If you’re a student you’re probably not in class anymore. If you’re a parent, you might be at home with your kids a lot more for the next couple months since it’s summer break. This is either a good thing or a bad thing for any reason, we won’t tell your kids. But for everyone who has had their schedules change over the summer, you may have heard that summer break has agrarian roots. Which might not entirely be the case. So why do we have summer breaks?
You were probably told once that summer break was linked to farming society. Children got summers off because they were to work farmland. 1800s schooling did have students tending to farms when away from the schoolhouse–but rural American schools also had students spending much less time in class. Typically it was a short summer and a short winter term. Spring and fall were considered labor intensive periods for harvest. Older students may have tended the farms in the summer too.
In growing urban school networks during the same period, students weren’t bound by the same schedule. Schooling was almost year round. By the 19th century, schools were pushing to standardize their calendars, something that would prove quite difficult with urban and rural systems developing their calendars separately and in parallel.
It was this push for standardization that would end up with summers being off-time. Urban schools all had their own individual calendars, New York’s schools ranged from 230 to 248 days of school per year in the 1840s (way more than the contemporary 180 days). Imagine how frustrating it is to schedule a gathering with people in adulthood (or honestly any point after high school). Now do it for an entire state and then an entire country.
With super short rural academic calendars and really long urban ones, merging the two calendars resulted in one that was in between the short and long one.
Why Summer Off?
So why did we end up choosing summer as our off-time for kids? If it was for farming purposes, then we could have just as easily ended up with winter as our break season.
Well for starters, for urban communities, summer was the season of least attendance. There was also the consideration of cooling buildings. By that we mean air conditioning didn’t exist. But it was mostly students just not being around in the summer. Rich families would flee the hot summer months to cooler parts of the US–at which point schools would just close in the summer because nobody was coming in anyway. This became even more true when trains made travel even more affordable for more middle-class families to leave during the summer because of the heat.
In the mid 1800s there was also the myth that overusing your brain was bad for you–it was analogous to a muscle. Pushing it is good–but push it too far and it breaks. Obviously the brain isn’t a muscle, it’s like 60% fat. Jokes aside, the idea of long breaks is actually proving to be detrimental for students, the “summer slide” describes the phenomenon by which kids lose upwards a month of learning due to a lack of schooling over the summer. It hits lower-income students and schools harder too–which really shouldn’t surprise you at all since wealthy families often send their kids to summer camps or abroad programs. But when we were making the timetables in the 1800s, we didn’t know that and were focused on giving students a long break to cool their brains.
So we really wanted to give people a season off, and summer happened to be the most pragmatic choice at the time since wealthier people were futzing off to cooler areas.
Here’s a summer typing challenge to exercise your fingers.