Unit 2: The End of Homework – The Socjournal

In a course on social movements and social issues, a critical text on homework may seem a little incongruous on a couple of levels. First, being registered at a university, and studying for some degree, you have no doubt come to understand the importance of homework. University education is based on it. If you take classes, you cannot simply go to class, write the examinations, and expect to do well. There is generally far too much information in a typical university course to be covered in class and, depending on your own study skills, you may need to devote many hours of additional work each week. If you want to do well, that’s just the way it is.

Second, even if you are not in university, everybody understands the importance of homework. It is something you have been doing since Grade 1, and chances are very good that no (responsible) person has ever come up to you and said homework is useless or damaging.

Isn’t that true?

The fact of the matter is, the whole idea of homework has a “taken for granted” quality about it. We just accept it as a common-sense reality, and we never question it. We might whine about it, and we might rail against the disruption it causes to our family, but we accept it because it is “important.” The importance of getting our homework done has been drilled into us from an early age, and now it is just a simple fact of life. If you want to do well, you have to do your homework. Or at least, that’s what we all believe.

So what’s up with homework, and why invoke it in a class on social movements?

As you will find out as you complete the reading for Unit 2, there is absolutely no evidence that homework is beneficial, at least at the grade levels. I don’t want to argue with the importance of study for adult university students, but in elementary school, homework is about as effective an educational tool as hanging a dead duck around your neck. There is just no evidence that it does any good.

To the contrary, a case can easily be made that assigning homework to children is destructive. It robs kids of valuable play time and forces them to have long “work days” (even longer than their parents in some cases); it disrupts the family and reduces or even eliminates quality “hang out time” with parents and siblings; it keeps kids indoors and sedentary. . . . In short, it generally imposes itself on the life of people like a black cancerous blob that eats up more and more of our precious free time and robs our children of their childhood and of things critical to their emotional, psychological and physical well being (like cuddling with the parents, enjoying a leisurely meal, or just getting out into air for some fresh air and vitamin D). Strong words, it’s true. But, if you believe the arguments and evidence presented in the reading for this unit, there is no evidence that homework is useful to children, and lots of evidence that it is, in fact, harmful.

Now of course, this an arguable point. In fact, you may find yourself wanting to defend homework on the basis of “national productivity,” or “competition” or one of the other justifications commonly given, and that’s fine. This course is not a course on education, and I am not concerned with the fine points of pedagogy. I am also not going to rehash what is said in the textbook and supplemental readings. The textbook makes an awesome case all by itself, and I am sure that if we examine our own lives, each of us will see relevant patterns and be able to decide for ourselves “what’s up with homework.”

What we are concerned with in this course on social movements is why we never question homework, or rather, why we don’t question it more often. It has been questioned in the past. When you complete the unit reading, you will see that the issue of homework in the K-12 system can form, and in the past has formed, the basis of social movements. Parents and even educators have, from time to time, taken up the issue of homework, struggling against its imposition on children, and the psychological, emotional and physical burdens it represents. Nevertheless, instances of parents and teachers coming together to challenge the homework status quo are rare, and so we must ask, “If homework is bad for children, why do we still believe it is a positive force in their lives, and why do we not question the belief that it has a beneficent impact?”

Answering these question brings us to the realm of ideas and action because, when you think about it, our ideas about things pretty much determine how we are going to think and act about specific issues. When you think of social issues, when you think of any issue in fact, it is your ideas about it that count as precursors to action.

Take homework as an example.

As individuals, it is our ideas about homework that count! If we believe that homework is good for our children then we won’t even think to question and confront, much less attempt to alter, the homework arrangements of our children. If we believe that homework is good, that it prepares our kids for life, that it is a positive influence on their development, then we won’t question it. If we believe in the beneficial effects of homework, we may not even see the negative impact when it is there. It might destroy our family relations, it might rob us of time spent as a family, and it make our children bitter little workaholics, but we won’t see those things, because our ideas about homework create an illusion or veneer that covers over the reality of the situation.

It is true.

