Put… the… homework… down.

February 10, 2010

Okay, somebody’s got to do it—I’m calling for a cease-fire… a homework ceasefire.

At least in LA, and at least if you are a middle or high school kid hoping to go to a “good college,” you are likely to be doing somewhere between two and four hours of homework per night.  I see this being true across private and public schools.

But what is the point of this?  Let’s be honest here, it is not about securing truly excellent educations for our kids (this would be more than possible with less homework), rather it’s all about “being competitive.”  And it’s the very ethic of competition that causes homework to escalate to meaningless proportions, an educational version of the arms race.  Is there any synchronicity to be found when trusted cars spontaneously accelerate to dangerous levels?

In a Dr. Strangelove fog of absurdity, middle and high school kids are loaded down with homework mostly because… all the other kids are loaded down with homework.  The logic goes that if anyone doesn’t do all that homework, drill for their SATs and get A’s in their honors and AP classes they won’t find favor with the “good colleges” (by which we often mean the “great colleges” by which we mean quite specifically four colleges, namely Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford… with a brave face put on Brown, Penn, Cal, Columbia and a smattering of tony and expensive also-rans).

Private schools have great pressure to compete with other private schools, and so they vie with each other for the prestige of sending the most kids to the top schools, while public school kids have fires in their bellies to get the brass ring (and the potential for scholarships).  We see this general dynamic of parents and kids working together to jockey, position and compete (and generally affect a self-effacing denial that this is anything like what’s going on) in other arenas as well, such as club sports teams, Olympic hopefuls and  some Julliard-bound slices of music and the arts.

Yet even for parents and kids who could give a rat’s ass if their kids go to a “top school,” and who already know that their kids would be able to get into a decent school with B’s, and who further know that if those kids study at that decent school they will come out with a good-enough higher education to have good lives and contribute to our shared world (and who further know that the truly big struggle will be all about paying for it, just as it was for private school), there is little option of just phoning in the homework or taking a moderate path.

The reading assigned is enormous, the tests, papers, projects and overall expectations creep ever upward—and kids develop at different paces (I remember early classes in college where girls in black turtlenecks, and smelling of patchouli, would make comments on books and films that were so far over my head that they were free to roam about the cabin while I couldn’t even find my way to the gate… so what if it took me a few decades to catch up?).  Kids can’t really opt out of the work without falling further and further behind, and then school becomes outright horrible rather than just aversively work-heavy.

Sure there are some kids who are just geniuses and get their work done in a flash, but wouldn’t they be plenty smart and natural fits for top schools even if they did normal amounts of work?  And what about all the many kids with learning differences who might be able to stay mainstream at a normal pace but who end up feeling like they’re in special ed just because they’re closer to average in their ability?  Again, think about it:  if way above average becomes the new average, then average becomes the new below average and neurotic becomes the new normal.

Even for those of us who aren’t thinking about the “top schools,” the general ethic of nervous dread and egoistic competition (and bragging rights about where our kids go to school) seem to permeate the very fabric of education.  After all, everyone asks you where your kids go to school (be it preschool or grad school), but how many ask what they might be learning there?

Having had many an uber-successful, over-achieving and driven client who has much disillusionment about why they are so unhappy, coupled with little in the way of skills and strategies for being happy, it really seems worth questioning if, as a culture, we are on the right track educationally, even with the fast-track, gifted-magnate and high-pressured private schools (not to mention the vast swath of seemingly undereducated kids, if over-achieving becomes the metric by which everyone is measured).

Real education is all about learning how to think (to think for ourselves so as to not drink the Cool-aid, even if it’s a Cool-aid of perks and big bonuses workaholism)—but even learning to think must be within reason, including thinking about how much thinking young kids need to be force-fed like geese making them into over-rich, intellectual and achievement-centric fois gras.

Useful education should be useful to the world our kids will come to rule, and thus social learning, cooperative projects and mutual benefit of groups seems to be much more likely to help our kids than the furtherance of the system that has plunged our economy into debt and our populace into fear and alienation.

When I think of kids being pushed to get into schools that might not even be right for them, and a college admissions process which will make ten or twenty kids feel like failures for every one that ends up feeling like a success, I think of a Tarantino film where all the characters are pointing guns at each other and none can trust enough to put their gun down.

I don’t know who will have the trust, courage or naiveté to put the homework down; I don’t know if it will be a high school, or a college (imagine Yale saying they just want interesting and nice kids who can do the work—this might throw a lot of people into a panic, the despair of the perfect SAT that turns out to be worth nothing, but the joy of all the potentially fantastic so-called regular kids feeling like they have as good a shot as anyone… and at anything).

All this chronic stress causes illness, aggression and furthers the very materialism that ends up leaving many people truly impoverished and many others feeling impoverished and perpetually threatened with ruin.  This is no way to live in the moment, which is the only place any of us will find true happiness.

So, let’s dedicate today to tapping the brakes on our road to nowhere—perhaps just tacitly endorsing a C on an exam or a mental health day away from school, perhaps being honest about our dreams for our kids that might not really be their dreams for themselves—chilaxing just a notch in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce