutes X 180 days = 150). So with 150 hours of class and 180 hours of homework, that's 330 hours for the year.
OK, let's just assume that all this girl really needed for wherever she going in life is two credits of math. (I personally think this is generous and that it's really more like one credit, but we'll give her the benefit of the doubt.) If she is going for two more credits of math than she really needs ~ 660 hours ~ then this girl has approximately 660 fewer hours to pursue her delights, who and what God made her to be, and/or knowledge of God himself. She's getting ready for college, and is qualifying dandily for the Honors Program at her high school, but I have to say SO WHAT?!?! I repeat and continue:
So what does this really mean? Where does this really get her?!?! It means she knows a lot about math (much of which will probably fall right out of her brain after the tests; facts she will probably never use.) It means someone at some college will be able to check that off their entrance requirements list. It means she will (probably) do well in her college math classes. If she were going into a field that was math-based, great! But our example gal here is not! (as many other kids are not!) She's just doing it primarily so she can "do well in the system"! THAT IS IT! She's not getting prepared for the future God has for her, she's not learning a thing about God or how to serve or find her place in His Kingdom, (which is a HIGH priority to me as a homeschooler), her relationships with neither God nor people are deepening, she's not developing her giftings ~ the ones God wants her to use while on earth, and she's not getting better prepared for life in general! She's just "doing well in the system" ~ and she's spending at least 660 unnecessary hours of her precious life on doing so!!! 41 waking DAYS of her life, not even counting sleep! I'm sorry, but this grieves me! The system is robbing kids of who they are!
This is not just a "Christian" view. John Taylor Gatto who was voted the New York State Teacher of the Year back in 1992 has some very interesting things to say about the school system. And he's not just talking about the occasional abuses and misuses that occur in the dark corners of the system, but the system itself! Here's a quote from his book, "Dumbing Us Down":
"Its absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with people of exactly the same age and social class. That system effectively cuts you off from the immense diversity of life and the synergy of variety; indeed it cuts you off from your own past and future, sealing you in a continuous present much the same way television does..."
We so much want our children to excell, to do well in life, but I believe that piling more school on them, either at the end of an already-wearisome day, or by adding on more school days to the school year, we are not going to produce the well-rounded children we hope to produce. They need more than "school"; they need real life, they need fun, they need relationships, time to themselves to just think their own thoughts, created, be.
Here is one more quote of Mr. Gatto:
"I've come to believe that genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us... I began to wonder, reluctantly, whether it was possible that being in school itself was what was dumbing them down. Was it possible I had been hired not to enlarge children's power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling (from Barb: which includes homework) were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior."
It is time to wake up and smell the coffee, so to speak, before it evaporates down to that smelly thick skum at the bottom of the coffeepot left on too long. This thinking has been allowed to go on too long unchallenged, other than by children who know in their hearts that this is not right. We are forcing our kids down a track full speed ahead, but toward what? Toward purpose, life and peace? Toward the place God put them on earth for? Perhaps. College is certainly the place some will need to go in preparation for their "future station in life," as Noah Webster wrote as being the purposes of education. But college is not all it is cracked up to be. As I read "The Story of My Life" by Helen Keller, I found that she expressed some of my very thoughts about college. (And most of these thoughts can be applied to homework at the pre-college level as well.) She wrote:
"I began my studies with eagerness. Before me I saw a new world opening in beauty and light, and I felt within me the capacity to know all things. In the wonderland of Mind I should be as free as another [with sight and hearing]. Its people, scenery, manners, joys, and tragedies should be living tangible interpreters of the real world. The lecture halls seemed filled with the spirit of the great and wise, and I thought the professors were the embodiment of wisdom... But I soon discovered that college was not quite the romantic lyceum I had imagined. Many of the dreams that had delighted my young inexperience became beautifully less and "faded into the light of common day." Gradually I began to find that there were disadvantages in going to college. The one I felt and still feel most is lack of time. I used to have time to think, to reflect, my mind and I. We would sit together of an evening and listen to the inner melodies of the spirit, which one hears only in leisure moments when the words of some loved poet touch a deep, sweet chord in the soul that until then had been silent. But in college there is no time to commune with one's thoughts. One goes to college to learn, it seems, not to think. When one enters the portals of learning, one leaves the dearest pleasures solitude, books and imagination outside with the whispering pines. I suppose I ought to find some comfort in the thought that I am laying up treasures for future enjoyment, but I am improvident enough to prefer present joy to hoarding riches against a rainy day."
