Historically Speaking: Even Ancient Children Did Homework

Americans have long debated the value of take-home assignments, but children have been struggling with them for millennia.

The Wall Street Journal

February 24, 2023

If American schoolchildren no longer had to do hours of homework each night, a lot of dogs might miss out on their favorite snack, if an old excuse is to be believed, but would the children be worse off? Americans have been debating whether or not to abolish homework for almost a century and a half. Schoolwork and homework became indistinguishable during Covid, when children were learning from home. But the normal school day has returned and so has the issue.

The ancient Greek philosophers thought deeply about the purpose of education. In the Republic, Plato argued that girls as well as boys should receive physical, mental and moral training because it was good for the state. But the Greeks were less concerned about where this training should take place, school or home, or what kind of separation should exist between the two. The Roman statesman Cicero wrote that he learned at home as much as he did outside of it.

History of Homework


But, of course, practice makes perfect, as Pliny the Younger told his students of oratory. Elementary schoolchildren in Greco-Roman Egypt were expected to practice their letters on wax writing tablets. A homework tablet from the second century AD, now in the British Museum, features two lines of Greek written by the teacher and a child’s attempt to copy them underneath.

Tedious copying exercises also plagued the lives of ancient Chinese students. In 1900 an enormous trove of 1500 to 900-year-old Buddhist scrolls was discovered in a cave near Dunhuang in northwestern China. Scattered among the texts were homework copies made by bored monastery pupils who scribbled things like, “This is Futong incurring another person’s anger.”

What many people generally think of as homework today—after-class assignments forced on children regardless of their pedagogical usefulness—has its origins in the Prussian school system. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Prussia led the world in mass education. Fueled by the belief that compulsory schooling was the best means of controlling the peasantry, the authorities devised a rigorous system based on universal standards and applied methods. Daily homework was introduced, in part because it was a way of inserting school oversight, and by extension the state, into the home.

American educationalists such as Horace Mann in Massachusetts sought to create a free school system based on the Prussian model. Dividing children into age groups and other practical reforms faced little opposition. But as early as 1855, the American Medical Monthly was warning of the dangers to children’s health from lengthy homework assignments. In the 1880s, the Boston school board expressed its concern by voting to reduce the amount of arithmetic homework in elementary schools.

As more parents complained of lost family time and homework wars, the Ladies’ Home Journal began to campaign for its abolition, calling after-school work a “national crime” in 1900. The California legislature agreed, abolishing all elementary school homework in 1901. The homework debate seesawed until the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957 and shocked Americans out of complacency. Congress quickly passed a $1 billion education spending program. More, not less, homework became the mantra until the permissive ‘70s, only to reverse in response to Japan’s economic ascendancy in the ‘80s.

All the old criticisms of homework remain today, but perhaps the bigger threat to such assignments is technological, in the form of the universal homework butler known as ChatGPT.

WSJ Historically Speaking: A History of the Unloved Electoral College

Opponents have ranged from John Adams to Richard Nixon. Why has the system survived?


The 2016 election results caused plenty of bitterness—not the least of which had to do with the Electoral College. Donald Trump won the presidency a year ago this week but lost the popular vote—something that has happened a handful of times in the republic’s history and twice in the past two decades. In a December press conference, President Barack Obama declared the system to be past its sell-by date: “It’s a carry-over from an earlier vision of how our federal government was going to work.”

What were the Founding Fathers thinking? At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, they created a unique system for choosing the president. Each state got a number of electors based on the total of its U.S. senators (two) and U.S. representatives (as set by census). Each state legislature could decide the method of picking electors, but if the electors’ vote was inconclusive, the choice would be sent to the House of Representatives. “The original idea,” wrote Federal Election Commission official William C. Kimberling in 1992, “was for the most knowledgeable and informed individuals from each State to select the president based solely on merit and without regard to State of origin or political party.” Continue reading…

The Sunday Times: America or Britain? It’s a tough choice for a mother to make

Photo: Krzysztof Puszczyński

Photo: Krzysztof Puszczyński

Some people need to recreate on the outside the loneliness and alienation that they feel within. The Italian novelist Italo Calvino put it quite succinctly: “The ideal place for me is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner.”

