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Can We Please Put the ‘Agrarian Roots of Summer Vacation’ Myth to Bed?

By Sara Mead — July 25, 2010 1 min read

David Von Drehle’s TIME cover story on summer learning loss is interesting as these things go, and gives attention to both a serious problem and some praiseworthy initiatives to address it. But this line just about drove me bonkers.

Long summer holidays are the legacy of our vanished agrarian past, when kids were needed in the fields during the growing season.

This is one of those things that “everyone knows” but is just not true. As my former colleague Elena Silva has written:

Time in school has been added and subtracted in many ways throughout our country's history, although not always for obvious reasons. School schedules varied considerably by locality early in our country's history with some schools open nearly year round and others open only intermittently. In large cities, long school calendars were not uncommon during the 19th century. In 1840, the school systems in Buffalo, Detroit, and Philadelphia were open between 251 and 260 days of the year. New York City schools were open nearly year round during that period, with only a three-week break in August. This break was gradually extended, mostly as a result of an emerging elite class of families who sought to escape the oppressive summer heat of the city and who advocated that children needed to "rest their minds." By 1889, many cities had moved to observe the two-month summer holiday of July and August. Rural communities generally had the shortest calendars, designed to allow children to assist with family farm work, but they began to extend their school hours and calendars as the urban schools shortened theirs.

The really crazy thing here is that later in the TIME piece Von Drehle actually quotes the very same report from which Silva’s above quote discussing the roots of summer vacation also comes. So he knows the “agrarian past” line is at best only partially true, but deploys it anyway. What gives?

FWIW, the idea that summer, rather than spring and fall, was the time when our agrarian ancestors most needed kids out of school doesn’t really make sense when you think about it. Obviously, kiddie lit is no substitute for history but I’m trying to remember the classic children’s novel about farm kids in the 1800’s in which the kids go to school in the summer and winter but not in the spring and fall, when they’re needed at home--Caddie Woodlawn, maybe?

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.