Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Pointless Labor

The Nazis used to harass their prisoners of war by forcing them to move a large pile of rocks from one side of the exercise yard to the other, and then back again.  They understood how demoralizing it is to spend your days in pointless labor.

I am reminded of this watching my Older Daughter go through freshman year of high school.  So much of what she's asked to do is demonstrably pointless. 

In English, they read a book and then "analyze it to death", as she says.  They have to write essays about the books, but the process is drawn out step by step, every step analyzed and critiqued, either by the teacher or by other students.  The formula is so confining and unnatural that it's just about impossible to learn how to convey your thoughts on paper.  They aren't her thoughts any more after they've been extensively critiqued, and she can't convey them clearly and fulfill the teacher's formula at the same time.

In History, which is allegedly World History this year, they're doing some bizarre role-play of conflict resolution.  It's been going on for weeks.   OD is supposed to be writing up her notes on the process, but she's highly resistant.

And her teachers wonder why she's depressed!  The only way to get through this without depression is not to care whether your efforts have any larger purpose, or to accept that their sole purpose is to produce a transcript that might get you in to an exclusive college.

We're dragging OD through freshman year "like a thorn through a fleece", as the Yiddish saying goes.   Enough already. 


  1. I was just thinking about you today. How goes the exploration of homeschooling?

  2. Ah, yes, literature study in high school. I call it the "hacking up the novel" approach. Sara Bennett in her book The Case Against Homework" writes that the agonizingly torturous process is akin to having someone tap you on the shoulder every ten minutes while you're engrossed in a movie, asking you to stop watching so you could answer a series of mind-numbing questions. By the end of this annoying process, you are so fed up, tired, and irritated, you can't even remember what the movie was about. The reason we love to go to the movies is that we allow ourselves to lose ourselves and become engrossed and one with the screen.

    That goes double if you're a ravenous reader. I was as a child. Still am. Time and place stops while you lose yourself in a book. You can't do that if someone is always tapping you on the shoulder, forcing you to analyze it.

    I love critiquing novels. I keep wanting to join a book club. But the spirited lively discussions I envision, much the way friends of mine get going during the social hour after services, is nothing like what they're doing in school today. And then they wonder why kids dislike reading.

  3. Correction: Time and place stop. Not stop. Don't want my critics to call me out on this ;).

  4. I can't win for losing. Not stops. Stop. Okay. And now I stop.

  5. "The beatings will continue until morale improves."

  6. I wholeheartedly agree with you, HomeworkBlues. And since my oldest is only in first grade, here's the equivalent: reading the same book over and over to work on "fluency". Talk about teaching that reading is boring and pointless. And if teachers don't understand that it's a parlor trick to read a book you've read ten times over with fluency, I can't help them.

  7. Cynthia, I'm just groaning. And sad. Why is current education seemingly doing its utmost best to wring out every last drop of enthusiasm and delight our kids have about learning? Surely the first grade teachers must know this is going to turn kids off to reading! Once you turn them off, it's not so easy to switch that light bulb back on again.

    Proponents of this soul crushing approach would argue it prepares our children for boring jobs later. Really? We are killing our children in order to save them. And supposing most jobs do become boring, which they don't if you play your cards right? Just suppose. Wouldn't that make an even bigger case for having some fun while you still can? Give the kids a honeymoon and let them read to abandon. Give them a stack of books they'll devour. Stop worrying about ten years from now and figure out how to save today.

  8. You know, if you're already at the point where you're comparing your daughter's teachers to Nazis, maybe it is time to quit.

    Homeschooling can be wonderful. Trust yourself.

  9. Anonymous, my daughter's 7th grade science teacher didn't call it homework, she called it home fun. Problem is, she overloaded the kids. It was work, alright. Loads and loads of it, much of it boring busy work. She fooled no one.

    I'm very careful about Nazi analogies. That is a catastrophic event in history that is unique in its white hot evil, unparalleled in history. But I couldn't help conjuring up that chilling sign at the gates of Auschwitz: Arbeit Macht Frei.

  10. Yes, isn't "Home fun" particularly galling? Some feeble attempt at trying to make the chore palatable. It only increased the kids' resentment. They aren't stupid.