Hollande, Homework, and the Death of Childhood

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently, French President Francois Hollande has proposed a ban on homework because he thinks it disadvantages students from poorer backgrounds whose parents tend to be less involved and less supportive in their education. Hollande’s rather socialist point hits on the inequality in educational outcomes that can come from involving the home environment in the educational process. Many people point out that slowing the progress of the advantaged to create equality diminishes total societal educational output (though they don’t usually phrase it quite like that), and I would agree with them, except for one small issue–homework does not help kids learn, and is corroding the work ethic and academic passion of an entire generation of students.

Our society has developed a persistent belief that the more work we do, the better off we are, and this belief extends to education. There is a deontological embrace of work in and of itself, regardless of its consequences, as an unassailable virtue by fact of being. All work is good work, and to that end we have increased the homework load on students by 51% since 1981 (for whatever reason, almost every negative social, economic, or political trend I have run across begins in the late seventies or early eighties–Gini coefficients start going up around this same time, and GDP growth rates decline from their 50s/60s peak during this period as well).

Interestingly, a Duke University researcher, Harris Cooper, has compiled research on the subject of the effectiveness of homework and found that, among elementary school students, it is fundamentally unhelpful, but can, in limited dosages, improve test scores for students in higher grades. However, students who do in excess of an hour in middle school or in excess of two hours in high school per night tend to score lower.

This research is based primarily on test scores, and it does not fill in the gap as to how large amounts of homework corrode student performance. This is where theory comes in. As a university student who, not that long ago, was in the American public education system, my memories are still fresh enough to assist in such theorising. I propose that large amounts of homework result in four principle reactions among students:

  1. The Automaton Student
  2. The Burnout Student
  3. The Alienated Student
  4. The Anti-intellectual Student

All four of these students represent the death of childhood and have experienced deep long-term psychological and performance damage, but have responded in different negative ways to the overwork.

The Automaton Student:

The automaton student buys into the system of homework wholeheartedly, usually under the influence of demanding parents and a supportive academic home environment. These students will make whatever time investment in homework that is demanded of them, at the expense of broader life experiences. They often end up deficient in non-academic areas as a result–socialisation, physical fitness, diversity of life experience, pursuit of external interests or hobbies, all of these things may suffer from lack of attention and low prioritisation. The pressure to accept the homework and the system underlying it as given suppresses revolutionary or rebellious instincts and consequently stifles creative expression. These students become regimented memorisers. They will still be useful to society in jobs that require continuous labour in uninspiring or tedious contexts (and not necessarily in financially or socially low priority contexts–high paid professions like medicine, law, and finance often require this sort of fact-intensive, work ethic predominant individual). They are however unlikely to be innovators and may also have problems later on because they never really took the time in childhood to get to know themselves, other people, or what sort of social relationships are best for them–they may be prone to mid-life crisis, divorce, various side effects of deficient socialisation in childhood and adolescence. Automatons are not well-rounded people and are psychologically incomplete individuals.

The Burnout Student:

The burnout student is similar to the automaton student in that demanding parents and a supportive academic home environment are again essential to the background. The difference is that these students eventually do experience a revolutionary or rebellious period in which a veil is lifted and a sense of profound existential uselessness of homework and the educational activities more broadly becomes apparent to them. These students become demotivated as a consequence of overwork, and, unless they can regain that motivation, are vulnerable to becoming bastions of unrealised potential. Should they regain their motivation, they are likely to be more broadly developed in non-academic areas than the automaton student, more creative, and more free-thinking. These students are extremes–there is either complete and total failure or there is an extremely positive result when the rebellious phase, and the lessons learned therein, are completed. Burnouts are volatile people and often represent tremendous collapses in potential.

The Alienated Student:

The alienated student associates all academia with having to do unpleasant work and consequently is adverse and ambivalent toward all academic pursuits. These students may not have had the sort of pro-academic home and family background that the burnouts and automatons had, and so are less driven in that direction. These students recognise the value of intellectual pursuits and may very well acccept that large amounts of work are a necessary part of them, but are still personally disinterested because of the perception that they require too much work and will detract from other areas of life that these students put higher personal value on–socialisation, experience, creative freedom, and so on. This student may just decide not to go to university, or, when there, will be reluctant to choose a major, particularly if this involves any kind of significant work commitment. These students have been trained by the educational system and the overdose of homework to be adverse to serious undertakings and will likely opt for easier employment and easier education options, deliberately choosing not to meet their economic and academic potential in order to improve their perceived quality of life. Alienated students choose to be pedestrian even if they have the ability to be something more.

The Anti-intellectual Student:

This is an extreme version of the alienated student in which not only does the student decide that academic pursuits involve too much work and are not for them, but that all academic works are every bit as much of a waste of time as the homework involved in them is. These people become hostile and bitter toward those who had the psychological and family background to put up with overwork. These students are not necessarily unintelligent–they simply do not care for the sort of behaviour entailed in academic training. It does not suit their personalities or interests, and they have chosen to reject it outright. For these students, the educational system has failed utterly.

The important thing is that it is not the fault of any of these students that they have the various deficiencies described above, but that these behaviours are the result of the structure of the educational system. This could and should be changed by educational reform that decreases the workload and is more about inspiring interest and passion and less about trying to see which students have the sheer work ethic to succeed (particularly as that work ethic is socially constructed by supportive or demanding parents and is not produced by the students of their own will). I would argue that every single student I encountered at my old high school exhibited one of these four tendencies without exception. I myself was headed toward the end of high school in the direction of being a burnout student–my catch phrase during my senior year was “I stopped caring long ago”, and I put forth minimal academic effort throughout that last year. I was bailed out by going to a British university that allowed me to focus exclusively on my academic interests and avoid grind it out, day to day homework in subjects that did not interest me, enabling me to regain a sense of motivation and continue moving forward. Other students have not been so lucky.

To put a stop to these four ways our schools are ruining childhoods and stunting our children’s potential, I support deep reductions in homework. So while my reasoning may not be the same as France’s Francois Hollande’s, I still support him in his endeavour and wish him the best of luck.