The Truth Behind Summer Break

Thought it was so kids could help out on the farm?
Think again.

It’s the middle of summer, Buzzkillers, and thank goodness the kids are home from school, helping out on the farm. They’re working here at the Buzzkill Institute, too, mowing the lawn and doing other laborious tasks that are essential to our success as as think tank. As you know, the school year runs from the fall until the end of spring (at least here in the United States). And, like most people, you probably think it’s a long tradition based on having kids available to work on farms during the summer.

In fact, as late 2010, Time magazine called the traditional school year calendar a “legacy of the farm economy.” (David Von Drehle, “The Case Against Summer Vacation,” Time, 22 July 2010) And in 2013, National Public Radio referred to summer vacation as having its origins in an “agrarian calendar that dates back to farm cycles and harvests.” (“Missed Summer Learning Spells Out Long-Term Struggles,” All Things Considered, 4 August 2013)

It’s always been that way, precisely so children can be freed up for agricultural labor back home. Right?

Wrong, Buzzkillers. The historical picture of school calendars and “summer vacation” is more complex than that, and it never really had anything to do with helping out on the family farm. One of the things we keep stressing on this show is that people in the past were never as stupid or hidebound as we tend to think they were. In the first place, if the school year really were based on historic farming needs and practices, children would have school vacations in the spring (when planting required helping hands) and in the late fall, at harvest time. Kids would have gone to school in the winter and the summer.

In fact, a school year based on attending during the winter and the summer was common in rural areas of the country until the late 19th century, precisely so that little Johnny and little Susie could help on the family farm.

Urban schools had varying schedules, which usually included summer terms. In fact, public education in the United States was a fluid and evolving thing until the early 20th century. In many cities, public schools were open nearly all year long. It was very difficult to get attendance made mandatory for the first hundred-or-so years of public education in the United States (and would have been difficult and expensive to enforce it). Therefore, cities usually made the school calendar as long and as open as possible.

This system came under heavy criticism in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, however. Urban schools were absolutely sweltering in the summer, and various public health campaigners argued that it was unhealthy for kids to be cooped up in classrooms. At roughly the same time, there was a big physical health movement (partly inspired by Teddy Roosevelt) that stressed outdoor exercise, the benefits of fresh air, and the virtues of organizations such as the Boy Scouts (founded in 1908 in Britain and in the US in 1910) and the Girl Scouts (founded as the Girl Guides in Britain in 1910 and appearing as the Girl Scouts in the United States in 1912). Kids’ play was emphasized as essential to their development as, eventually, fully rounded adults.

Heavily influenced by these public health movements (and by the economic benefits of having consistent school years) education reformers pressured state legislatures to rationalize and even-out public school calendars across urban and rural areas, and the “summer off” schedule was considered the best choice. Summer was given its special status as a school vacation in most states before World War I.

So it was hard enough keeping kids down on the farm even before American boys went off to France in 1917 to fight WWI. Parents had a whole new problem then, Buzzkillers, after their sons had “seen gay Paris.” But that’s a story for another time.

Further Reading:

Kenneth Gold, School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools (2002)

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  1. Emily Galgon on July 17, 2016 at 8:13 am

    I remember reading the book Caddie Woodlawn, about a 19th C girl, as a child, and the characters had a conversation about having to go to school in winter and summer. Blew my mind.

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