Written by Fredrik

Modified & Updated: 02 Jun 2024

Sherman Smith

Reviewed by Sherman Smith

who invented homework

Homework is the bane of many students’ lives. Many would rather see it disappear as it takes away precious time that people would rather use for hobbies or family time. “Who invented homework ?” is something a student may have exclaimed at some point. And we understand the frustration.

For all the hate that homework gets, its origin is surprisingly unclear. If you search for “who invented homework?” online, you may see many results. Some claim that a specific person invented it, but these sources may not be very accurate. In this article, however, we will uncover the truth about homework’s origins. We’ll also dive a little bit into the age-old question of whether or not homework is actually effective.

The Origins of Homework Are A Bit Disputed

As mentioned earlier, homework has a bit of a mysterious history. The concept of asking students to do work after school may have been around as long as school has existed. On the other hand, it might not be that old. Its history may even depend on exactly how you define “homework”. What is sure is one thing. Like many things, it’s possible that homework doesn’t have a single inventor. Instead, the concept has many progenitors, some of whom thought of it independently.

Now you may be wondering: don’t some sites claim that homework has a single inventor? Don’t they credit homework to a certain Roberto Nevillis? Well, that’s what we’re going to discuss next.

Roberto Nevillis, the “Inventor” of Homework, May Not Have Actually Existed

If you search for “homework inventor” on Google, you may see several hits for a certain Roberto Nevillis. He was supposedly an Italian teacher, whom many websites claim invented homework. However, if you do some deeper research, you will realize that this information may be inaccurate.

The first warning sign is that the Wikipedia article for homework makes no mention of this Nevillis person. While it’s true that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, it does have standards. Notably, important claims need sources; otherwise, editors will remove them. If he indeed invented homework, surely the article would mention him, with references even. But nope, no mention of him at all.

Another warning sign is that the sources that mention Nevillis even disagree on when he came up with the concept. Some claim he invented it in 1905, which seems really recent. Other sources claim that he instead invented it in 1095. That makes little sense either considering how different education was at the time. Formal education was still a rarity in Europe in that era, especially among the lower classes. Since most lower classes who did receive education got them at home, technically all their studies were homework!

Indeed, if Nevillis did exist, information about his life seems almost non-existent. It’s entirely possible that no such person ever lived. In any case, if anyone did invent homework, it probably wasn’t Nevillis.

Homework Existed As Early As The Roman Empire

In reality, early concepts about “homework” may have already existed for centuries. Of course, this may not necessarily mean the homework we know today. However, this idea still encompasses activities like practicing or studying at home.

According to some writers, Pliny the Younger may have espoused an early form of “homework”. He encouraged students to improve their speaking skills outside formal education centers. For example, if the students were at home, they could hone their skills there. Obviously, speaking is more of physical activity than writing or reading. As such, practicing at home may not exactly be “homework”. Still, this shows that the idea of doing education-related work at home has been around for so long.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte May Have Invented Homework As We Know It

As for the “title” of the true inventor of homework, there are two people who have a good claim. One of them is Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Many historians consider him to be the father of German nationalism. Apart from his political life, he made some contributions to education. And unsurprisingly, these contributions happened because he wanted to promote a united German state.

Fichte’s innovation was Volksschule, a form of compulsory education. The state would support students and provide them with education. In exchange, the state would become part of people’s private lives. Homework began as a way for education to have a place in home affairs. By extension, this also extended the state’s role to the home. His ideas continue to influence German education to this day.

Horace Mann Helped Popularize The Concept In The United States

Another person who can claim to be the inventor of modern homework is Horace Mann. Mann was the first president of Antioch College, an Ohio-based institution that still exists today. Mann visited Europe and found the European methods of education to be inspiring. Upon returning to America, he decided to implement what he observed back in his native Massachusetts. Among the things he introduced was, you guessed it: homework.

His ideas weren’t limited to homework, however. Today, teachers and others praise Mann for his efforts to make education more accessible to the masses. Some even consider him to be the progenitor of common schools in America. Through his efforts, many reforms took place in Massachusetts. Among these was the establishment of a proper school board. He also strived to ensure that teachers had proper training and were effective in their jobs. Apart from his education career, he also served in the US House of Representatives. There, he advocated not just for good quality education but also for women’s rights.

