The history of summer vacations

City schools during summer time were miserable, half empty ovens
Representational Picture
Representational PictureFile/ GK


Amid the heatwave the summer vacations have finally begun. All of you must be looking forward to spending time at cool destinations of the valley.

Summer vacation is probably the happiest moment for students. However the amazing fact is that summer vacation was not widely instituted until the late nineteenth century when one of the measuring standards of a good school at that time was how long the school remains open during the year.

Schools with longer calendars were often perceived by the general public as more effective.

It is commonly believed that school kids started taking summers off in the nineteenth century so that they would have time to work on the farm. Nice as that story is but it is not true.

Summer vacation has little to do with tilling fields and more to do with sweaty, rich city kids playing hooky with their parents.

Before the Civil War in America farm kids never had summers off. They went to school during the hottest and coldest months and stayed home during the spring and fall, when crops needed to be planted and harvested.

Meanwhile, city kids hit the books all year long, including long summers. In 1842, Detroit’s academic year lasted 260 days.

However, the origin of summer vacation in the United States had a lot to do with the rising middle and upper class in American society. As cities got denser, they got hotter. Endless lanes of brick and concrete transformed urban blocks into kilns, what was known as the “urban heat island effect”.

During the summer period, most of the wealthier and affluent families took all excuses to escape from the hot and harsh summer weather with their kids to the cool countryside.

This affected the school attendance and learning progress. Since school attendance was not mandatory at that time and classrooms were being left half empty each summer; something had to give.

As this continued legislators and labour union advocates argued for counter balancing a more regulated summer break for school kids. They all agreed that the idea of learning year round was not ideal for kids.

As time went by, summer holiday became a norm and fully instituted with various schools cutting out about 40- 60 days off the school in a calendar year to accommodate this newly conceived summer break.

As a result legislators, started arguing that if-you-can not-beat-them join them, and advocated that school kids should get summers off anyway.

It helped that, culturally, leisure time was becoming more important. With the dawn of labour unions and the eight hour workday, working adults were getting more time to themselves than ever before.

Advocates for vacation time also argued (incorrectly) that the brain was a muscle which needed to be rested, and like any muscle, it could suffer injuries if overused.

From there, they argued that students should not go to school year round because it could strain their brains. To top it off, air conditioning was decades away, and city schools during summer time were miserable, half empty ovens.

Until educational reforms in the twentieth century sought to unify schools, many schools operated on a calendar that varied from region to region based on the unique needs of the community. The ten month calendar that is used in the majority of schools today was never initially intended to be the standard calendar for schools.

The idea of the traditional summer vacation seems to have now become part of the fabric of academic culture over the course of the last 200 years. The move to round the year schooling is not so easy, nor is it unanimously embraced by parents, community members, businesses or politicians. History tells us the reasons that school systems used only a ten month calendar.

Finally in the 1840s, to formulate a uniform academic calendar the educational reformer, Horace Mann devised the concept of summer vacation and moved to merge the two calendars out of concern that rural schooling was insufficient and invoking then current medical theory that over stimulating young minds could lead to nervous disorders or insanity.

Summer emerged as the obvious time for a break: it offered a respite for teachers, meshed with the agrarian calendar and alleviated physicians’ concerns that packing students into sweltering classrooms would promote the spread of disease and thus it heralded the concept of summer vacation in the school academic calendar which is now being followed worldwide.

Tail piece:

Although most of the school buildings constructed in the past twenty years are well equipped with the necessary climate control, the original obstacles for year round education, for the most part, seem to have been removed as a scheduling barrier for schools.

Yet, schools including colleges and universities around the world continue to operate for only ten months out of the calendar year with regular summer vacations.

Dr. Reyaz Ahmad Ganaie is a researcher.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expessed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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