The History of Homework

history of homework, 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 Scapegoat

Parents 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:


eye strain




nervous conditions

physical ailments


physical ailments

general unhappiness (my favorite)

emotional immaturity

bad attitudes

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 &
Star Wars

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.

In the 1930s, there was a cry for change in the educational system. We needed more regulations, tighter control and accountability (or so they said). New ideologies called for new training methods, new teaching styles and new schools. Every aspect of education was being questioned, including homework. During the first half of the 20th century, many schools began to limit or even ban homework altogether.

So, what happened? How did we go from little or no homework fifty years ago to the hours and hours our children are doing today?

Blame the Russians.

In 1957, during the height of the Cold War, the Russians launched Sputnik and beat America into space. We were stunned, worried and terribly confused. What happened? How had the Russians managed to get into space before us? Weren't we the world's Super Power, the country with the most advanced technology? We must do a better job educating our children- especially in math and science.

The government passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) which provided training and money so that our schoools and educators could do whatever was necessary to put us back on top.

You can guess what happened next: more homework. A LOT more homework.

Our hard work paid off: America landed on the moon in 1969. It was a huge boost to our national pride. We were obviously Top Dog again. We had the Right Stuff! Couldn't we relax a little bit? Take it easy with the math and science? Parents began to wonder, then complain about the amount of homework their children were still being assigned.

Here we go again. Hemlines go up. Hemlines come down.

It's always something. In the 1970s America was dealing with the Vietnam War, anti-war protests, the sexual revolution, the women's movement, civil rights. Our society was in flux, experiencing major upheavals and changes in thinking. Just like back in the 1930s, these new attitudes and ideas were reflected in education reform and classroom practices. Remember "classrooms without walls?" It was all about more freedom, less restrictions.

And, less homework.

By the 1980s, it was time to get serious again. Education was blamed for the economy, increased foreign imports, military challenges, youth violence- you name it. There was the familiar cry for higher standards, harder math and science, standardized tests, high-school exit exams.

And, more homework.

Where Are We Now?

During the last twenty years, we have seen another shift in parents's attitudes about homework. (It is safe to say that, historically, children have never been big homework fans.) We're still in love with test scores and grades, but the American family has changed. Single-parent households, households where both parents work outside the home, students with jobs, children that must take care of siblings and grandparents...

For millions of Americans, there simply isn't enough time or energy to devote hours and hours to homework.

We all know families with children in after-school athletics, scouting, church groups, music and dance, etc. How can we fit it all in- and do we want to? Kids are stressed, parents are stressed, and something has got to give.

Once again, homework is on the chopping block.

You now know the history of homework in America (at least the abbreviated, cocktail party version). Realizing that you are part of a long line of frustrated American parents might not change the fact that your daughter's science project is due on Monday, but at least you know you aren't alone.

Parents have been fighting homework for hundreds of years, and it is safe to say the battle will continue.

So, now what?

Well, you can use your knowledge about the history of homework when talking to teachers, looking for homework solutions or deciding if "no homework" is the right answer for your family!

Homework Organization E-Course

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