Summer Vacations Weren’t Because Of Farm Work

By Debra Kelly on Tuesday, June 17, 2014
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“Example has more followers than reason.” —Christian Nestell Bovee, Intuitions and Summaries of Thought

In A Nutshell

We’ve all heard that summer vacations from school became a standard thing because parents needed their kids home during the summer months to help out with the added work on the farm. That’s nothing more than a long-standing myth, though, and the truth behind the popularity of summer vacation is much more complicated than that. Traditionally, kids started getting off in the summer because the buildings were simply too hot before air conditioning, because many families took their holidays during the summer, and because it just wasn’t financially sound to keep schools open when there were fewer students turning up.

The Whole Bushel

It’s one of those long-standing myths that makes perfect sense: Summer vacations were established so parents could take advantage of having their children home during the long summer days when there was so much more to do on the farm. Families needed the added labor to help with the sowing, plowing, harvesting, tending to the young animals, and general getting-ready for the long winter. When there was less to do, off to school the children would go.

But that’s just a myth, and the truth behind why schools have a summer vacation is a little more complicated than that.

Summer vacation only really became a thing in the late 19th century, and even then it was typically an American thing. (It still largely is, with many countries having their children in school year-round, with long breaks between sessions.)

It was only around 1870 that education became a mandatory thing, and attendance began to be monitored. Once schools started keeping track of how often students could be bothered to show up for school, they found it was a trend that most kids would be good for about six months of attendance, then would taper off. With the standardization of schools, they began to give students an authorized break in the hopes that they’d actually show up when they were supposed to.

So why summer? (And in case you were wondering, spring is generally the busiest time of the year for farmers, with newborn animals to deal with at the time all the crops need to be planted, so the theory behind the myth doesn’t even really hold up.)

There are a couple of reasons for taking off in the summer, and they have more to do with life in the ever-growing cities than life in the country. This was before air conditioning, and in many areas it was simply too hot and uncomfortable to be a productive learning environment. A fire could be started in the colder winter months, but in the summer months, there wasn’t much administrators and teachers could do.

Also, it was in wealthier areas that most families took their holidays during the summer months, meaning that a good number of children were gone at that time anyway—along with many of their teachers.

Because most of the more experienced, older teachers were leaving to go on holidays with their families, that left younger teachers in charge of the students that remained. And because of this, the education that children were getting in the summer months was often seen as a lower quality than that they would get if they only had their winter teachers; taking time off from school in the summer wasn’t viewed as much of a loss.

Summer vacation was also as much of a time for children and teachers to escape the hot, sweltering air of a schoolhouse as it was for teachers to brush up on their teaching skills and knowledge. There were teachers long before there were college and teaching requirements, meaning that most needed some down time to do the work that would take the place of a college degree.

There was also a medical community that was weighing in on the idea of whether or not students should have to go to school all year round. Unlike today, where we have an overwhelming number of people saying that a break in the school year sets learning back significantly, the cultural norm at the turn of the century was simply that children of all ages just weren’t meant to be forced to sit in a room, day in and day out, every day of the year, listening to lectures and learning. Doctors were at the forefront of the movement saying simply that kids needed to get outside and get some fresh air.

Show Me The Proof

State Impact: Six Reasons Students Get Summer Off (And The Agrarian Calendar Isn’t One of Them)
Pacific Standard: Why Do We Still Have Summer Vacation?
Slate: Do Kids Need a Summer Vacation?