By JULIAN BASKYS
In 1949, Albert Einstein wrote an article for the Monthly Review titled “Why Socialism?” in which he predicted that one of the drawbacks of capitalism would be a decline in the quality of its education system. He states in his article that, in a capitalist society, the purpose of education would shift from an attempt to actually generate a more informed and capable general population to the advancement of an individual’s career, thus resulting in a lack of creativity and ingenuity. Einstein wrote the article over sixty-five years ago, yet the education system that Einstein described certainly resonates within our society.
Let me give you a little story that reflects this phenomenon. I grew up in an affluent community and attended academically distinguished public schools my entire childhood. I was always aware, growing up, of an underlying competitive attitude emanating from those around me, perpetuated by teachers and parents. It seemed to me that many of my friends felt as though they owed it to their parents to take every opportunity they had to work as hard as possible, no matter what the purpose of their toiling was, because their parents had given them this golden opportunity by working hard themselves. I could not have been more than eight years old when my relationship with my parents was first tainted by their insistence that I complete extra work, just so that I could keep up in a class that was my only chance at getting any education at all. We all thought I was defective because I could not bring myself to care about the homework that was assigned to me. And make no mistake, the guilt my eight-year-old self felt was colossal.
These incidents continued to occur throughout my schooling and never seemed to show any signs of improvement, despite my best intentions to make my parents proud by learning as much as I could. I found that the assignments I was given to take home rarely taught me anything, and I came to view them as just arbitrary hoops I had to jump through.
As it turns out, I was not the only one who wondered about the effectiveness of homework to teach, though I often assumed it was just me that failed to reap the benefits. In 2013, Mollie Galloway, Jerusha Conner and Denise Pope published a study in the article “Nonacademic Effects of Homework in Privileged, High-Performing High Schools” in the Journal of Experimental Education. The study took “a sample of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle class communities,” and revealed that many students at these schools reported too much homework and often a lack of understanding of why they were doing it.
According to their analysis, “students who did more hours of homework experienced greater behavioral engagement, but also more academic stress, physical health problems, and lack of balance in their lives.”
A lack of balance, in this case, primarily refers to the deprivation of extracurricular activities, hobbies, time devoted to their family and friends, religious participation, sleep, leisure, exercise and foregoing of other personal desires. In response to the open-ended questions of the survey, not only did many students feel forced to give up many of their out-of-school experiences, but, “students will often do work they see as ‘pointless,’ ‘useless,’ or ‘mindless’ because their grades will be affected if they do not.”
Though it may not be the teacher’s intention to assign seemingly pointless work, the lack of understanding about the purpose of the assignment leads students to categorize it as “busywork” or something that they must complete in order to compete with the other students who are willing to do the extra work (so they can be admitted into that prestigious university, be hired for that high paying job and live a life of luxury in our competitive market). The study goes on to say that “this kind of busywork, by its very nature, discourages learning and instead promotes doing homework simply to get points.”
What else could pressure students into such tedious tasks? In the same study, most students reported that their main source of motivation was the fear of letting their parents down, with the pressure to get into a prestigious college close behind. The study raises the question that pressure from parents may just be about the children “sustaining their privilege.” This indication means that parents may feel that their children have a better living situation than most, and therefore, they must make it clear to their children that if they work hard, be the best and stick to the system, they can keep the optimal conditions they were lucky to be born into.
Whether these conditions are truly worth working your childhood away for, and whether these privileged children deserve them simply because they worked hard at something meaningless and missed out on a more pleasant childhood, are two entirely separate questions on their own and ought to be considered by those involved.
By assigning excessive homework, however, we force children to lose touch of many of the pleasant and not school-related aspects of their life and to develop a loathing for what they understand as the process of learning. When we give homework with a purpose students fail to grasp, those students inadvertently learn not to appreciate the knowledge they are gaining but to do whatever it takes to get by in the system instead.
It is vital that every assignment actually has importance, and that the student understands the importance of assignments or else the problem will continue. If we are striving for a society of unthinking, helpless and corporate drones, then certainly we should continue pumping out the busywork, because this method is clearly working.
It is well agreed upon that, in a democracy in which those who vote are essentially in charge, those who are in charge ought to be informed as best they can be. Critical thinking skills – not the ability to mindlessly copy PowerPoints or fill-in-the-blanks – are necessary for the innovation and advancement of our society. Our own school, University High School, is on the brink of realizing that the excessive assignment of homework, although it may bring recognition for supposed achievement, is ultimately an inefficient tool for education due to the negative physical and mental health effects on students and its tendency to push students away from learning, as displayed by the study mentioned above. The school has made efforts to put less stress on the students in recent years but is still unwilling to abandon many of its previous notions about homework, as these are the practices that have added to the school’s reputation as an academically competitive school.
It is now time for the school, along with many others, to stop thinking of its standing and to instead think of its students.