Summer vacations – not the farmer’s fault!

3:19 am General

Episode 1 in a series “Things that are the way they are because of constraints that no longer apply” (or: why we don’t change processes we have invested in that don’t make sense any more)

I posted a brief description of the Five Monkey experiment a few days ago, as an introduction to a series someone suggested to me as I was telling stories of how certain things came about> One of the stories was about school Summer vacation. Many educators these days feel for the most part that school holidays are too long, and that kids lose knowledge due to atrophy during the Summer months – the phenomenon even has a name.  And yet attempts to restructure the school year are strongly resisted, because of the amount of investment we have as a society in the school rhythms. But, why do US schools have 10-12 weeks of Summer vacation at all?

The story I had heard is that the Summer holiday is as long as it is, because at the origins of the modern education system, in a more agrarian society, kids were needed on the farm during the harvest and could not attend school.I do like to be accurate when talking about history, and so I went reading, and it turns out that this explanation is mostly a myth – at least in the US. And, as a farmer’s kid, that mostly makes sense to me. The harvest is mostly from August through to the beginning of October, so starting school in September, one of the busiest farming months, does not make a ton of sense.

But there is a grain of truth to it – in the US in the 1800s, there were typically two different school rhythms, depending on whether you lived in town or in the country. In town, schools were open all year round, but many children did not go all of the time. In the country, schools were mainly in session during two periods – Winter and Summer. Spring, when crops are plated, and Autumn, when they are harvested, were the busy months, and schools were closed. The advent of compulsory schooling brought the need to standardise the school year, and so vacations were introduced in the cities, and restructured in the country, to what we see today. This was essentially a compromise, and the long Summer vacation was driven, as you might expect, by the growing middle class’s desire to take Summer holidays with their children, not the farming family’s desire to exploit child labour. It was also the hardest period of the year for children in cities, with no air conditioning to keep school classrooms cool during the hottest months of the year.

So, while there is a grain of truth (holidays were scheduled around the harvest initially), the main driver for long Summer holidays is the same as today – parents want holidays too. The absence of air conditioning in schools would have been a distant second.

This article is US centric, but I have also seen this subject debated in France, where the tourism industry has strongly opposed changes to the school year structure, and in Ireland, where we had 8-9 weeks vacation in primary school. So – not off to a very good start, then!

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