American Education in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Homework: A Characteristic American Debate

When did the “homework wars” begin? Decades ago. They heated up during 2006, when two books critical of homework appeared. One was The Case Against Homework, with chapter 3 entitled “The Family Fallout: From Parent to Taskmaster.” The other was The Homework Myth, with chapter 1 entitled “Missing Out on Their Childhoods.”

About the first, The Seattle Times wrote that it “will appeal to parents who have watched tedious book reports squelch their kids’ love of reading or endured homework devouring family time, hobbies, and exploration.” About the second, The Atlantic Monthly noted that it “convincingly argues [that homework] is a wasteful, unimaginative, and pedagogically bankrupt practice that initiates kids into a soul-sucking rat race…”

Examples of homework denunciations could be multiplied many times. Different authors all voice complains similar to those above.

If you’re familiar with American history, you’ll recognize that the homework wars were predictable. To understand why, read Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1962). Not short. But amazingly revealing of who we Americans really are.

Hofstadter begins his story with the American colonies. But the origins of our homework wars are found in Renaissance Europe, as I relate in Chapter 5 of The Aptitude Myth. During the 15th century, religious leaders began to portray small children as exceptionally pure and good. Then along came the Humanists with the message that all humans are basically good and capable of becoming even better.

But a curious twist occurred in the Humanists’ thinking: Within their “humans are good” message emerged a belief that the youngest humans are the best humans! In other words, as humans grow into adulthood, they become less good. This view had its most powerful statement in 1762 in Émile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Here’s its famous first sentence:

Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Author of Nature; but everything degenerates in the hands of man.

In this centuries-old European mindset lies the basis of many Americans’ passionate beliefs about children: The very young are precious and delicate. They must be protected from the expectations of adults and their institutions. They must be enabled to grow naturally, “organically,” according to each one’s emerging interests.

That’s sooo appealing! Unfortunately, reality intrudes: Children must learn certain skills and knowledge so that, when childhood ends, they have hope of gainful employment.

So here’s the basic value clash that predicts the homework wars:

  • On the one hand, the belief handed down across many generations that children are precious, delicate, and in need of protection from adult influences so that their inborn goodness and creativity can naturally flower.
  • On the other hand, the necessities of learning well so that one can become a fully contributing adult in “the knowledge society.”

Both sides are understandable; both outcomes are desirable. Perhaps this is why many American parents want their children to become well-rounded, to participate in a wide range of childhood activities, including a strong dose of academic learning…

…all of which makes huge demands on children’s time and energy, leading to another protest movement: “The Race to Nowhere.”

Where can we look to gain perspective on this characteristic American debate? Let’s examine East Asia – China, Japan, and Korea. Over there, parents…

  • don’t view children as having inborn goodness and creativity in need of “flowering”
  • don’t assume that the youngest humans are the best of all humans
  • don’t think of children as fragile or needing protection from adult influences
  • don’t believe that children need to participate of a wide range of activities.

Instead, East Asian parents…

  • view children as unformed beings whom parents need to train and coach how to become worthy adults
  • assume that, with dogged effort and life-long learning, each human gradually attains excellence
  • think of children as malleable and robust, and as benefitting from wise adult influences
  • believe that mastering school learning is far more important than other childhood activities.

Those are massively divergent perspectives on children!

Our views and theirs are similar in one way: Both “get” that children must learn certain skills and knowledge to make it in the adult world.

But again they diverge: We believe that making it in the adult world is the chief reason for studying. East Asians believe that’s a secondary reason for studying, the first being to become a virtuous, admirable, fully-contributing human being.

It’s this MORAL IMPERATIVE that gives East Asian children their drive to learn.

With those values and beliefs, East Asian parental behavior regarding education isn’t anything like ours. Parents don’t fret about becoming “taskmasters”; they’re busy coaching their child to academic excellence. No one worries about homework devouring family time; family time is largely learning-oriented. There’s no handwringing over “missed childhoods”; childhood is the start of each one’s life-long pursuit of human virtue and excellence.

East Asian parents don’t join stop-homework movements; they buy advanced workbooks to challenge their child after his regular homework is finished.

Were you wondering why East Asian students learn more than American students?

Now you know.