Centuries after his death, Mann’s efforts to promote public schooling are still felt today. Homework-hating students may want to curse him for helping popularize homework. On the other hand, it would probably be better to thank him for allowing students to have the chance to have formal schooling at all.

Homework Was Unpopular At First

Considering homework’s ubiquity these days, you might think that the American education system embraced it from the get-go. But actually, it was not popular at first. Reasons varied, including people being skeptical about the need to do school-related activities at home. Many even thought that the idea would be harmful to the well-being of students.

Notable efforts against it included California banning homework in 1907; a ban which lasted for over a decade. Many prominent publications also questioned the practice. In the 1930s, the American Child Health Association, a government agency, even claimed that homework was a form of child labor!

How did the education sector warm up to the idea of homework? It comes from an unlikely source: the Cold War. At the time, the United States believed it had the lead over the Soviet Union when it came to education and science. However, events such as the launch of Sputnik 1 dampened this enthusiasm. This led to the so-called Sputnik crisis of the late 1950s. Homework was actually one of the ways the US thought it could close this perceived gap with the Soviets. By making students study at home, the US hoped that this could give them an edge in education.

Some Countries Ban or Discourage Homework

Even to this day, homework’s existence is controversial. Many education experts remain skeptical about its worth. Others also criticize it on the grounds that it gives students less time for hobbies, family time, or other free time. Indeed, homework (among other factors) has been linked to increased anxiety among students.

A number of countries either limit or even ban homework outright. One notable example is Finland. Finnish education is quite different compared to the rigid forms of education in other countries. Notably, students have shorter school hours, and even at school, they have plenty of free time to do hobbies or interact with classmates and friends. Schooling is also less competitive, as there’s less emphasis on grading and instead an emphasis on the student’s learning.

You may think that the Finnish system would make students lazy, given the lack of pressure. But actually, Finland’s education system ranks among the best in the world. Not only that, but Finns in general are also happier than many of their peers. It’s gotten to the point that many other nations are taking inspiration from Finland when discussing education reforms.

Meanwhile, contrary to what you may see in some sources, Japan does have homework. Indeed, it’s actually a bit of a cliche in Japanese media for students to do homework during their summer breaks. Given Japan’s education system is very competitive, it’s probably no surprise that homework is a facet of a student’s life there.

Schooling Itself Has a Long History

While we’re here, it may be worth having a short recap about the history of formal education. That way, we can contrast between homework and schoolwork, and put things into context better.

How old is schooling? It may depend on how you define “education”. If schooling means one learning from another, it’s probably existed since the dawn of humanity. If schooling means formal education, as in some kind of classroom setting, that’s somewhat more recent but still ancient.

The Mesopotamian civilization, the world’s oldest, already had schools. So did many of the ancient civilizations you may be familiar with, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Indians, and so on. One notable thing was that, during those days, it was mostly boys who received formal education. They would learn how to read, write, do activities, and learn skills. Women usually did not attend school as societies then believed that they should focus on household and family work. Some women did receive education, but they were exceptions and not the norm.

Education gained more significance during the Middle Ages, mainly for religious reasons. Many centers of learning, such as Oxford in Britain, date to this time.

In the United States, schooling began almost as soon as the first colonies appeared. Boston Latin School was the first public school to open in 1635; incredibly, it’s still open after all these years. Eventually, schools popped up across the country, often in the form of single-room schoolhouses. A few of these still exist today, but most schools in the US are now much bigger than that.

So What Have We Learned Today?

Here are our takeaways: Homework as a concept dates back centuries, depending on how you define homework. Roberto Nevillis, whom some websites claim to have invented homework, probably didn’t even exist at all. Two people, Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Horace Mann, helped popularize the concept. And finally, even today, there’s debate as to whether or not it’s necessary at all.

The next time you’re doing your homework and want to curse someone for your extra work, don’t blame Nevillis. After all, it’s hard to blame a person who may actually be the figment of the imagination of some internet writer.

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