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Early one morning in 2040, I will be jolted from my sleep by a battering ram at my door. A dozen FBI agents will roust me from bed.
“What’s the charge?” I will demand.
“Crimes against childhood.”
I won’t be the only defendant. At trial, my colleagues and I will huddle in plain view of our former students, our future accusers. The swift-tongued Sophie Mark will prosecute.
“Where were you on Halloween Night, 2018?” she’ll ask.
“Out trick-or-treating with my kids.”
“We weren’t. We were doing homework.”
The eyes of the jury will pin me with contempt. Homework on Halloween? How dared we!
Why do we give so much homework? We do it, sometimes, unconsciously. We do it without checking the calendar, without estimating the time our assignments will require, without questioning the purpose of our tasks. We do it out of fear — that their test scores are too low, our jobs insecure. And we do it without remembering what it was like when we were their age, to come home after a long day at school and enjoy a few hours of freedom to play, to open a book, to open our minds.
I wonder whether Jeff Bezos did three hours of homework a night. Or Bill Gates, Beyoncé, or J.K. Rowling. Mr. Bezos, I’ve read, was in his garage after school, inventing solar ovens and playing pranks on his siblings. Beyoncé was winning talent shows. Mr. Gates, I can guess, was staring at a typewriter and thinking, there’s got to be a better way. And Ms. Rowling, we can be sure, was reading for pleasure.
Should we abolish homework altogether? One New York school district (Long Beach) plans to this fall. Instead of traditional homework, elementary students will be asked to WRaP (“Wonder,” “Read,” and “Play”). Other districts will double down on their belief that homework, even at an early age, helps students manage their time and their tasks ⏤ so that they can be ready for middle school, then ready for high school, then ready for college. And many private schools will continue giving hefty homework loads to justify their hefty tuitions.
How will the WRaP kids use their gift of time? Some may stream and game themselves into oblivion. Others will reunite with neglected passions. Most will be bored — at first. And that’s a good thing. An idle mind is also the innovator’s workshop.
According to psychologist Edward Deci at the University of Rochester, one of the most important factors in motivating children is autonomy. Give them free time and the freedom to choose how to spend it, and they will surprise you with how much they want to learn.
Politicians and school principals are fond of the catchphrase “accountability.” We will be held accountable for our students’ progress in school, they warn. But what about their progress out of school? Who will be held accountable for their lost childhoods or for the muted creativity of our future workforce, a nation of burnt-out test takers whose motivation was buried under an avalanche of homework?
Early one morning in 2040, I hope to be awakened by a knock at the door. I want to find one of my former students on the other side, come to show me a copy of a book she published, a gold medal he has won, or the front page of my own newspaper with the headline, MARK ELECTED IN A LANDSLIDE; NATION’S 51ST PRESIDENT IS ITS YOUNGEST.”
At the school where I teach, our motto isn’t I do homework, therefore I am. It’s, I think, therefore I am. In this era of longer lifespans and shorter childhoods, maybe it should be I think, and play, and discover, and dream; therefore I am.
Steven B. Frank teaches English at Le Lycée Français de Los Angeles. He is the author of Class Action (Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), a middle-grade novel about kids who sue to have homework declared unconstitutional.