Unit 2: The End of Homework – The Socjournal

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AMA citation:

Sosteric M. Unit 2: The End of Homework. The Socjournal. 2010. Available at: http://www.sociology.org/courses/sociology-288-social-movements/unit-1-homework/. Accessed July 14, 2010.

APA citation:

Sosteric, Michael. (2010). Unit 2: The End of Homework. Retrieved July 14, 2010, from The Socjournal Web site, http://www.sociology.org/courses/sociology-288-social-movements/unit-1-homework/

Chicago citation:

Sosteric, Michael, “Unit 2: The End of Homework”, The Socjournal, posted June 23, 2010, http://www.sociology.org/courses/sociology-288-social-movements/unit-1-homework/ (accessed July 14, 2010).

Harvard citation:

Sosteric, M 2010, Unit 2: The End of Homework, The Socjournal. Retrieved July 14, 2010, from

MLA citation:

Sosteric, Michael. “Unit 2: The End of Homework.” The Socjournal. 23 Jun. 2010. 14 Jul. 2010

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At the end of this unit, students will be able to:

  • Understand why homework has been the basis, from time to time, for social movements
  • Understand some of the social and psychological issues surrounding the question of homework for families of school children
  • Understand something of the nature and power of ideology in determining our view of the world.
  • Begin making a connection between ideology, power, and the struggle for social change.

Core Readings


In a course on social movements and social issues, a critical text on homework may seem a little incongruous at 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 is based on it. If you take classes you cannot simply go to class, right the exams, and expect to do well, if you do not do your homework. There is generally far too much information in a typical university course and, depending on your own study skills, you may need to devote many hours of additional work per week. If you want to do well, that’s just the way it is.

Second, and even if you are not registered in university, everybody understands the importance of homework. It is something you have been doing since grade one and chances are very good that no (responsible) body 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?

Well, as you’ll find out when you read this week’s text, there’s 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 the adult university student, but homework in elementary schools is about as effective an educational tool as hanging a dead duck around your neck. There’s just no evidence it’s any good. In fact, quite to the contrary, a case can easily be made that assigning homework to children is destructive. It robs kids of valuable play time, forces them to have long “work days” (even longer than their parents in some cases), disrupts the family, reduces, or even eliminates quality “hang out time” with parents and siblings, keeps kids indoors and sedentary, and generally imposes itself in 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 what can I say? IF you believe this week’s text, there is no evidence that homework is useful to children and lots of evidence to suggest it is, in fact, bad for our children.

Now of course, this an arguable point. In fact, you may find yourself wanting to defend homework on the basis of things like “national productivity” or “competition” or one of the other justifications we are fed, and that’s fine. This course is not an educational course and I’m not so concerned with the fine points of pedagogy. I’m also not going to rehash what is said in the text or in supplemental readings. The text makes an awesome case all by itself and I’m sure if we examine our own lives we’ll 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 read the text you will see that the issue of homework in the K12 system can, and has in the past, formed the basis of social movements. That is, parents and even educators have, from time to time, taken up the issue of homework in order to struggle against its imposition on the children, and the psychological disaster and emotional and physical burden it represents. Nevertheless instances of parents and teachers coming together to challenge the homework status quo are rare indeed and so we have to ask the question, 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 beneficent impact of homework?

Answering that 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. Heck, 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 that because our ideas about homework create an illusion or veneer that covers over the reality of the situation.

It’s true.

Take women’s rights to vote as another example. If we are hard core 19th century patriarchs, even the idea of opening up the franchise (i.e. the vote) to women will seem absurd and laughable. Indeed, if we are 19th century patriarchs, we don’t see anything wrong with the fact that women didn’t have any say in the political or economic life of society. The truth is, if our ideas about something don’t support critical thinking and action, if our ideas 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. Your ideas have been challenged, and possibility even changed, and this change may (all other things being equal) lead to action (possibly even collective action) and change. And collective action and change is what social movements are all about.

Now, what this discussion on homework really highlights is the importance of ideas and when looking at social movements, our first step in understanding a social movement is 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 about people’s ideas is a critical first step towards understanding social movements. The truth is, people have to see there’s a problem before they can even consider fixing it. Put another way we can say that how we perceive reality determines our actions. We see this clearly when it comes to an issue like homework. If you do not think it is a problem, if on the contrary you believe it is beneficial, if you take the positive role of homework for granted, then you won’t even see the damage it is doing in your own life, much less get turned on to the possibility of changing things in some way.

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 aren’t doing too much (or too little), most people take the necessity of homework for granted. For many people, its utility is not even open to discussion, much less question and revision. It is a matter of fact thing. We accept homework as necessary and even convince ourselves of its utility by extracting evidence when it is not available. In other words, we take it for granted.

This 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?

