Although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life, and their situation is, in some respects, one of extreme dependence, I have nowhere seen woman occupying a loftier position; and if I were asked... in which I have spoken of so many important things done by Americans, to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply, To the superiority of their women.

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Monday, April 18, 2011

Busywork: Then and Now

Ever wonder what public schools did before copy machines? In many, if not most our schools, the school day is relegated to doing a worksheet, passing the worksheet up, and being handed the next worksheet. When my daughter was in school, she considered unionizing the second grade in protest of worksheets. So I pulled her out before she became a Jr. Norma Rae, for all the other usual reasons as well.

But this worksheet phenomenon made me wonder, what did kids do 150 years ago when paper was precious? Does it really take as much practice as many of the packaged curriculums offer to master a concept? Most of you probably know that practice work was done on a slate as there was no Wal-Mart to buy a ream of paper at. Many schools were only open for shorter terms than they are today, yet according to literacy tests of potential soldiers over the years, the literacy rate has been steadily falling since WW1.  If you haven't seen the exit exam for 8th grade from Salina, Kansas circa 1895, you ought to check it out. Ask yourself what traditionally schooled 8th grader or older could pass tests like that nowadays? When people say that "he only got an eighth grade education", I would submit that the eighth grade of yesterday is more than comparable to a high school, or perhaps associates degree of today. Ok, maybe more than that! For those who really want to challenge themselves, check out the 1869 entrance exam to Harvard. I can do the math, but the Greek had my eyes crossing!

I thought it would be instructive to compare textbooks of the 1800s vs. the textbooks of today. What you find is a lot less exercises in the older books. You could actually carry all of your schoolbooks and not develop back problems. There weren't as many pictures as well as busywork taking up 450+ pages.  I would note that many of these old textbooks are to be found for free on Googlebooks should any frugal homeschooler want to try them. I highly recommend the McGuffey Readers. There are also "notes to the teacher" found in these older books, indicating that there was not a "teacher's edition" with all the answers. I suppose the teacher was actually supposed to know their subject. My daughter and I have slowly been working through my grandpa's Latin book and really enjoying how much vocabulary we've been learning. Even if we do all the exercises for each lesson and taking it one lesson per week, it's not an overwhelming amount of work.

I've noticed that the big home school publishers that also provide most of the curriculum for private, Christian schools contain an obscene amount of busywork. I suppose to keep 25+ kids occupied all day, you've got to do something. This is why God made it to where kids are born at least nine months apart, so that this never happens in nature. So it's important not to just buy the grade 4 book because your kid is 9 years old, but actually review the contents and see if this will keep them challenged and occupied for the school year.  I wish I could reclaim all the wasted time I spent sitting in public school filling out useless worksheets, don't you?


  1. I was lucky to have attended private Catholic schools before even they went into the toilet.

    When I taught religious ed at our church I was appalled at the lack of education of kids who were getting ready to graduate high school. In nine years I never had one kid who could write a complete sentence, punctuate, or spell. Heck - none of them could even write in cursive and their printing looked like something a 2nd grader would do.

    But, by gosh, they all felt real good about themselves!

    When I taught 4th grade at a strict private boy's school they were diagramming sentences at a six grade level and having tons of fun. Boys love making lines with rulers. ;-)

  2. You make me laugh. I'm imagining myself trying to teach my 25 of my 6 year-old at once. Definitely would need more busy-work. I hate worksheets. And workbooks. They're not quite the Devil, but they're very close (at least for my little boy). I'm going to check out the McGuffey readers. That's the third time I've heard about them in the last few days. Apparently, I've been living under a rock, because I hadn't heard of them before.

  3. I had the task of teaching public school kids at my church, too. They'd know how to use the "f" word in all eight parts of speech, and had beat Grand Theft Auto, but couldn't tell you who the baby Jesus was in the nativity scene. (This was my starting point with them.) Oh, this is elementary kids, ha. Once I had the high school group and asked them what communism was. (Blank stares) I was reading them a story about missionary work in E. Germany.
    I was blessed to have a lot of diagramming at my school - sounds like a plan for today!

    My great-grandmother used McGuffey when she was a 1st grader back in 1900 and we still have the book. It was THE reading book back then. The format is great for my dyslexic daughter. There are 4-5 new words at the top of the lesson a big picture in the middle and the story below it. The subject of the stories is either boys farming or playing or girls picking flowers or playing with dolls. My daughter really relates because her imaginary friends are named after flowers and flowers are a recurring theme.


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