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Readings — From the November 2017 issue

The Working Classroom

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By Malcolm Harris, from Kids These Days, a book about millennials that was published this month by Little, Brown.

In April 2014, the Harley Avenue Primary School in Elwood, New York, sent a letter to the parents of its kindergartners, confirming rumors that the school would not be going ahead with its annual play.

Dear Kindergarten Parents and Guardians,

We hope this letter serves to help you better understand how the demands of the twenty-first century are changing schools.

The reason for eliminating the kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and careers with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers, and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.

These kids, the letter implied, could not spare two days from their regularly scheduled work.

What we teach and how we teach it is changing to meet the demands of a changing world, wrote the administrators at Harley Avenue. But what are the changes, exactly?

The main thing is that twenty-first-century American kids are required to work more than their predecessors. This generation is raised on problem-solving to the exclusion of play. Authorities from the Brookings Institution to Time magazine have called for an end to summer vacation and the imposition of year-round compulsory schooling. But the possible downsides of this trade-off are almost never discussed.

Parents, teachers, policymakers, and employers are all so worried that children won’t “meet the demands of a changing world” that they don’t bother asking what kids are expected to do to meet those demands, and what problems they’re being equipped to solve. The anxious frenzy that surrounds the future has come to function as an excuse for the choices adults make for kids.

In America, unlike in much of the world, kids do not perform work. In this country, “child labor” evokes British industrialism, coal, and Dickens. And though some American children have always worked — especially on farms — the dominant U.S. view of childhood is that it is a time free from labor.

But it takes a lot of work to prepare yourself to compete for twenty-first-century employment. Adults are happy to remind kids of this, telling them, “Put your nose to the grindstone,” “Stay on the right path,” “Treat school like your job.” When it comes to the right to organize, the dignity of labor, or minimum-wage laws, however, students are forced to be students rather than workers. It’s a precarious position: America can no more afford to recognize children’s work than it can afford for them not to do it. Meanwhile, disregarded and unregulated, the intensity and duration of this work have grown out of control.

Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine, a children’s book from 1958, illustrates how learning is used to hide labor. Danny is a whiz kid always seeking ways to cheat on his homework; he has a habit of dragging his friend Joe into his half-baked schemes. Danny sets up two pens linked by a board attached to pulleys and a weight so that he can do his and Joe’s math homework at the same time. He laments, “If only we could save even more time. You’d think six hours of school would be enough for them, without making us take school home.”

Danny and his friends use a computer belonging to their absentminded science teacher to do their homework quickly, leaving more time for baseball and other hobbies. These kids aren’t slackers; they just have better things to do with their time than homework. When a jealous classmate rats out the crew, Danny has to explain to their teacher, Miss Arnold, what they’ve been doing. Rather than concede that he’s been cheating, Danny argues that all workers use tools to do tasks better and faster, and that he and his fellow students should not be prevented from doing the same.

Even though it’s a children’s book, Danny Dunn depicts one of the major conflicts of the second half of the twentieth century: whether labor-saving technology benefits workers or owners. Will the computer lead to the kids working less or working more? With the help of Danny’s mother, Miss Arnold develops a plan — the same plan, in essence, that would determine the character of American childhood half a century after the book appeared: she increases Danny’s workload.

Technologies that make work faster function in one of two ways: by reducing the time spent on the work or by intensifying the nature of the work. It’s not hard to see which way it has gone in America. The story of the homework machine is a parable for how schoolwork has followed the same trend toward intensification as other forms of labor. The only compensation Danny gets for his effort and accomplishment is a sticker — a nontransferable award. On the micro level, this looks like one educator’s clever effort to trick a student into learning more than he meant to. But Danny is not an outlier. American kids now find themselves in his situation: overworked, underengaged, gold-starred, and tired, wondering where their time went.

When it comes to primary and secondary schooling, American adults are able to hold a few conflicting stereotypes in their minds at the same time. On the one hand, it’s generally acknowledged that students, facing stiffer competition for college admissions, are doing historically anomalous amounts of homework. Between 1981 and 1997, elementary schoolers between the ages of six and eight saw a 146 percent increase in time spent studying. Kids aged nine to twelve sustained a nearly 30 percent increase in homework, while their time in class increased by 14 percent.

On the other, students are depicted as slackers who are unable to pay attention, or entitled brats who need to be congratulated for every routine accomplishment, or devolved cretins who can’t form a full sentence without lapsing into textspeak.

The labor of classically employed workers is measured in both total output and wages, but we don’t measure a student’s educational product except in arbitrary and comparative ways, such as grades, standardized tests, and school awards. Nevertheless, I feel justified in saying that American children’s educational output has grown steeply over the past thirty years. But what does educational output even mean, and how might we try to measure it? Where does the product go?

