Homework Insanity- This Emperor has No Clothes

Excessive homework is frustrating and can interfere with family time.

Did you see Jeff Opdyke’s column on homework in Sunday’s Wall Street Journal (How Homework Is Hurting Our Family, September 30, 2007)? It was thought-provoking. He vividly described how their family life is “a constant, stress laden stream of homework and tests and projects [that] overshadows everything we do, always hanging over our head… [affecting] our weekends, our meals, our vacations, our work time, our playtime, our pocketbooks.”

Excessive homework affects the entire family

Is this crazy, or what? Opdyke goes on to describe how homework stress affects each one in the family, short-circuiting tempers, straining schedules, and causing his wife Amy to feel like the “worst mom in the world.” He has talked to other parents who have ended up with kids on anxiety medications in order to cope with the stress. His own son is showing signs of intense stress– sleeplessness, anxiety, forgetfulness under pressure, and distress over less than outstanding grades.

Frankly, this sounds like a new wrinkle in the enabling syndrome. Many parents enable schools to not only institutionalize their children for the majority of their waking hours, but also to consume the remaining hours of family time– all in the name of potential future success. Think about it– it hasn’t always been this way.

How did previous generations get through school without this incredible level of homework-related stress? How do countless homeschool families finish school in just a few hours a day, with no homework, and then send their children off to college at 13, 14, 15, or 16? What has changed?

Experts and compartments

I think that the “expertization” of society and the compartmentalization of knowledge is at the root of the problem. Education — the transmission of the big ideas of Western Civilization — has been largely transformed into professional training, with knowledge broken into separate subject areas and placed in watertight compartments, each with its own textbooks and pedagogy. Rather than enjoying the discovery of connections between disciplines, and building upon them, modern education strips each discipline of transcendent meaning and isolates it, creating tidy little freeze dried knowledge capsules in place of the banquet of great ideas.

Parents have become convinced that education should be left to “professionals” or “experts,” or little Johnny will be a failure in life. Not only will he know nothing, but he also won’t be connected to the good-old-boy network that will (possibly) help him succeed. (I’m not sure how they explain the fact that the student ends up doing more school at home, under the non-expert parent’s tutelage, than he or she does at school with the experts!)

Opdyke acknowledges that “something’s rotten with the system,” and comments on the absolute insanity of the idea that “kids are popping pills to keep jangled nerves in check” due to excessive time spent studying for the “standardized tests that theoretically prove that schools are doing their jobs.” Despite this, he seems to feel compelled to keep enabling a broken system by trying to find ways to help his son cope with the absurd and the impossible.

Pressure-cooker families

What kind of adults will these pressure-cooker children become? If they never have time to breathe, to develop normally, to become whole persons– spiritually, mentally, physically, how will they ever know themselves? Will they achieve the success of a well-rounded personality, a contented spirit, and a happy life, or will it be the financially-successful-enough-to-pay-therapists kind of success?

Consider the student whose normally good grades drop due to excessive stress. Can he or she ever feel confident and intellectually capable again? Or will there always be the shadow of a doubt as to whether he or she is up to the challenges of life? Is the possibility of an undefined, unguaranteed success worth the price of an entire childhood and the life of a family?

Homeschooling is an option

Educating the WholeHearted Child by Clay and Sally Clarkson
For many families such as ours, the solution has been homeschooling. We were fortunate enough to realize early on that the emperor of institutional schooling truly had no clothes. Not only is it not a guaranteed ticket to a successful life, for many, it seems to tilt in the opposite direction. We found that by ditching the stress and the institutional education timetable, we were able to grant our children their childhood, along with an education that seems to be working for them.

Homeschooled students aren’t perfect — each has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, just as institutionally-schooled children do. But stepping outside the broken system gives many families a chance to discover the delights of learning together, of developing interests and friends because of true compatibility rather than proximity, and of finding a parallel world where education and socialization happen in a natural, nurturing environment.

Coping with institutional schooling

It may be possible to do institutional schooling sanely. I hope that parents who remain in the system (or find themselves there for a season) will try to do so by setting reasonable expectations, providing unstructured time to decompress, and by staying on top of what happens during each school day. Be aware of your students’ workload, and be there for them. Make it a goal to keep stress from nibbling away at family relationships, and make a loving home life a priority.

Above all, be kind

Opdyke’s column makes his love for his son, and his concern for his family, abundantly clear. I hope that it sparks some serious thinking among readers, both inside and outside the system. For those of us who have chosen home education, I hope that our responses will be compassionate. Leaving the system is not a natural choice for parents who have been institutionally educated, but for us and for many others, the journey of homeschooling was well worth it. The last thing we want to do is to discourage others from considering all possible choices, and making the one best suited for their families. Being kind, considerate, and respectful of others in difficult places, while sharing information when asked, is a good place to start!

-Here are a couple more articles you may find interesting:

Homework: How Much is Too Much? -an NPR series.

Too Much Homework = Lower Test Scores

Antidepressants Are Killing Our Children– a post on Consent of the Governed

Announcement: I’ll be teaching a Beat-the-Clock Essay Workshop in Williamsburg, VA on November 2. Check my website for more information on this SAT prep workshop!

6 Responses

  1. Bruce/Lois says:

    Very fine observation about the “The Emperor has no clothes on”. I was referring to that same syndrome on another topic with my husband.
    Thanks for passing this on. Great.
    Lois in Kansas

  2. Judy Aron says:

    Great post – One of the reasons we left the government schools was because it was monopolizing my children’s lives. They literally had no time to develop their own interests.

    There is much truth to the articles that you cited.
    Thanks for posting them.

  3. Pat says:

    As a special ed teacher, I always gave homework. I told the students and parents that the only time they didn’t have homework was on holidays, Fridays, and if I was dead or they were dead. I feel doing homework teaches responsibility so even my students with super low reading levels had homework. With the use of peer pressure, I usually had 90% of the kids turning it in on a regular basis.

  4. Hi, Pat- Thanks for stopping by– I appreciate hearing from a teacher!

    While I understand that it’s important for kids to learn responsibility, I still feel that busywork is counterproductive. I’d rather see children spend their home time being active and/or creative, doing things with their family, and just being kids. It seems much healthier, especially for kids that struggle in school.

    For most kids, I think that responsibility can be learned at home, doing chores, taking part in family life, practicing sports or music, and just doing the things that kids enjoy doing. Childhood is too short to be institutionalized for most of the day, and doomed to busywork for the rest of the time!

  5. I’m a homeschooler who is currently teaching in a small christian school. I teach the elementary class which consists of 6 children, two of which are my own. Two of my parents are always asking for homework for their K5 students. I’ve tried to explain to them that for a five year old there really is no homework. That I would rather the children go home and spend some quality time with mom and dad, playing, having fun, etc. but society has convinced them that if their child doesn’t have homework then something is wrong with the school or their child is losing out on some educational “right”. It’s crazy! I finally had to give out a reading log and asked them to fill that in as their homework. This means, read to their children at least 15 minutes a day and record that on the log. At PTC I asked how the reading log was going. Guess what? They have no time to read to their children! HUH???? And they want me to give them homework? I’m baffled!

  1. October 3, 2007

    […] Campbell Homework Insanity- This Emperor has No Clothes Commentary on Jeff Opdyke’s column on homework in Sunday’s Wall Street Journal (How Homework Is […]

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