View From Table 9

March 11, 2015

The Secret Life of Homework

Filed under: Uncategorized — table9 @ 2:38 pm
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Recently, a young man, my son’s age, left his home, walked maybe three or four hundred yards, and ended his life. Newspapers report that shortly before this happened, he had gotten an e-mail message about some late homework that, if not done, would result in a poor grade. This young man had all the advantages – parents clearly well off, father a successful businessman, top private school enrollment, and parents so desperate to find him that they made their search very public, sending messages through the media that he had the ‘ultimate free pass’, and that ‘all was forgiven, absolutely everything’, just please, please son, come home.

Because this search was so public, and probably also because this child had so many advantages in life, many have connected the pretty-obvious dots here and surmised that the high stakes, high pressure academic environment, combined with his parents’ likely intense desire for him to do well, were the main drivers behind this desperate act. There seemed to be no ‘mitigators’ – substance abuse, mental health issues, not even a love of violent video games – that would explain such a definitive response.

So how does a young man living a seemingly charmed life do this?  This has been the topic of many posts, blogs, articles, and even a petition to the President of the United States. Likewise, so many parents, likely terrified of what this could mean for their child and their parenting, have questioned whether we should put any pressure on our offspring to succeed, what the point of all this is. Make sure your child knows he is loved no matter what he does, good or bad, it doesn’t matter. Homework doesn’t matter. Grades don’t matter. Except when they do, because let’s face it, Harvard doesn’t accept the child who most clearly proclaims to the world that he is loved no matter what. Harvard wants the grades.

Suicides by teenagers are not a new phenomenon. Romeo and Juliet, after all, were teenagers. There are countless studies out there about the immature, impulsive, highly hormonally charged teenage brain. How we can’t fully access our executive functioning, decision making parts of our brain until we’re in our twenties. How teenagers will end their lives because they’re made fun of, or because they’re different, or because their hearts are broken by the end of a romance, or because of abuse by adults, or because of grades.

Academic pressure is not a new phenomenon either, nor is parenting pressure to succeed academically. Look at the 1985 movie “The Breakfast Club”. One of the students in detention is characterized as a ‘nerd’. Brian Johnson, portrayed by actor Anthony Michael Hall, is seen being dropped off by his mother who chastises him that he better study, and when told he wasn’t allowed to study, hears “you better figure out a way to, mister.” He belongs to the math club and the physics club. And, he reveals in the confession scene that he was in detention because he brought a gun to school with the plan to kill himself because a failing shop class grade would mess up his perfect GPA.

So, we’re aware of both of these phenomenon. The knee jerk is to ‘end bullying!’, ‘don’t put so much pressure on kids to succeed!’, ‘it gets better!’ Persevere, life is long. I think we know intrinsically, somewhere, that many these activities won’t really do much except make us feel we’re doing something.    In some cases, the messaging may help, such as when a child shunned for being different realizes that there is life beyond high school (thank God) and that it really does get better.  Not pressuring your progeny to do well in school/sports/whatever? Fat chance.   None of us wants our child living in our basement at age 35.  We want them to get good jobs and secure their own future. That means get a good education. Good education means good grades.

What we haven’t really examined is…why homework? There are likewise countless studies showing that homework is of little academic value. Kids hate it. Parents hate it. Teachers spend so much time grading it. It adds hours to the academic day with diminishing returns from that exhausted hormonal brain. Absolutely nothing being created contributes in any way to the world. Seriously, nobody cares about what you say in your worksheet on the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. What matters is that you did it, you did it correctly and it was reasonably understandable. So, why do we persist in expecting it, demanding it, assigning it? What value does it have anyway?

What is missed is that our education system isn’t designed just to educate, it’s also designed to produce future workers. Workers who have the knowledge needed to perform the work of industry. Workers who are used to sitting or standing for long periods because they’re told to. Workers who will generate the quarterly income and expenses report and 37 page PowerPoint discussion of market penetration and sit through the 2 hour grindingly dull meeting and will fill out the form in triplicate without question and mere grumbles of complaint. Homework, lectures, forms, standardized tests, these are all training tools for future employees. Be bright. Be good problem solvers. Be creative thinkers. Be able to do seemingly useless, pointless activities over and over again without complaint because that’s what the boss (teacher) demands for you to succeed. Sit still regardless of how dull the experience is, because that’s what the boss (teacher) requires of you. Change the world, except don’t challenge the meaningless parts of work. You have to do it to succeed. To make the grade.

We can’t eliminate homework unless we also are willing to eliminate the need for these activities in the workplace. We can’t insist on only unleashing potential unless we have no need for rote complicity and tolerance for that which we find personally pointless. This is not possible as our society is constructed. What I might find pointless someone else finds valuable. We are cogs, and that’s not a bad thing always, because we need cogs to turn wheels.

What I would suggest is that we all acknowledge this simple fact: Homework prepares you for real work. Yes, it is silly. No, it’s probably not helping you learn all that much. It’s also not. Because while you personally won’t always see the point, in modern workplaces, the point may not be seen by you. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Do it, because it’s asked. Care about doing it well, because that makes your time doing it well spent. Trust that we’re not putting you through this just because, that there is value beyond what you can see. Because I love you, because I want so much for you, I ask, require, insist, that you do things that are uncomfortable and seem pointless or stupid sometimes. Maybe understanding now the value later will help you get through it. I don’t know. Remember though that we’re playing a long game here. Believe in yourself and everything is possible.

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