February 26, 2004
True Tale Of Homework Hell
Lately, certain educational "experts" have begun an assault on the time-honored tradition of assigning homework. Some assert that teachers are burdening kids with so much work that they are destroying, willy-nilly, the carefree nature of childhood.
My kids couldn't agree more.
"Nobody really needs to study math these days," one child protested to me the other night during homework. "You may have had to learn it in the old days, but we have calculators now."
To this child, the "old days" refers to anytime before the average computer came equipped with 4 gigabytes of memory and a free DVD burner.
"Besides, when am I ever going to have to do long division in real life?"
I hated being trapped by questions like this.
"Math is an important skill," I improvised. "You may not need to do long division regularly, but you will need the solid foundation of logic that math teaches you in your career."
"You don't know much math," the child said. "Of course, you don't have a career either."
The overflow of chutzpah (Yiddish for "unmitigated gall") from my kids never ceases to amaze me. On a daily basis, they make the most brazen declarations while still expecting three square meals a day for the next 15 or 20 years, regular birthday presents, new shoes every two months and allowances that include automatic adjustments for inflation.
I sighed. Sometimes it's the only way to cope.
"Look, I've never claimed to be a math whiz, but I wish I were better at it," I said. "It would have made many things in my life a lot easier."
Like learning to balance a checkbook, and figuring out the tip at restaurants without having to scribble all over the napkin.
"Science is stupid, too," added another child, seizing the opportunity to add to my difficulties. "That experiment we had to do with the dancing raisins in seltzer was really dumb."
"Perhaps," I said, "but the investigation into the chemistry of béarnaise sauce was exciting," I reminisced.
I was losing ground and I knew it, but consoled myself with the thought that at least the kids were agreeing on something. That in itself was so rare an event that it almost cried out for investigation.
"You'll never get ahead in life unless you get a good education," I insisted. "And that means you must be willing to face the prospect of elementary school, middle school, high school and college."
And student loans, and graduate school and other things I didn't dare name.
"I already know all I need to know," said my 11-year-old, bearing a serious expression and a smear of ketchup on his chin. This is a kid who generally gets away with murder, simply because he has cute freckles and a tendency to wear ketchup on his chin. But it could have been worse: he could have claimed to have learned all he needed to know in kindergarten.
"I can still get a job even if I never go to school ever again!" he said.
"By golly you're right," I admitted. "You can dress up in a chicken suit and stand on the corner, waving people into El Pollo Loco or another fast-food dive. Of course, you'd have to grow into the suit first. Or you can spend your days asking the question, 'Will that be paper or plastic?' and bag groceries until your elbows give out. If you're not claustrophobic, you can collect money in a tollbooth, but if you bring a book to read during slow times, make sure the words don't have too many syllables."
"Okay, that's enough Mom," he said.
Too bad. I was just getting warmed up.
As the homework wars continue to rage, I'm beginning to side with the anti-homework warriors. After all, if the kids didn't have homework, I wouldn't be spending my evenings quizzing kids on the difference between ectotherms and endotherms and pretending to know the answer without sneaking a peek at the definitions. Why should I have to reveal the true extent of my ignorance in front of my children? I need to preserve the thin veneer of intellectual superiority that separates me from becoming a total laughingstock in front of them. Even though the sum total of my four kids' life experiences make them barely old enough to buy liquor, they already consider themselves far more knowledgeable than I am on nearly every subject. They probably wonder how I stumble through life, knowing as little as I do.
And yet, I manage to run a home, raise my kids, write an occasional book or column, all without even knowing what really caused the death of the dinosaurs. Maybe the kids are right after all.
Judy Gruen is the author of several books including "Till We Eat Again: Confessions of a Diet Dropout" (Champion Press, 2003). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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