That isn’t how I feel, even though I have spent all my life in the twilight of belonging. I am, to my core, an Anglo-American, neither wholly one identity nor wholly the other. I suppose you could call me a rootless cosmopolitan. Yet I have always felt the opposite. Being the “foreigner” in every place I’ve lived has made me love the two countries I call home all the more. I think that’s what originally led me to study history. As a child, floating somewhere between California and Dorset, I saw difference and similarity in a wholly different light from my peers. Nothing was completely familiar, and yet nothing was entirely foreign, either. As Rudyard Kipling wrote: “What do they of England know who only England know?”

Now that I have children of my own, I have had to think about this very deeply. Do I want them to be British, American or a hybrid like me? The decision goes beyond the question of which passport to have. Where they live and go to school will become the mould that produces the fully formed adult.

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The Sunday Times: Here’s the first crack in the shield around America’s bad teachers

Photo: Redd Angelo

Photo: Redd Angelo

A nightmare scenario is unfolding for the Californian parents of 12-year-old Jane Smith. Their child has been in a car accident and lies unconscious in A&E. The doctors say that Jane is bleeding internally — only an immediate operation will save her life.

Unfortunately it’s a Wednesday. That’s the day the surgeon on call is Dr Jones, aka Dr Death. He has killed every patient under his care for the past 10 years. The hospital would give anything to be rid of him. But Jones has tenure and that means he’s untouchable. In the past 10 years only 0.0007% of Californian surgeons have been sacked for incompetence. Bad luck to the Smiths; little Jane picked the wrong day to need surgery.

As far as I know, this scenario has never happened. American doctors simply aren’t that powerful. But until three months ago its teachers were. The dismissal rate of 0.0007% is a genuine statistic. That is to say, over the past decade just 19 incompetent teachers in California have been sacked out of a workforce of almost 300,000.

It’s no secret as to why: teachers in the state receive tenure after a mere 18 months. From then on, union regulations ensure that it takes years of hearings and can cost more than $1m (£610,000) to remove a single teacher.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Famous Lost Words

Famous Lost Words“Trigger warning” used to be a clinical phrase in psychiatry. Nowadays, the term has gone mass-market. It is often used in blogs and humanities departments to highlight a text that might upset an unsuspecting reader.

In the not too distant past, going to college meant being exposed to all kinds of subversive, rude and downright shocking literature. This often caused the authorities great unease. Plato (c. 429-347 B.C.) was the first educator to denounce the pernicious effects of the written word on impressionable minds. In “The Republic,” he argued that literature was a breeding ground for immoral behavior. The solution was to keep fiction out of the hands of children (ignorance being the sincerest form of protection). A century and a half later, in 213 B.C., the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang put theory into practice and ordered the mass burning of all books save those on medicine, prophesy, agriculture and a few other topics.

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The Sunday Times: Phoney cause of the nipple freedom fighters

Phoney cause of the nipple freedom fightersNew York last week was awash with nipples. Actually, it was a tiny corner of downtown Manhattan. And it wasn’t so much a sea of breasts, as a handful (or an eyeful) of women who went topless in support of a campaign to “free the nipple”. For the uninitiated, #FreeTheNipple, was the brainchild of 29-year-old Lina Esco, who felt it was unfair that men can show their nipples in public in all 50 states, whereas for women it’s a mere 13. Esco struggled in comparative obscurity until her protest was annexed recently by Scout Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. She is locked in an ongoing struggle with Instragram over the freedom to post naked selfies. The internet company maintains a blanket policy against nude photos as a way of deterring pornographers and paedophiles.

Meanwhile, in Washington, far from the media glare and Scout Willis’s breasts, another struggle for women’s rights was taking place last week. This one, led by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri and others, is part of a White House effort to stem the increase in sexual assaults across US campuses. Roused in part by a 2007 federal study that revealed a shocking level of violence against female students — 20% are sexually assaulted at some point during their college career — in May the White House appointed a taskforce to confront the problem. In addition to holding hearings on the subject on Capitol Hill, the taskforce is focusing on how to use Title IX, a 1972 civil rights law, to force universities to provide better protection for female students.

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