I had little to no homework when I went to elementary school but managed to become a reasonably literate person able to earn a decent living at work that I thoroughly enjoyed. Before my parents forced me to attend religious instruction after school, I was free to spend from 3:00 to 6:00 P.M. each day playing with friends, either in the neighborhood school yards or in a wonderful after school center in my elementary school supervised by Mr. Kraft, a fifth grade teacher at our school who kept us all in line without almost never having to even raise his voice. Our respect for him was all that was necessary to keep our mischievous natures in check.
Evenings were spent over family dinners that began each evening with listening to the 6 o’clock news on the radio. After the news, family talk occupied 45 minutes or so of leisurely eating. With television, after dinner we all moved to the living room where the one TV set was installed which we watched together, engaging in conversation all the while.
School was seen by my parents as my job to be conducted largely during school hours. Today’s elementary students do more homework than I had in high school. They spend their afternoons at lessons of one kind or another and endure enough homework that it’s a wonder how any of them come to enjoy learning, their days being so over-loaded with academic tasks. Ironically, they are pushed by their parents into a rat race to build resumes to qualify for some elite college, a frenetic piling up of organized activities that supersedes the cultivation of the interests that make a college education worthwhile.
Somehow, my teachers used our school hours together to teach me to read efficiently, to do basic mathematics, some history and science, music, arts and crafts, phys ed and an appreciation of citizenship, even teaching us Roberts Rules of Order and arranging meetings for us to participate in that required them. For a few pennies a day, from second or third grade on, we bought the New York Times or Herald Tribune, and received lesson in how to read them, even on the subway. We discussed articles from those papers every day. When President Eisenhower was inaugurated, school work stopped as we listened to his first speech as president. While there were little quizzes from time to time, I recall no instance of being drilled for any test. There were standardized tests from time to time, but I never had the sense that they were determinative of anything important to me. I don’t recall a single kid being upset by them. We never knew when they were coming, never knew what was done with the results. No big deal. Looking back, it seems to me that much of my early school experiences were designed to help us explore our world and our place in it.
Somehow without being burdened by school, without everything being organized around some examination, I managed to get educated and to acquire the skills to enter and succeed in college, going on to a tour in the Peace Corps in Ghana, a career in education with a parallel one in public sector union work. I believe I received an education far superior to the one the children in our school district are getting. Somehow, with little researched based knowledge of child development, my teachers fashioned an infinitely more appropriate learning environment than our teacher’s today are able to provide, my colleagues increasingly being forced to do things they deem inappropriate and in many cases detrimental to the children in their charge. Tests and homework were not confused with rigor, and learning was respected for its own sake and not an economic instrument.