The Value of Doing the Assignment

If you're not doing the work, you need to start looking at what everyone else is getting, what you don't have because of your choices.

The Value of Doing the Assignment


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The Value of Doing the Assignment

At some point in grade school I got the impression that assignments were nothing but busy work. Grade school wasn't good. I did learn some history and geography, how to deal with fractions and decimals. There was even a little bit of science. Once or twice a book was memorable. But what I remember most was being ignored and not hearing the value of anything explained to me. I remember being treated like a growing object more than a person who would take responsibility and make decisions.

I can't say I know why you're not doing your assigned classwork. I have my suspicions, though. A prominent, bullying voice in my life would rant continually about how getting a degree was "easy." He made it sound like anyone could do it, that you barely had to do anything to get a diploma. And because he had a degree, he was taken seriously when he should have been ignored. Other people nodded their heads in agreement with him.

But if getting an education were easy, everyone would be able to do it. Think about the people in your life you consider truly knowledgeable. Some of them have been formally educated, some not. However, all have gone through a process where they learned how to make mistakes and learn from their mistakes. All of them understand how hard it is to learn and have real respect for students who try.

Formal education is just one way of being educated. But it has an ethos—it holds a series of ethical imperatives—which are ignored at one's peril. From what I've seen, students who habitually cheat have a hard time making friends. It's like their contempt for rules has to do with a general lack of respect, and others may not feel themselves respected around them.

An old book shop in Paris
Photo by Jeevan Jose / Unsplash

The value of doing your assignments is trickier to discuss. I'm going to argue it involves trust, and that there are far-reaching consequences for not trying to do the work for class. But I don't want to get too moralistic about this. There were classes I blew off and was correct in doing so. Those classes were not attempting to be an educative experience. The worst of them were little better than fake classes offered at scandal-ridden schools (e.g. "Theory of Basketball:" how many points is a 2-pt field goal worth?) or corporate training videos shown for the sake of avoiding liability. What I really want to do is defeat the instinct I developed in grade school, which was doubting the assignment's value from the outset. Not everything is fake or pointless, especially not when you're being asked your thoughts on "King Lear" or "Origin of the Species." You've got to be able to recognize when you're asked to do something higher.


Yesterday, Chris Hayes wrote a series of posts on Twitter about his teaching English composition to an almost entirely immigrant population. What he describes is moving. Most of his students were women who were working and taking care of children at the same time they were trying to learn English:

I encourage you to read the whole thread. He comes to the conclusion that some terrible assumptions about what it means to be a man are operative. College enrollment is reflective of that, he says. It's 60% women and 40% men at the moment.

I don't think I ever felt that doing homework made me less of a person. But I can recall a few thoughts which led to skepticism of what I was getting in class. 1) If it's so important, shouldn't I be able to learn it on my own? 2) Are they trying to get me to follow rules for the sake of making me obedient? 3) How is this specific work going to help me grow?

I know a serious exploration of the third question can address the other two thoughts. If you know you're getting better, you know you can identify what's truly valuable. You're in a stronger position to learn on your own when you try to engage the material presented. And yes, a lot of schooling is about following rules and defering to authority. But your independence is something, in large part, that you have to work to understand and achieve. There are people who just want to bark orders at others—that failure of education is readily recognizable. However, if you paint those working to earn your trust with that brush, are you putting yourself in the best position to succeed?


I can't speak for every piece of homework. All I can say is that I wish I understood, with everything assigned, how to make it valuable for me.

Sometimes this would happen in a lecture course. I distinctly remember reading Aeschylus' "Oresteia" and going "huh," having no idea what was happening. Wilson Carey McWilliams then lectured on how a lack of remorse for a catastrophic war marked a terribly unjust ruler. With no legal recourse for replacing him, tragedy ensues. That's quite different from "huh." It opened up a whole world of Greek political and philosophical thought, and as you can see with my reflections on "Antigone," I got something that lasted out of it.

More often than not, I didn't understand the value of what I was doing. A lot of problems trying to make "significant figures" muscle-memory didn't impress me. Nor did memorizing how cells produce energy. I have some idea now how these things are valuable, but it's not really right to give students no tools for understanding what they're trying to achieve. Grades are not a good tool; they can hurt more than help, because knowledge in truth isn't a competition.

The best tool I can give is asking "What am I getting out of this?" and demanding a real answer from yourself. You need to do both. Sometimes the answer you give yourself can be "grades" or "credits," but the times you say either should be rare.

—I can imagine people I've know screaming now. "Why should that be rare? What matters is the piece of paper, the credential. Who cares what you think about Thucydides? You need to get a paycheck and survive." It's taken me decades, but I see something now that I could not see before. I can see why a number of these people are where they are. I'll leave it at that. If you let someone else's panic become your priority, you can never be independent, no matter how much money or status or power you possess.—

Photo by Cytonn Photography / Unsplash

What constitutes a "real answer," then? It can be a lot of things. When I took classes where students shared their experiences about dark times in their lives, I got to see a side of life I couldn't even conceive. I heard about heroin use, how difficult it was to break bad habits, how one addiction led to a number of other problems and failures. I was reminded how lucky I was to be in a position to manage my problems and how privileged I was to be able to seek help if I needed it. Doing the assignments for those classes was important because it helped me be more present and aware in the classroom. I got more out of their stories as they did the work, too.

The main thing about a "real answer" is that it tries to articulate a value that is unique in its own right. In other words, it's emphatically not "I got the grades and the credits and the recommendation and the requirement done." It's "I looked at the painting and saw he used orange a certain way. When we talked about it in class, we mentioned color theory, and it does seem the artist was trying to evoke a certain emotion." —Again, there are going to be people who say this is worthless. I cannot tell you enough how toxic that is. Literally nothing can be built with that attitude. The value is the reevaluation of value. People who say this is worthless would be inclined to say the wheel was worthless because we were walking everywhere just fine.—

You do the work to build trust and community with those also trying to be educated. People who have a genuine interest in a better world. Who understand they have power and responsibility right now and need to start using it. When you try to do the work, you're building integrity and credibility. "This is what I'm trying to understand, this is what I'm trying to put into my mind." That's why the process of education is so alien, sometimes, to people who love us dearly. At its heart, education does involve change. You're not going to be the same person when its done. A lot of families have fixed ideas about who their family members are, and will not let those ideas go even if they hurt those they love.


I don't want to say "the humanities will save us." That's corny and overblown and not even remotely true. Plenty of people read old books and make the world a worse place to live. But I do know this: when everyone is doing STEM because they've been told for decades that the humanities are worthless, they're being robbed. Certain people want education to be limited, so schools function as a way for them to maintain power. Insisting on programs and degrees that enable employment, at best, in the lower middle class is extremely telling.

To go further: I don't know that the "humanities" would have saved us from a collapsing society, but we have certainly experimented with a society bereft of them, and we reaped what we sowed. So do your homework and ask hard questions of it. Stop playing with the cynicism of "it's all a game" unless you want the joke to be on you. Maybe the most striking thing about teaching is seeing the distance grow between students who do the work and those who don't. You wonder how some people even talk to each other. You've got someone who's written an essay about growing up Catholic and never questioning "natural law" until the contradictions in their moral outlook hit personally. And then you've got someone who's trying to pass off a passage copied from Wikipedia as their own work. One of those people ought to be in charge, if there's any justice in the world. That they may not be isn't any fault of education, nor is it any fault of the system if they do end up with authority but aren't widely known. If you're not doing the work, you need to start looking at what everyone else is getting, what you don't have because of your choices.