October 4, 2019
The long history of parents complaining about their kids’ homeworkBreaking News
tags: children, Studying
Writer for Slate.
If you find yourself stressed, annoyed, and furious about your child’s homework this fall, it might help to know that you are participating in a great American tradition. In January 1900, Edward Bok wrote a scathing editorial in Ladies’ Home Journal about homework in America, with the headline “A National Crime at the Feet of American Parents.” “The child is made to study far, far beyond his physical strength, and consequently his mental good,” Bok pronounced. The elementary and junior high school student, Bok wrote, shouldn’t even need to tote books home from school, because he should be outside with his friends between dismissal and dinner—and after that, he should be asleep. “To rob a child of the playtime which belongs to him is a rank injustice,” Bok argued. “No child under fifteen years of age should be given any home study whatever by his teachers.”
In October of 1900, Bok followed up on his polemic, writing that since it had published, the magazine had received “hundreds of letters from teachers and parents” that “conclusively showed that the facts were even much worse than had been stated,” along with letters from “physicians, almost without number” who “urged the elimination of this evil and injury from the lives of our children.” Bok suggested that parents could act. They should send notes to teachers “stating that under no circumstances whatever will the father and mother permit any home study by the child.” And according to the editor, thousands did just that.
We often think of the American past as a time when students labored for hours in candlelit rooms to meet rigorous educational standards. But as the education researcher Brian Gill and the historian Steven Schlossman have reported in a series of articles, ever since the early 20th century, when American law began to require that all children go to school, many American parents have found homework infuriating. They’ve even complained about helping their kids with math, just like you.
Consensus on homework’s worth shifted during the Cold War, when many Americans, looking at the educational practices of other countries, began to opine that American children were snowflakes who needed a good dose of 19th-century-style drill. Life magazine ran a comparative article about the lives of an American and a Russian teenager in 1958, and the difference between the two students’ activities during after-school hours was particularly stark. Photographers caught the Russian boy doing science experiments in a quiet parlor, while the American, out with his friends, danced, socialized, and smiled. Unacceptable, many who wrote in response to this piece thought; how could we expect to keep up with the Russians if our young men spent the hours between school and bed drinking sodas with girls?
As present-day researchers on the topic have found, the answer to the question “Does homework help children learn?” is “It depends”—on the amount assigned, the age of the students, and the content of the homework. The “it depends” position has some precedent in the past. Gill and Schlossman identified a group of progressive educators who, from the 1920s through the 1950s, advocated homework reform rather than abolition. The idea was to connect home with school by crafting assignments that applied things learned in class to the rest of the world. The superintendent of New York City’s schools, William J. O’Shea, wrote in 1929 that homework could consist of reading, drawing, or visiting museums; others thought field trips to “woods, factories, museums, libraries, art galleries” could be “assigned” as homework. Other teachers thought students might write thank-you notes for their English homework or look at the family budget for their math homework. (Would I rather help my child with a multiplication worksheet or expose her to the horror that is our family budget? Tough call.)
Why can’t we seem to find a happy middle ground on homework? Brian Gill and Steven Schlossman observe that “homework has been one of the most emotionally charged topics in American education. … One side has idealized homework: The more the better. The other side has demonized homework.” The history of homework protest shows how the debate over homework has always been about a much bigger question: What is childhood for? There’s little wonder we can’t agree.
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