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The History of Homework
The history of homework in this country is surprisingly fascinating, and the current debate about too much homework is really nothing new. One hundred years ago, parents cried about the amount of homework their children had to do. One hundred years from now, our great-grandchildren will probably be screaming the same thing. Americans' feelings about homework go up and down like women's hem lines. During some periods we embrace and defend the idea of homework; other times, we hate it.
Not much is written about homework practices prior to the early 18th century, but we can guess that it was a non-issue for many families because most children went to school sporadically, if at all, and stopped going to school altogether around the 5th grade to work on the family farm. Only a very small number of families could afford to keep older children in school. Those children that did attend school spent hours each night on rote memorization. (No, in 1803 Sarah and Ethan weren't asked to create their own country, draw a map with an attached legend, explain the political parties, major exports and weather system. They had to recite stuff.)
During the mid- to late 19th century, many Americans left the farm, moved to the new city, and put their kids to work in the new factories. Children went to school and then worked up to 12 hours a day!
School, work, chores, sleep.
Children were burdened, overwhelmed and exhausted. Why spend hours each night memorizing lessons? Parents thought that any free time should be spent out in the sunshine, breathing fresh (in the city?) air, playing- not doing homework. (It was quite a few years before anybody started talking about cutting their work hours to solve this problem.)
Business and factory owners agreed with parents that homework was horrible, but for a different reason: homework cut into profits. Children were cheap labor, and paying them next to nothing was "good business." As far as business owners were concerned, it was bad enough that children wasted perfectly productive work hours going to school. Keeping them out of the factories to do homework was preposterous! We had a country to build!
Homework- The Great ScapegoatParents were worried, the robber barons were upset. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, homework became the Great Scapegoat. Homework was blamed for nearly everything, including:
general unhappiness (my favorite)
To get an idea how vilified homework became, read the article written in 1900 by Edward Bok, editor of the immensely popular and widely-circulated Ladies' Home Journal Magazine. The article, titled "A National Crime at the Feet of American Parents" (ouch) caused a national uproar.
Mr. Bok maintained that children should not have to spend more than five hours a day TOTAL on any kind of "brain work." By brain work he meant "thinking"- learning in school, and doing homework. (Toiling away in a hot, dirty factory didn't require thinking, so it didn't count.) Bok believed that homework ought to be banned outright for children under 15 years old, and limited to one hour for older children. Economically, this made sense. Young children that still attended school had plenty of time to work in the factories without having to worry about pesky homework. Few older children attended school, anyway, so the one hour time limit was moot. Everybody was free to work! Fortunes could be made on the back of children.
Ah, the history of homework.
A Revolution in Education &
The Ladies' Home Journal article and many others like it were not only due to economics- a revolution was taking place in American politics, society and education.
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