I have created something I call "Shelton's Theory of Brain Receptivity." This is a theory I came up with myself ~ so it's very "unofficial" ~ that basically just proposes that the human mind has an optimal "functionability," and the school system, with it's over-full day of curriculum-cramming followed by homework in the evening, push our children far beyond what's "optimum." Our children come home exhausted, ready to just sit and relax and think. And what do we say "Time to do your homework!" Mom! Dad! Their brains are full! Overtaxed! I quote a Far Side cartoon in which there is a classroom of students and a teacher at the front of the class. One student in the classroom has his hand raised and asks the teacher, "Mr. Osborne, may I be excused? My brain is full now." This is so true! Here is what Miss Keller had to say about this very thing:
"There are times when I long to sweep away half the things I am expected to learn; for the overtaxed mind cannot enjoy the treasure it has secured at the greatest cost. ... When one reads hurriedly and nervously, having in mind written tests and examinations, one's brain becomes encumbered with a lot of bric-a-brac for which there seems to be little use. At the present time my mind is so full of heterogeneous matter that I almost despair of ever being able to put it in order. Whenever I enter the region of my mind I feel like the proverbial bull in the china shop. A thousand odds and ends of knowledge come crashing about my head like hailstones, and when I try to escape them, theme goblins and college nixies of all sorts pursue me, until I wish oh, may I be forgiven the wicked wish! that I might smash the idols I came to worship."
~ Helen Keller
Even aside from the "full brain" issue is the fact that so much of the knowledge, reinforced in the evening by homework, is unrelated to anything in the student's real life! Heads are being filled, but minds are overloaded with "stuff" they have no connection with or application of, and in the process I believe much time and knowledge is wasted! Worse, childhoods are wasted. Heads are filled, but with little profitable fruit. Miss Keller said it much more eloquently...
"Many scholars forget, it seems to me, that our enjoyment of the great works of literature depends more upon the depth of our sympathy than upon our understanding. The trouble is that very few of their laborious explanations stick in the memory. The mind drops them as a branch drops its overripe fruit. ... Again and again I ask impatiently, "Why concern myself with these explanations and hypotheses?" They fly hither and thither in my thought like blind birds beating the air with ineffectual wings. I do not mean to object to a thorough knowledge of the famous works we read. I object only to the interminable comments and bewildering criticisms that teach but one thing: there are as many opinions as there are men."
Miss Keller's thoughts astounded me! Not so much her actual views because she put into words exactly what I have felt but because she expressed them so eloquently and then dared to speak them out to the world!
College and homework are such "high places" in our culture; in fact, I believe Miss Keller's term "idol" is very accurate, and no exaggeration! I would encourage parents to examine your hearts about this matter and let God speak truth and life into your perceptions, values and goals. I can guarantee you, only because the Word of God guarantees it, that you will thoroughly enjoy the peace and secure confidence you'll receive as a result of letting God have His way in your and your child's views about education and what it really is. He created us, He put us here for a purpose. It's time to unearth that purpose amid the rubble of broken and undreamed dreams ~ simply because there is no time or energy left after everyone else's agendas and assignments and "to do's" have been crammed into every nook and cranny in which a dream might be dreamed.
Let's blow off the dust that our rush toward "academic excellence" is leaving behind it, choking up so many of the simple joys of life, including just *being* ~ being a family, being a kid. Do you really know your child(ren)? Or do you know your workmates and your job better? And then let's slow down enough to have time to let ~ and help ~ our children become excellent in *spirit* so that they can grow up balanced as people. Real people with a variety of interests, people of excellent character, people who are doing more with their lives than filling their heads with millions of bits and pieces of "academia." If this takes some talking to teachers, requesting less homework, then so be it. It's your call. Our kids are worth it.