Summer in the United States is a time of contradictions. Schoolchildren dream of golden, stress-free days, while working parents scramble to find childcare for two to three months. Among middle class families, extroverted children look forward to summer camps, and introverted children try desperately to convince their parents that they are fine at home, alone. For many families, household schedules and finances that are already stretched thin become even more stressed when children are at home full-time. It’s one of the great American paradoxes. The United States is the only wealthy economy in the world which doesn’t mandate any vacation time, at all, for its adult workers, yet it turns many, if not most, of its children out, with no support, for close to a quarter of each year. America is the land of “family values” rhetoric, but its policies make it exceedingly difficult for families to spend time together. How did such an unfortunate system develop?
The standard answer is that “children were needed on farms over the summer.” This explanation only works until you stop and think about it. Just at a first pass, it might strike you that summer is not, actually, the most labor-intensive time on a small-scale, pre-industrial, temperate climate farm (which is what most people picture when they give this answer.) Such farms are more likely to need extra hands in the spring, for planting, and in the autumn, for harvest. At the same time, there is still plenty to be done in the summer, meaning that only in the dead of winter can regular help be freed up for other activities. In fact, this is what we see if we look at rural schools in New England at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Younger children attended two terms, a winter term running for two or three months some time between December and March, and a summer term in the May to August range. School wasn’t mandatory, and older children might attend only the winter term, or leave school, altogether.
So why didn’t that pattern, two terms, winter and summer, with time off in the spring and autumn, end up being the standard school year? It’s important to remember that the United States is a large, and fairly new, country. It is also diverse in many ways. Massachusetts and California may be part of the same nation, but they have different histories which have only been glued together inside the last two centuries. Even within regions, not everyone experienced the history of education in the same way, or had the same power to influence how the school year was developed. This was exacerbated by the fact that the U.S. Constitution made no specific reference to education, and any attempt at policy was left to a pastiche of local practices, with sporadic territorial and state legislation. European immigrants to northeastern industrial regions, African Americans in the southeast, Native Americans throughout the expanding territories, and “old” immigrants from England and northern Europe did not always have the same ideas about how education should be structured, what purposes it should serve, or who should have access to it or control over it. The mythological agrarian explanation for the American school year is powerful, and dangerous, because it conjures up Ma and Pa and apple pie images that erase a range of disparate needs and experiences not only in the past, but in the present.
Educational practices in the United States, including the pattern of the school year, are built on a set of invisible, interwoven, and often conflicting, assumptions about social class, race, citizenship, gender roles and family structure. There is a perennial debate about the value versus the detriment of long American summer vacations in terms of academic performance and the “summer slide.” Locally and nationally, passionate deliberations take place between different groups of parents, legislators and teachers, as some express frustration at the length of time in the autumn required to recoup “lost” learning, while others extoll the “timeless and essential” nature of summer vacation to child development. I’d like to introduce a broad perspective to these dilemmas by inviting you on a whirlwind tour of different influences and events in the development of schools (and the concept of vacation!) in the history of the United States, in an upcoming series of posts. We will only be touching on each topic briefly, but if you really want to understand the complexities of the vast patchwork quilt that is American education, I urge you to dig deeper into any of them. In the next post we’ll be starting in Massachusetts, exploring the period from Boston’s call for a schoolmaster in 1635, through the development of the Common School Movement in the first half of the nineteenth century. I hope to see you then!
Posts in this Series:
Endless Summer (1) Massachusetts: From Puritan Colony to Horace Mann and the Common School Movement
Endless Summer (2) From Massachusetts to Rural New York: Latin Grammar Schools, Dame Schools and the Two-Term School Year
The definitive book for the history of American schools in summer is Kenneth M. Gold’s 2002
School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools.
A collection of articles on summer slide from the US Department of Education can be found at their official blog, HomeRoom.
featured image, Sandcastle, by Justina Kochansky.
chart of paid vacations and holidays in OECD nations.
Summer Slide from TeachersWithApps
photos from the Library of Congress digital collections:
– Nine-year old Pauline Reiber topping beets, a dangerous and hard job for such a child. Location: Sterling [vicinity], Colorado / Photo by Hine, 23 Oct. 1915.
– Lucy Saunders hitching the team to the horse rake. See Hine Report, Rural Child Labor, August 1915. Location: [Western Massachusetts?, Massachusetts?] – Lucy Saunders hitching the team to the horse rake. See Hine Report, Rural Child Labor, August 1915. Location: Western Massachusetts?
– The Arnao family of berry pickers in the fields of Truitt’s farm. This is an Italian family coming from Phildelphia and now ready to go to Carmel, N.J. to continue picking. The family consists of: 1 child 3 years of age, 1 child 6 years of age, 2 children 7 years of age, 1 child 9 years of age, 1 child 10 years of age, 1 child 11 years of age. All of whom pick. Location: Cannon, Delaware. May 1910.
– “Chopping corn” Everett Adams, 15 years and Ora Adams, 9 years. Address Hiatt, Ky. Go to Hickory Grove School, but they have been absent most of the past 6 weeks for work, sickness, etc. Location: Rockcastle County, Kentucky / Lewis W. Hine. 15 August 1916.
– “Grubbing out the fence corners.” A common scene in the Fall. Boys are 9, 12, 15 and 17 years old. Father, R.A. Cave, Route 2, Box 56, Cecilia, Ky. The children go to Long Grove School. Location: Hardin County–Cecilia, Kentucky / Lewis W. Hine. 16 August 1916.