Did Summer Break Tradition Start in Rural Communities?

By Diette Courrégé Casey — July 29, 2013 1 min read
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Many believe the traditional school calendar, including the three-month summer break, can be traced back to rural farming communities. But some experts say that’s not true.

In working on a story about year-round schools for The Post and Courier, I was interested in how the current school year calendar got to be the way it is.

Although some sources suggested it was related to agricultural schedules, I found a few folks who argued otherwise.

One of the most prominent was Kenneth M. Gold, who wrote the book “School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools.”

In the book, he writes students worked in the fields planting and harvesting during the spring and fall, so school was in session during winter and summer.

The summer break tradition started with city residents who left town during the hot summer months, he contends. School officials didn’t think it made sense to open when students wouldn’t show up, and politics led others to adopt the same schedule, including those in rural areas.

Gold isn’t the only one who makes that argument. Bob Thaler, an assistant professor of sociology at Saginaw Valley State University, was quoted in a Grand Rapids Press column about the same issue, and he offered a similar explanation as Gold. He called the agricultural-based school calendar a “common and widespread” misconception.

Thaler was quoted as saying “cities were hot, dusty, smelly, uncomfortable places to live in summers. They had dirt roads, lots of horses (with manure and urine and horseflies), few big trees, no electric fans or air-conditioning, lots of insects, many buildings which blocked cooling winds, etc.” The working men who set schools’ schedules would take off and join their families. Thus the summer break was born.

I even found one living history museum in Massachusetts, the Old Sturbridge Village, that supported Gold and Thaler’s explanation.

Myth busted? What do you think?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.