Well 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. It is just like what we said with 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 and indeed we’ve all heard the term before, and we’ve probably all got ideas about what it means. In fact, it would even be fair to say that our ideology’s got ideology. It is certainly true most people in Western societies like to believe that ideology is absent from Western democracies. Ideology is something that happens in puppet dictatorships, or in communist countries. Ideology is not something that happens “here.” Like homework 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 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’ve all got 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 will, for example, seek union, marriage, and often children with the opposite sex and these behaviours will be directed by our ideas and expectations surrounding gender. That is, our gender ideology determines our reality and life space. Note that there is nothing particularly wrong about getting married to the opposite sex. The point here is simple that the set of ideas we have about gender (i.e., our ideology) form expectations and guide actions.

Of course, not all 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, for example, 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 the ideas are no longer open to question. When that happens, when doctors no longer consider alternatives, or leave themselves open to question, in other words when they start taking for granted their disease model of illness is the Truth and nothing but, then their approach becomes ideology. In this context we might modify our definition of ideology in a way that emphasises 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 political ideas, they don’t have to be communist ideas, they don’t have to be conservative ideas. 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 have 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

When you understand ideology as defined above then the next question becomes, 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 moms and dads who spend the first two decades of our existence teaching us about the ways of the world. Like the song Tradition from Fiddler on the Roof testifies to, this parental instruction moves from gender to marriage to responsibility to devotion and prayer to just about all aspects of our daily life. As you will realize when you think about things, many (sometimes most) of these ideas that we get from our parents are not open to question. They are taken for granted and therefore ideological.[1]

Unfortunately, the source of ideology is not always so innocuous and soft as family tradition. The most infamous example of ideology comes from Nazi Germany where the Nazi propaganda machine made it its daily business to alter people’s thinking about things in order to get them to think, expect, and act in line with Nazi goals of world domination. The ideas, as we know, where full of hate, racism, homophobia, and darkness but that didn’t matter. Goebel, Hitler’s minister of propaganda[2] did an excellent job of indoctrinating the people of Germany with Nazi ideas. Once Nazi concepts and ideas where accepted by the population, it was a surprisingly short walk to pogroms, gas chambers, ovens, 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 Goebel did to German people, and you are right, there are differences. When it comes to family, there isn’t any Machiavellian intent behind it. 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 they want you to get on in the world and these are the things they think you need to know. That’s quite different than what Goebels 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, and that is ideology. In both cases the end result is a set of taken for granted ideas that direct expectations and behaviours but 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. Like the “taken for granted” quality of ideology, defensiveness is another indication that you might be dealing with ideology.

The Process of Indoctrination

Now that we understand something of the sources of ideology our next question to answer is “how do ideas or conceptual sets become ideological?” The short answer to that is that ideas become ideological through a process of indoctrination. 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 naseum over the course of many days, weeks, or even years. Certainly 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 countries and our economic systems. 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.[4] 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 unopen to question and when that happens, you’ve been indoctrinated.

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. This is passive indoctrination.

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 examples that everyone turns to here is of course Nazi Germany. In the service of the Nazi regime, Goebels 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, actions.

Other examples of active indoctrination can be found and in fact we will 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 off this section I want to offer a couple of additional points to consider. First of all, ideology is most effective when people do not know 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 you are being subject to propaganda, if you know somebody is trying to control your thinking processes, then your intellectual and emotional defences 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 enough, this makes childhood the best time to indoctrinate a population. Children are innocent and naive by nature and have minimal defences 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 this tendency (encourages by our schooling) to think that our “democracies” are someone above the totalitarian attempts to indoctrinate the population we see in other parts of the world, but that’s 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 instil ideology. I’ve hinted throughout this unit about 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, i.e. 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 wouldn’t 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 has been to bring forward and discuss ideology and indoctrination. I used homework as a jumping off point for that because it a fairly innocuous, and fairly obvious (when you start to 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. Despite the fact that we were never 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 was to get you thinking 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 into their head 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 and you will accept homework. If you believe it is not ok then your actions potentially change. It is like this will 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 social movement issues.

Study Questions

Answer the following questions and then 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, four hundred words is a page, eight hundred 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 of these questions. What makes a social movement different from say, a wedding committee or a social group. Post one of your answers on the course forums.

  • Distinguish between ideology and indoctrination? How are they related? What are the key aspects of ideology that 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)
  • The authors of this week’s reading believe that pumping children heavy with 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, and wastes aspects of their young 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)
  • 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).
    • Was homework an essential feature of your child’s life? At what age did homework become important? Did kids gradually do more homework as they got older? How did the imposition of homework impact their play time?
    • How do you feel about extending a child’s “workday” into the evening. As an adult, or a parent, is it fair to bring work home from work 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 time, day and night? What do you think is the agenda behind homework in the school?

[1] It will be worth your while spending a few minutes watching the video from Fiddler on the Roof, Tradition, to see what I am talking about here.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRdfX7ut8gw

[2] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Goebbels

[3] See http://www.thespiritwiki.com/index.php/Agents_of_Socialization

[4] See http://www.sociology.org/media-studies/care-bears-vs-transformers-gender-stereotypes-in-advertisements/