When I was in school, my homework habits were halfway to abysmal. I had no routine. I worked on the floor, at the dinner table, in my bed, almost never at my desk. I frequently did my homework, as I did many, many other things, in front of the television. (A disproportionate number of my vocabulary sentences involved Mork and Mindy.) If the television demanded my full attention, or if my brother offered to play gin rummy or ping pong, the homework could wait. I didn’t pace myself; I put big projects off until the eleventh hour, then lost sleep to crank them out. I raced through great novels on the day before we had to discuss them. I wrote reports on books I never read; once even on a book that didn’t exist (Up Mount Everest). My performance wasn’t terrible -- I generally did well in school, and I almost never missed a deadline -- but no one would have called me disciplined.
Homework was a pain, the deadlines were sometimes stressful, and in retrospect a lot of it was probably unnecessary busy work. But I don’t remember ever being genuinely bothered by it, ever feeling any real angst over it. The only time homework caused me any emotional turmoil was when my mother would nag me about it. “Did you do your homework?” “Don’t you have homework to do?” She couldn’t help herself, even though she knew it was counterproductive -- the last thing I was going to do, in response to those questions, was pull out the books -- and even though it caused ongoing tension between the two of us. In retrospect, it’s hard to see why I got so upset about it; she might only ask about it once or twice, and she certainly never asked me to show her that I had done it or, God forbid, to let her read it. (I don’t recall showing any of my homework to either of my parents, ever.) Yet I can still feel the agitation her inquiries provoked in me. As I saw it, my homework was my business, and my mother needed to mind her own business.
I look back on that time and I think: be grateful for what you had. I was lucky. My mother’s compulsive inquiries aside, the people who constructed my world -- my schools and my parents -- gave me something that today’s kids aren’t often given: autonomy. I was in charge of my schoolwork. If I succeeded, the success was mine. If I messed up, it was my problem. I was allowed to make mistakes, and to decide for myself whether I regretted them. It’s funny what you learn from mistakes when someone else isn’t telling you what to learn from them. I never did develop good work habits, but I learned my limits. I learned my own ways of doing things. I think it’s served me well, and even if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Last year, my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher required her students to have their parents sign their homework before they turned it in. This practice -- which I never heard of as a child -- is apparently increasingly common. I have a number of objections to it, which I’ll spell out in part two of this post. But here, I want to make this one point: The teachers who use this practice may be well-intentioned, but they are taking something from your child. I don’t just mean educationally, though I think learning to manage your own affairs without unsolicited help is important. I mean psychologically and emotionally. Some degree of autonomy over your own life isn’t just an educational strategy, it’s an essential ingredient in human dignity. To take it away is demeaning and dehumanizing, all the more so given that most kids would probably be unable to put those feelings into words. That little island of autonomy in the sea of compulsory education went a long way toward keeping me a sane and relatively happy kid instead of an alienated teenage burnout.
Were my standardized test scores as high as they would have been if I had been made to conform to more conventional study habits? Who knows. Should I care?
UPDATE: I see that Alfie Kohn has tweeted a link to this post, so maybe it's about time I get around to parts 2 and 3 of the argument. Stay tuned; I'll include links here to those parts. In the meantime, here is a brief description of this blog for new readers.
UPDATE: Part 2 (long overdue) is here.