"Homework," said my student. "I have homework to do. Can you excuse me from class?"
What could I say? Go, I answered, it's your choice.
This exchange occurred last week in a classroom at American University where I am teaching a three-credit course on the politics and effectiveness of pacifism. Sixteen students are in the weekly 21/2-hour seminar, including the senior who had no time for learning because he had so much homework.
As it happened, this was the same day that the U.S. Census Bureau released a survey on schools and homework. Among elementary and high- school students, the median time spent on homework is 51/2 hours a week. In private high schools, it is 14 hours weekly, which is more than double the amount in public high schools.
I have been opposed to homework for 30 years, since the day as a public school eighth-grader I was ordered to take a book home to read. The implied message: Read it or get in trouble.
It wasn't until three years ago that I had the chance -- a delightful and cherished chance -- to take action against homework: I didn't assign it. In 1981, which was when coveys of experts began forming commissions to document how the schools were flunking, I thought it was better to explore the scene myself by volunteering as a teacher. I taught pacifism two afternoons a week at the downtown Washington high school nearest my office.
I assigned no homework. I gave no tests or final exams. As for grades, I let the students assign their own. The initial reaction of the kids was similar to that of my current class at American University: Watch out; there's a catch. How right they were. The catch is academic freedom. Many students are not up to it. They have long been entrapped by an authoritarianism that stifles the thrill of learning. Students close off their minds as a way to defend themselves against oppressive learn-or-else discipline.
Homework cows students. It drains from learning the juices naturally in the minds of the young: the desire for knowledge, the love of truth. This desire must be nurtured, not commanded. Homework is the command of the powerful barking to the powerless to heel and stay leashed. With homework, education is a dog's life.
In my classes, my goal has been to replace homework with home-thinking. If I have been able to excite the minds entrusted to me, then they will want to leave the classroom hot to keep the excitement going on their own. If I haven't excited them, they will exit cold. I have been surprised how easy it is to get students intellectually aroused with the right mix of classroom mental stimulation: time for lively debate, periods for writing about the texts we read aloud, a chance for everyone to talk about his or heersonal goals and convictions.
In the recent commission report cards on how poorly the schools are doing, hitting the students with more homework has been a pronunciamento of reform from on high. Smarten them up by loading them up.
The 1970s decline in SAT scores was attributed, in part, to reduced homework. It is another story how a high SAT came to mean that a student was intelligent, but more wacko than that is the theory that equates forced education (homework) with true learning.
Teachers who crush children with homework are often loaded with their own burdens. There is the type of home in which the work is done: Parents erode their children's desire for learning by not creating an atmosphere at home where wisdom is valued. Some parents can't give that because they never had such an experience themselves as children. Others aren't up to it because they are working single parents who come home exhausted from the job. Parents who tell their kids, either from ignorance or weariness, "shut up and do your homework," are usually the ones who aren't involved in school affairs. "Shut up and teach my kid" is their message to the educators.
Teachers, like students, have their breaking points. No one, least of all the teacher whose ideals remain intact, is untrapped by the traditional educational setting: large classes, low salaries, bossy school boards and a society that does more cheering for meat-hunk football players than gifted teachers.
How well are we teaching our kids? I have only three years of on-the-job observation, but aside from coming to cherish the company of students, I can say this: We are teaching them well when we lead them to wisdom and create a coercion-free setting in which they will then want to lead themselves. Schooling is part-time. Learning is life-time.