Sacred Cow

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Homework distracts kids from more important pursuits and wastes the time of all involved.

In the autumn of 1994, a school board member in Half Moon Bay, California, attracted national attention by proposing to eliminate homework. He failed, of course, because homework is one of education’s most sacred cows. I did a search for “homework” on the Internet recently and got more than 4 million listings. Nearly all the links in the first 100 pages connected to programs designed to help kids with after-school studies. That seditious official in Half Moon Bay should have received some kind of national award for his boldness and perspicacity. As student, father, and grandfather, I have found homework to be a practice that distracts kids from more important pursuits, wastes the time of all involved, and turns too many evenings into fractious encounters between parents and their children.

Youngsters spend six or seven hours a day in school, mostly sitting in classrooms listening to teachers talk. Even if those hours were stimulating and fulfilling (which, a majority of students report, is rarely the case), kids should not have to spend additional time after school doing more of the same. Instead, they should be playing games (preferably outdoors), reading for pleasure, hanging out with friends, practicing the guitar, helping little old ladies cross the street, and doing other activities they don’t perform in school. I’ve watched my grandchildren stagger into the house under the weight of bulging knapsacks that would make an orthopedist wince. Routinely, they bring home assignments from three or four teachers, which, if they really buckle down, they can probably complete by bedtime. Of course, having just been released from school, they don’t want to buckle down. So they try to make themselves scarce.

Eventually, however, a parent asks: “Do you have any homework?”

Kid: “Is the Pope Catholic?”

Parent: “Better get to it.”

Kid: “In a minute.”

And thus begins a verbal tennis match that will go on for an hour or so with both parties becoming more frustrated and more contentious. Occasionally things take a turn for the better when a kid tells a parent that he just can’t figure out the answer to the algebra problem or that she just doesn’t understand a particular assignment.

Eager to get this unpleasant business out of the way, a parent offers help, even though there is virtually no chance he or she will be able to recall, from dim corners of the mind, arcane knowledge that has long since ossified from lack of use. After a few minutes, a parent can be heard muttering such things as “This assignment doesn’t make sense,” or “This problem is just too hard for a 7th grader,” or “Why, in God’s name, would they make you learn this?” At that point, adult and child become allies.

A lot of the homework I’ve seen my grandchildren doing is busywork—filling out blank maps, memorizing dates, copying an encyclopedia entry in longhand. Indeed, one grandson’s teacher told his mother that, though homework counts for a significant percentage of the semester’s grade, she doesn’t check assignments for accuracy. She simply verifies that they’ve been done. There is no doubt that teachers have enough to do without having to spend their evenings checking the homework of the 60 to 120 kids they teach every day. So why even assign it?

Kids should should be playing games, reading for pleasure, hanging out with friends, practicing the guitar, helping little old ladies cross the street, and doing other activities they don’t perform in school.

I can imagine homework that might actually be constructive—if teachers collaborated to assign one interdisciplinary project each semester that required students to do research, use their minds, and budget their time. Maybe kids would even learn something in the process. But we run schools as though our primary purpose is to make sure kids accumulate an endless supply of unconnected information. Homework notwithstanding, there will never be enough time in the day to complete that foolish task.

CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes reported recently on a family of musical prodigies—four kids, as I recall, all potential world-class pianists. They were given so much homework that they had no time for piano practice. So their parents were forced to take them out of school and teach them at home. Something is wrong with that picture.

—Ronald A. Wolk

Vol. 13, Issue 6, Page 3

Published in Print: March 1, 2002, as Sacred Cow
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