Take women’s rights to vote as another example. If we are hard-core nineteenth-century patriarchs, even the idea of opening up the franchise (i.e., the vote) to women will seem absurd. If we are nineteenth-century patriarchs, we don’t see anything wrong with the fact that women have no say in the political or economic life of society. If our ideas about something do not support critical thinking and action, if they paint for us illusory expectations, we won’t even think about it, much less do anything to change it.

Put another way, if we don’t believe in something, we just won’t act on it. Change your ideas about something, however, and then things may begin to happen. If you are a parent, and if you have been in a position where your young children are doing a lot of homework, then reading this unit may have you questioning the value and utility of that situation. Your ideas will have been challenged and possibility even changed, and all other things being equal, this change may lead to action (possibly even collective action) and social change. Collective action and social change are what social movements are all about.

Now, what this discussion on homework really highlights is the importance of ideas. When looking at social movements, our first step must be a critical examination of the ideas that surround it. As sociologists interested in social movements, we want to know how people think about things, and how this thinking translates (or fails to translate) into action. Indeed, a complete analysis of homework as an issue, and its potential to generate a social movement, would go into the history of homework, ask where the idea of homework started and why, look for any resistances in past, and even broach a class and possibly media analysis.

But I’m jumping ahead.

The point here is that ideas are important and understanding people’s ideas is a critical first step towards understanding social movements. The truth is, people have to see that there is a problem before they can even consider fixing it. How we perceive reality determines our actions.

Ideas, Ideas, Ideas. The ideas in our head determine everything.


Now, considering the importance of ideas to social movements, I want to pause for a moment at take a closer look at the “taken-for-granted” quality of homework. While some of us may question the utility of homework, or wonder if our children are doing too much of it (or too little), most people take the necessity of homework for granted. For many people, its usefulness is not even open to discussion, much less question and revision. It is a matter-of-fact thing.

The taken-for-granted quality of our ideas surrounding homework is important to this course, and indeed to sociology in general. Whenever I, as a sociologist, come across ideas and concepts that are taken for granted, or that act as natural and self evident truths, I am always alerted to the possibility of the presence of ideology.

And what is ideology?

In a nutshell, an ideology is a set of ideas, typically unquestioned, that directs our expectations, goals and actions. Put another way, I might say that ideologies comprise our unquestioned world views, our taken-for-granted ways of thinking about things. As we said about homework, we have an ideology that surrounds homework, and that ideology provides us with a way of thinking about homework that directs our expectations, goals and actions. In particular, we believe homework is healthy and good for our children, and so we make sure than when they come home with it, we enforce school expectations. Our ideas about homework determine how we think and how we act.

As you can see, ideology is not rocket science; we have all heard the term before, and we probably all have ideas about what it means. In fact, it would even be fair to say that even our ideology has ideology. It is certainly true that most people in Western societies like to believe that ideology is absent from Western democracies. Ideology is something that happens in puppet dictatorships or communist countries. Ideology is not something that happens “here.” Our taken-for-granted ideas about ideology stipulate that “for us” it is not a problem. It is not a problem in the “free” world because we are ideology free. As a result of our ideology on ideology, we don’t look for it, we don’t question it, and even when we are inundated with attempts to control our thinking, we don’t see that it is happening.

It is true.

Ideology is ubiquitous, even in the so called free world (perhaps especially in the free world). The fact of the matter is, we’ve all got ideology. The truth is, we all have worldviews and ways of thinking about things that are unquestioned and that determine our expectations, goals and action. Our ideas of gender, for example, are largely ideological. When it comes to gender, we all have a set of ideas about what it means to be male and female, and how men and women are supposed to interact; and these ideas and expectations largely determine our goals and actions. People with traditional gender ideologies, for example, will seek union with the opposite sex, including marriage and often children, and these behaviours will be directed by their ideas and expectations surrounding gender. Our gender ideology determines our reality and life space. Note that there is nothing particularly wrong about getting married to a member of the opposite sex. The point here is simply that the set of ideas we have about gender (i.e., our ideology) form our expectations and guide our actions.

