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05 June 2013

Is Homework a Capitalist Ploy?

Schools can be seen as training grounds for future workers. From this perspective, it's not so much that schools teach students a set of practical skills, like reading or maths, as that they instill an ethic, including things like the ability to effectively manage one's time, to self-discipline, and to use critical (within limits) thinking to solve problems. Skills can be taught with comparative ease, often on-the-job, but employers need workers with more deeply engrained personal predispositions or habits. Schools do some of that skill-teaching stuff but only so much as an exercise in that deeper ethic. For example, we all grow up reading Shakespeare in school, but we don't do so because knowing Macbeth will be of any real import in our careers; instead, reading Shakespeare turns out to be a decent-enough way for us to practice disciplining ourselves to critically engage a text over which we subsequently are evaluated individually. Nobody is asked to give a report on the Scottish play at work, but we are all required (and inevitably evaluated on how effectively we are able) to make sense of texts of our own accord.

This brings me to my critical question about one aspect of primary education. Inasmuch as schools are a way to instill a particular ethic in students, homework, then, is a way of preparing workers to accept that their work demands will intrude on their home lives. It may seem that I am channeling my rebellious adolescent self here ("We don't need no education!"), but this is a bit deeper than a down-with-the-man sentiment. The industrial revolution centralized the means of production, drawing workers away from family-owned/ran farms and workshops in rural areas to factories in urban centers. This created a work-life divide that hadn't really existed before. Work was no longer part of one's role in his family and was no longer done in or near his home. Work was alienated from the sphere of the domestic and familial. In the post-industrial world, however, centralization is increasingly less important. Evidenced by the growth in flex-time schedules and telecommuting, employers are realizing that workers can be equally (and potentially even more) productive outside of the office, freed from regular working hours. This, of course, requires a different ethic. Industrialization demanded that people accept work and home as separate spheres. Post-industrialization demands, instead, that people accept a re-intrusion of work into the home. It is impossible for a manager to ask a worker to finish machining a camshaft over the weekend knowing that the worker does not have access to the proper tools on Saturday and Sunday when the factory doors are locked. It is not only possible but desirable for a manager to ask a worker, invariably at the end of the day on Friday, to "Have this report on my desk by Monday morning." In order for the worker to accept this assignment, though, he has to accept it individually and see it as part of a cultural norm. Having been trained for 12 years in school to accept that some work must be done at home outside of regular hours, he becomes much more amenable to this exploitation.

So, does this mean that homework is bad? I'd say that it depends on one's perspective. To argue that it is bad is (ironically, I would say) to agree with an industrial model of production that bifurcates the world into work and home. If one finds the decentralized post-industrial model of production more agreeable, homework is at worst neutral. Homework can really only be seen as "good" by those who extract profit from workers by convincing them to be exploited.

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