What happened to homework?

October 02, 2005|By M. Douglas Becker

The other day, an eighth-grade student sat across from me, happily swinging her feet and finger-combing her hair while fielding questions about her academic experiences of this newly minted school year.

The exchange went as follows: Was she glad to be back in school? Oh, yeah! (Happy to be with her friends.) Were the classes tough? Not too, so far. Did she like her teachers? Yeah, she did. Any homework? Nooo! No homework or assignments in the first weeks? Nope, my teachers are cool. They don't plan to give much homework.

No homework? (Dr. B. shakes his head.) Shrug. No homework? (To mother.) I have not seen her bring any home. Does her school have some sort of restriction on extra work? No doctor, I don't think so. Mom, does that bother you - no lessons? Not really, she plays volleyball and takes piano so her afternoons are already busy. I ended this avenue of inquiry and pursued other medical issues. But the absence of homework for a bright, energetic, mainstream, middle-school student called out to me, darkly, like a specter of upcoming disaster.


Hey, I know how much teenagers love homework. I don't blame them for that. But it is integral in the learning process, and although they relish a day at school with some entertaining lesson and no assignment, "no homework" should clang the ears of the parent and jab the teacher into a state of sleep-depriving guilt.

It's another form of overindulgence. About a half-century ago, before Sputnik, we had homework - the real thing. We grumbled, but did as we were expected. Our parents had prevailed over the depression and fascism. They weren't lazy and our generation was hardly allowed to be idle either. Enough chin music, already. Today's students seem spoiled into a state of stupor where homework might just disturb the lovely atmosphere of fun and games.

I just read "The World is Flat - A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century" by Thomas L. Friedman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2005.) Friedman is the noted author, and New York Times journalist. He defines world flatness by competitive equality made possible by online access to a player in the global market of ideas, services and products.

An innovator in India, China or Russia can go head to head with a rival in Hagerstown and take his job away by lowering the cost or increasing the extent of the product/service. Poof! Your job just got outsourced to some other corner of the world.

Friedman maintains that to contend in a hungry global marketplace, Americans need the highest level of technical competency. To achieve that level, we need to pour more resources into education, produce more top-echelon engineers, scientists and researchers and to have a lofty national goal such as the moon mission envisioned by John F. Kennedy in 1961.

We beat the Soviets in virtually all facets of science and technology and won that race. According to Friedman, a fully funded challenging common objective would work as well to lead us into this century's promised land.

Friedman's writing is long-winded and sometimes tedious, but his premise is spot-on. We need motivation, ambition and imagination. We need the institutional support. And we need national leadership.

The U.S. will have to sacrifice for these priorities, but one half century ago when Sputnik went up, we were afraid that loss of national superiority would eventually change our lives and so we worked harder and it paid off. Our economy buoyed upward and the change was positive. (Remember the Soviet Union?)

If a motivating program is established. such as energy independence in 10 years (Friedman's choice) or world supremacy in biomedicine, genetics and Human Engineering (mine) or even a mission to Mars in 10 years (space techies like that one) there will be a goal to shoot for, with measurable outcomes.

The alternative portends an eventual decline which, when coupled with the single-minded technical and manufacturing expansion made by China, India and other nations, slides the U.S. into the back seat of the global-market bus. Not an image we care to consider.

So next I read a wire-service news report on the academic global competition. (The Morning Herald Wednesday, Sept. 14.) We rank ninth among industrialized nations in adults age 25 to 34 with at least a high-school diploma and seventh in percentage of those holding college degrees. Also, our 15-year-olds score below average in applying math skills to real-life tasks. And to salt our wounds, the article reports U.S. women with university degrees earn 62 percent less than male counterparts. We were beaten by 16 countries. I'm shamed by these numbers and want to know why our education and political leaders aren't red-faced too.

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