Waged workers receive money to mark their expended effort — even though it represents only a fraction of their total output. The student equivalent is the grade: we say a student has “worked for” or “earned” her marks; the return of graded papers or report cards resembles the distribution of paychecks. The system aspires to train every student for grade-A work, then calls it a crisis when the distribution shifts in that direction.

The idea that underlies contemporary schooling is that grades, eventually, turn into money, or, if not money, then choice, or what social scientists sometimes call better life outcomes. In waged work we have the concept of valorization, which is the process by which laborers produce value above and beyond their wages and increase the mass of invested capital. But if no one is profiting off kids’ scholastic work — teachers definitely don’t — where does their product go? The sociologist Jürgen Zinnecker describes “the development of human capital” as a sink for students’ hidden labor. In the simplest terms, this is what the kindergarten administrators at Harley Avenue Primary School stated in their letter: when students are working, what they’re working on is their ability to work.

In 2013, an article appeared in The Atlantic with the title, “My Daughter’s Homework Is Killing Me.” The writer, Karl Taro Greenfeld, had attempted to complete the homework of his daughter, an eighth grader at a selective New York public school, to discover the exact nature of the labor that was keeping her up every night. He quickly found that he wasn’t prepared to keep up:

Imagine if after putting in a full day at the office — and school is pretty much what our children do for a job — you had to come home and do another four or so hours of office work. . . . If your job required that kind of work after work, how long would you last?

This sort of intensive training isn’t just for the children of intellectuals; the theory behind the rhetoric advocating universal college attendance is that any and all kids should aspire to this level of work. College admissions have become the focus not only of secondary schooling but of contemporary American childhood writ large. The sad truth, however, is that college admissions are designed to funnel young adults onto different tracks, not to validate hard work. A jump in the number of Harvard-caliber students doesn’t have a corresponding effect on the size of the school’s freshman class. Instead, it allows the university to become even more selective and to raise prices, to stock up on geniuses and rich kids. This is the central problem with an education system designed to create the most human capital possible: an increase in ability within a competitive system doesn’t advantage all individuals.

In a world where every choice is an investment, growing up becomes a complex exercise in risk management. The more capital new employees already have when they enter the labor market, the less risky it is for their employers. Over time, firms have an incentive, as the economist Gary Becker put it, to “shift training costs to trainees.” If an employer pays to train workers, what’s to stop another company from luring them away once they’re skilled? The second firm could offer a signing bonus that costs less than the training and still benefit. Paying to train a worker is risky, and risk costs money. As American capitalism advanced, the training burden fell to the state, and then to families and kids themselves.

Childhood risk is less and less about death, illness, or grievous bodily harm and more and more about future prospects. But if it is every parent’s task to raise at least one successful American by America’s own standards, then the system is rigged so that most of them will fail. The ranks of the American elite are not infinitely expandable; in fact, they’re shrinking. Given that reality, parents are told that their children’s choices, actions, and accomplishments have lasting consequences. The Harley Avenue letter is merely one of the more dramatic examples of this fearmongering. With parental love as a guide, risk management has become risk elimination.

By looking at children as investments, it’s possible to see where the product of children’s labor is stored: in their human capital. It’s a kid’s job to stay eligible for the labor market (and not in jail, insane, or dead). Any work beyond that adds to their résumé. If more human capital automatically led to a higher standard of living, this model could be the foundation for an American meritocracy. But millennials’ extra work hasn’t earned them the promised higher standard of living. By every metric, this generation is the most educated in American history, yet its members are worse off economically than their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents. Every authority from moms to presidents told millennials to accumulate as much human capital as they could; they did, but the market hasn’t held up its end of the bargain. What gives?

As it turns out, just because you can produce an unprecedented amount of value doesn’t necessarily mean you can feed yourself under twenty-first-century American capitalism. Kids spend their childhoods investing the only thing they have: their effort, their attention, their days and nights, their labor time. (And, sometimes, a large chunk of whatever money their parents may have.) If the purpose of all this labor, all the lost play, all the hours doing unpleasant tasks, isn’t to ensure a good life for the kids doing the work, if it isn’t in the “interests of all children,” then what is it for?

When you ask most adults what any kid in particular should do with the next part of her life, the advice will generally include pursuing higher education. As the only sanctioned path, college admissions becomes a well-structured, high-stakes simulation of a worker’s entry into the labor market. Applicants inventory their achievements, being careful not to underestimate them, and present them in the most attractive package possible.

Then, using the data carefully and anxiously prepared by millions of kids about the human capital they’ve accumulated over the previous eighteen years, higher education institutions make decisions: collectively evaluating, accepting, and cutting hopeful children in tranches like collateralized debt obligations that are then sorted among the institutions according to their own rankings (for which they compete aggressively, of course). It is not the first time children are weighed, but it is the most comprehensive and often the most directly consequential. College admissions offices are rating agencies. Once the kid-bond is rated, it has four or so years until it’s expected to produce a return.

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