Of course, not all of our thinking is ideological. We can have a set of ideas that set expectations and direct goals, but that isn’t ideology. For example, Western medical science has a lot of ideas about how the body operates, and these ideas (based on a disease model of illness) set expectations and direct goals. When you get sick, Western doctors typically attack the illness with pills, radiation or toxins. Their disease model tells them this is the way to approach illness. For the most part, however, these Western ideas about illness are not ideological. They only become ideological when they are no longer open to question. When that happens, when doctors no longer consider alternatives or leave themselves open to asking questions (in other words, when they start taking it for granted that their disease model of illness is “the truth” and nothing but), then their approach becomes an ideology. In this context, we might modify our definition in a way that emphasizes the taken-for-granted nature of ideology:

An ideology is a set of ideas that directs our expectations, goals and actions, and that is taken for granted as true and not open to question.

With this definition in play, just about any set of ideas and beliefs can become ideological. They don’t have to be communist ideas, they don’t have to be conservative ideas, they don’t have to be political ideas at all. All that is necessary for the presence of ideology is a set of unquestioned ideas about something. When you no longer question the efficacy of the Western disease model, when you take for granted your ideas about gender or ethnicity, when you assume that children must do homework without ever questioning why that might be, then you are operating from an ideological basis. You have a set of concepts and ideas that determine your expectations and actions, and that are taken for granted and not open to question.

Sources of Ideology

Once you understand ideology as defined above, then you must ask the next questions, “Where do ‘sets of ideas’ come from?” and “How do they become ‘ideological’?”

Well, ideas come from a lot of different places, but for our purposes here I’d like to focus on two key sources. One source is our family, and in particular our parents, who spend the first two decades of our existence teaching us about the ways of the world. As the song “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof (Harnick, 1965) testifies, this parental instruction moves from gender to marriage to responsibility to devotion and prayer to just about all aspects of our daily life.1 As you will realize when you think about things, many (sometimes most) of the ideas we get from our parents are not open to question. They are taken for granted and, therefore, they are ideological.

Unfortunately, the source of ideology is not always as innocuous as family tradition. The most infamous contemporary example of ideology comes from Nazi Germany, where the Nazi propaganda machine made it its daily business to alter how people thought about things in order to get them to think, expect and act in line with the Nazi goal of world domination. The ideas, as we know, were full of hatred, racism, homophobia and darkness, but that didn’t matter. Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda2 did an excellent job of indoctrinating the people of Germany with Nazi ideas. Once Nazi concepts and ideas were accepted by the population, it was a surprisingly short walk to pogroms, gas chambers and mass murder.

Now you might be feeling a little uncomfortable with the idea of comparing what Mom and Dad did as “agents of socialization”3 to what Goebbels did, and you are right, there are differences. Usually, when it comes to family, there isn’t any Machiavellian intent. Mom and Pop teach you the things they teach you because they think that it is good for you. They teach about gender and tradition and homework and competition and all the other stuff because, essentially, they love you and want you to get on in the world, and these are the things they think you need to know. That is quite different from what Goebbels did, which was purposeful, goal directed and intended to bring the Nazis to the zenith of power both at home and globally.

Even so, as a sociologist, I wouldn’t want to make too much out of the difference. It’s true the ideas are different, and the intent behind it is different, but in both cases, the result is the same: ideology. That is, in both cases, the end result is a set of taken-for-granted ideas that direct expectations and behaviours, and that we do not openly question. In fact, in both cases, we may actually resist questions. Once an ideology is “burned in,” we often defend its ideas and parameters, sometimes literally to the death. You know you are dealing with ideology when you challenge a person about their thinking and they get all uncomfortable, twitchy and angry. Defensiveness is another indication that you might be dealing with ideology.

The Process of Indoctrination

Now that we understand something about the sources of ideology, our next question is, “How do ideas or conceptual sets become ideological?”

