Secular Thursday: A Little Hard Work

I think too many homeschooling parents are afraid of hard work, with regards to what they require of their children. I see it in several areas. It seems at time like many are afraid of requiring "too much" work for a child. Others are afraid of being seen as "too rigid." Still others are afraid of accusations of being "elitist."

Let's address the question of being "elitist" first. I'll quote Aaron Sorkin's piece about if Obama met Bartlet: "And by the way, if you do nothing else, take that word back. Elite is a good word, it means well above average. I’d ask them what their problem is with excellence."

Who wants to argue with President Bartlet? I certainly don't. I'll accept him as the final word on being elite. Let's be well above average. Let's be excellent.

When it comes to "too much" work, the oft-cited schedules and guidelines in The Well-Trained Mind come under fire. For first grade, for example, daily work is suggested that should, according to the guidelines, take between one hour forty-five minutes and two hours thirty minutes. Additionally, thirty minutes should be spent on fun reading during another portion of the day. Non-daily subjects add up to 7 to 8 hours per week, or an additional 84 to 96 minutes per day. Please keep in mind that this non-daily work includes art projects, picture study, and an hour of listening to classical music. Not all work that we as adults categorize as school is considered onerous, work, or "school" by our children.

Still, then. Our minimum total for first grade work, as laid out in WTM, is three hours nine minutes, and the maximum total is four hours six minutes.

In practice, the suggested approach does not take, for many homeschoolers, as long as the guidelines say!

On average, children between the ages of five and twelve years are suggested to get ten to eleven hours of sleep. This leaves thirteen hours in a day. The suggested schoolwork, at maximum, would compromise 30% of a child's waking hours. This is hardly onerous. (By comparison, a child in my school district in first grade would be officially in school for six and a half hours per day, not including time spent there before the official start of day and time after dismissal, and travel time, which is 50% of a child's waking hours.)

For fifth grade, schoolwork does become an increasingly large portion of the child's day, taking (according to those pesky guidelines) between six hours and six hours forty minutes. Notice that this just now reaches that 50% mark that kids in elementary school have had since first grade!

In WTM: "It's still hard work. We don't deny it. We'll give you a clear view of the demands and requirements of this academic project. But a classical education is worth every drop of sweat – I can testify to that. I am constantly grateful to my mother for my education. It gave me an immeasurable head start, the independence to innovate and work on my own, confidence in my ability to compete in the job market, and the mental tools to build a satisfying career."

I think a large part of the objection to "too much work" has come from an interesting source. Millions, it seems, has been made in the last decade by writers and others decrying American children's overscheduled lives. Kids need time to play, to be outdoors, and time to simply be with themselves. I don't argue with that. I do argue with the idea that a preschooler with two or three outside the house activities is fundamentally the same as an eleven year old with two or three outside the house activities. In the rush not to overschedule children, anecdotes about four and six year olds that do four sports a year, that go from class to playdates to swim lessons to art – these stories are rampant.

I have a confession, here. According to the definition of overscheduling given in many resources, I was an overscheduled child. For example, when I was in third grade, I took piano lessons, I played softball, and I did ballet. I also participated in Girl Scouts. These are the activities that stand out from that year in retrospect; there may have been others. I don't remember feeling rushed or hurried. I had plenty of time to run around outside, to make up stories, to read for pleasure, and to spend time with my family. I even lived twenty-five minutes from my elementary school!

I think the overscheduling hype might just be exactly that – hype. I especially want to question its applicability to homeschooling families. I made a list of my daughter's obligations and what I would like for her to have time to do, including music practice, time with her siblings, time to read, and down time. I included a good amount of sleep, and an adequate amount of time for meals. In a twenty-four day, after all of those? There was a surplus of five hours. Granted, travel time to activities needs to be considered in that five hours, but travel time does not have to be wasted time. In the car, we do memory work, we listen to music for music appreciation, we sing, we talk, and, when the car sickness isn't too bad, reading takes place. It's not wasted time, and could be argued to substitute nicely for some of the other time involved.

Is it possible to do too much, or to overschedule, even as a homeschooler? Yes. Absolutely. What I am arguing, however, is that the saturation point is much higher than most assume it to be.

Finally, there’s the objection of being “too rigid.” I’m sure there are better defenses of rigidity, not to mention better refutations of the charge of being rigid. What comes to my mind, though, is a quote from Bones. The titular character is explaining why she likes free form jazz. “No, I love it. The artist has to live within a set tonal structure and trust his own instincts to find his way out of a infinite maze of musical possibilities, and the great ones do.” Sometimes, the rigidity of a system can set us free. By learning the basic facts and laws of math, a mathematician can create brilliant proofs; by learning grammar, the writer has a framework for creative output. This is true across disciplines.

Ultimately, the objections to hard work can be answered and shown not to be the problems they are thought to be. The perception remains with homeschooling, though, as it does in many institutional school settings, that learning should be fun. Edutainment, not education. Others mistake industry for work, and while appropriately shunning empty showings of industry, forget the value inherent in work. Whatever the reason, the homeschool community has begun to embrace the view that requiring hard academic work is not a positive thing – and I think it’s a foolishly negative turn of events.


Daisy said...

No offense here. :-) I agree that good old fashioned *academic* hard work is often undervalued in the homeschooling community.

I have to constantly fight the war against mediocrity. It is far too easy to coast.

Smrt Mama said...

Personally, I think some parents believe parenting IN GENERAL shouldn't require a huge time/effort commitment.

Jules said...

I love this blog post. The next time someone tells me I expect too much out of my kids (how can your high schooler possibly do more reading than is required by his school?), I am getting out this post.

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