Pressure on Children: Not Better, Worse by Degrees

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While I appreciate the fact that my book The Homework Myth was mentioned on your front page, I read the article in question ("Student Pressure Subject of Debate," Sept. 13, 2006) with increasing concern. It’s not so much that my substantive arguments—along with those of the other two books named in the first paragraph—were never discussed, nor were any of the authors even interviewed for the story. Rather, what I found troubling was that the books seemed to serve as foils, their titles invoked just to provide an occasion to debunk the idea that many students are overpressured.

It’s probably true that the high school workload is most burdensome for college-bound students in advanced classes. But what’s taking place these days is by no means limited to the elite, nor to the upper grades. Kindergartens have come to resemble the worst sort of 1st grade classrooms, homework is being piled on in the early years, and testing pressures are mounting for students of all ages.

What was particularly disturbing about the article, though, is how the issue was framed in terms of whether we put too much or too little pressure on kids, with readers encouraged to favor the latter view. Personally, I’m unable to imagine when it would ever be appropriate to pressure children. Stimulate them, sure. Provide meaningful challenges to help them think more deeply? Of course. But pressure, according to my dictionary, is “an oppressive condition.” How is it possible for children to experience too little of that?

By way of analogy, imagine that several books had just been published whose thesis was that corporal punishment is both widespread and counterproductive. Now imagine that an article led off by mentioning these books, but then proceeded to quote people who thought that children actually aren’t being hit enough, the premise being that anyone who doesn’t spank must have “low expectations” for children’s behavior.

This isn’t just a semantic dispute. At present, the debate now takes place between traditionalists, whose primary indictment of our schools is that they don’t make kids work hard enough (or even that they “don’t put enough pressure” on them), and the neo-traditionalists, who look for a middle ground between too much and too little, too hard and too easy. Both positions avoid the question of whether what students are asked to do is worth doing. What’s actually at issue here, but rarely addressed explicitly, is the difference between real learning and mere achievement.

Put differently, what we’re talking about is the purpose of education. Or, rather, that’s what we should be talking about. Arguing instead about whether we ought to push kids harder allows such questions to be decided by default.

Alfie Kohn
Belmont, Mass.

Vol. 26, Issue 06, Page 34

Published in Print: October 4, 2006, as Pressure on Children: Not Better, Worse by Degrees
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