The short answer is that ideas become ideological through a process of indoctrination. The term “indoctrination” itself is just a fancy word for repetitive teaching. When you indoctrinate somebody, you tell them the same thing over and over and over again. You repeat things ad nauseam over the course of many days, weeks or even years. Nazi propaganda qualifies as an attempt to indoctrinate the population, but in the context of repetitive teaching, so does a lot of what we learn in childhood, from gender socialization through our ideas about our country and our economic system. When we are growing up, we hear the same ideas about gender (boys do this, girls do that), nationality (we live in the best country in the world), politics (democracy is the best system there ever was), and economics (capitalism is the best economic system in the world) over and over again, and not only from parents, but from the schools and the media as well. Of course it may not be purposeful indoctrination (though it often is), but it is indoctrination just the same. When you repeat something 100, 1000 or 10,000 times, you are indoctrinating an individual. If you repeat things long enough, they eventually become burned in, taken for granted, and not open to question, and when that happens, the result is ideology.

Now in this context I’d like to distinguish between two types of indoctrination, passive and active. Passive indoctrination is the kind of indoctrination you get from your parents, your teachers and the media. The agents of socialization don’t necessarily intend to introduce ideology, and they are not aware that repetitive reinforcement of ideas amounts to indoctrination, but they are part of the process nevertheless. In this case, we say that they are passive participants in the process.

On the other hand, we have active indoctrination. As you might expect, we experience active indoctrination when individuals or groups actively, and with intent, attempt to control the way we think about things. The obvious example that everyone turns to here is. of course. Nazi Germany. In the service of the Nazi regime, Goebbels engaged in a process of active indoctrination. It was his conscious and active goal to control the thinking of the population in order to control their expectations and, ultimately, their actions.

Other examples of active indoctrination can be found, and we look at some of these examples in next unit. For now I just want to note that the key point here is that ideology doesn’t just “happen.” Whether they are aware of it or not, whether they are passive perpetrators or active agents, individuals are always involved in the indoctrination process.

Before closing this section, I want to offer you a couple of additional points to consider. First of all, ideology is most effective when people do not know that their thinking is ideological. In fact, ideology is really only effect when people do not know they are the subjects of indoctrination. If you know that you are being subject to propaganda, if you know somebody is trying to control your thinking processes, then your intellectual and emotional defenses are immediately raised, and you are no longer susceptible to the involuntary imposition of ideology. When that happens it becomes very difficult to indoctrinate anybody without threat of force and violence. Interestingly, this makes childhood the best time to indoctrinate a population. Children are innocent and naive by nature, and have minimal defenses against the nefarious intent of others. Not only that, but children do not have the intellectual, emotional or critical maturity to be able to defend against ideology, and so they are easy and malleable targets. If your intent was to actively indoctrinate a population, you would most certainly want to start with the children.

The second thing I want to say before moving on is that ideology is ubiquitous. In Western nations, we have a tendency (encouraged by our schooling) to think that our “democracies” are somewhat above the totalitarian attempts to indoctrinate the population we see in other parts of the world, but that is not true. While we may not have obvious “ministries of propaganda” as they did during WWII, we in the West are not immune from both passive and active attempts to instill ideology.

I have touched on the ideological nature of gender socialization, but it doesn’t stop there. From the history books we use in school, which conveniently hide the history of European colonization from our children’s eyes, or avoid criticizing our economic system and its abuses and excesses, to our uncritical supports of our great country, there is a lot about our thinking that is ideological—that is, taken for granted and unquestioned. This is not necessary a bad thing of course. There is nothing inherently nasty about having ideas that are taken for granted and unquestioned. The idea that drinking and driving is bad should be ideological. The problem enters in when these ideas close off critical thinking and questioning, and when they make us act in ways that, had we not been indoctrinated, we would not have acted. In this sense, ideology is about control of our behaviour. Whether or not that control is a good thing or a bad thing must be assessed on an case-by-case basis.

In any case, it is time to move on. The purpose of this unit is been to bring forward and discuss ideology and indoctrination. I use homework as a jumping off point because it a fairly innocuous, and fairly obvious (when you think about it) example of ideology. We do not question the need for homework, and in fact believe it is both positive and beneficial to our children. Although we have never been shown any evidence that homework is useful to our children (because there is no evidence to show), nevertheless we believe the statements that we hear over and over. This is ideology.

Besides bringing forward the ideas of ideology and indoctrination, another goal of this unit is to get you to think about the relationship between ideas and action. I have a saying that I like to say from time to time, and it goes like this: as above in consciousness, so below in matter. The saying basically means that the reality around us starts in our head first, and you can see from this discussion of ideology that this is basically true. The ideas in our head, whether they are ideological or not, are a key precursor to the actions we take to build this reality that we live in.

And how is this related to social movements?

Well, it should be obvious. Social movements don’t just emerge magically out of vapour and thin air. Social movements start when a group of people get new ideas that make current realities unacceptable and in need of change. It may seem obvious and redundant at this point, but you can’t have a social movement surrounding the issue of homework (or bio piracy, or gender) if your ideas do not support such a movement. If you think homework is OK, then your actions will mirror that belief, and you will accept homework. If you come to believe that it is not OK, then your actions potentially change. It is like this with all social movements. Therefore, if you want to understand the emergence of social movements, one of the first things you look at is the ideas and ideology surrounding the issues the movements address.


On completing this unit, you should be able to

  1. explain why homework has been the basis, from time to time, for social movements.
  2. discuss some of the social and psychological issues surrounding the question of homework for families of school children.
  3. define the terms “ideology” and “Indoctrination,” and discuss power of ideology to determine our view of the world.
  4. discuss, in a preliminary way, the connection between ideology, power and the struggle for social change

Reading Assignment

Note: You may wish to read through the “Study Questions” provided at the end of this unit, and keep them in mind, along with the unit objectives, as you complete this reading assignment.

Read the textbook identified below; it is included in your course package.

Kralovec, E. & Buell, J. (2000). The end of homework: How homework disrupts families, overburdens children, and limits learning. Boston: Beacon Press.

Go to the Digital Reading Room for Sociology 288 and read the articles below.

Sosteric, M. (2010, June 22). The Abuse Syndrome—learned helplessness in the face of global oppression. The Socjournal: A New Media Journal of Sociology and Society. Retrieved December 8, 2010, from http://www.sociology.org/lead/abuse-syndrome-learned-helplessness-face-global-oppression

Brasted, M. (2010, February 17). Care Bears vs. Transformers: Gender stereotypes in advertisements. The Socjournal: A New Media Journal of Sociology and Society. Retrieved December 8, 2010, from http://www.sociology.org/media-studies/care-bears-vs-transformers-gender-stereotypes-in-advertisements/

Study Questions

Answer each of the questions below, and submit your answers to your tutor for marking. Expected word counts are provided in brackets after each question. Two hundred words equals a paragraph or two, 400 words is a page, 800 words is two pages, and so on. Use these word estimates as guides only. The goal is to right a lucid, grounded and comprehensive answer for each question. Post one of your answers on the unit forum, and respond to the post of another student.

  1. Distinguish between ideology and indoctrination. How are they related? What key aspects of ideology were highlighted in this discussion? Do a little Internet research and provide your own definition of ideology. What features of our thinking process would signal that we have incorporated ideology into our mental processes? (400)
  2. The authors of The End of Homework believe that giving children heavy burdens of homework is a waste of a childhood. It takes time away from friends, family and games, and indoctrinates them into a work ethic that encourages total sacrifice of individual life. Do you agree? Why or why not. Make sure to include in your analysis the fact that there is no evidence to suggest that homework benefits younger children. (400)
  3. Take a few moments to reflect back on your own childhood and the childhood of your children (if you are a parent). Consider the role of homework in your lives. Answer the following questions (800-1200 words).
    1. Was homework an essential feature of your children’s life? At what age did homework become important? Did your children gradually do more homework as they got older? How did the imposition of homework impact their play time?
    2. How do you feel about extending a child’s “workday” into the evening. Would it be fair for an adult or parent to bring work home every day? As a worker in a factory, or an office, there are laws that limit the amount of work you can do without being paid overtime. Would you appreciate having to work all the time, day and night? What do you think is the agenda behind homework in the school?

Tweet This Post