In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Bill Fischel of Dartmouth College reveals the history of the modern academic calendar.
Bill Fischel is a professor of economics and the Robert C. 1925 & Hilda Hardy Professor of Legal Studies at Dartmouth College. He has been a professor at Dartmouth since 1973 and his current research project is focused on the economics of land use and zoning laws. He holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University.
Dr. Bill Fischel – The Origin of Summer Vacation
The kids are back in school after summer vacation, a time of joy when children forgot much of what they learned last year. It is also two months in which costly school facilities went virtually unused. Why do we have such a system? Most people think it is an agrarian holdover. Children had to work on the farm in summer, goes the story, and the schedule persisted long after we became an urban society.
The story is wrong. Farm children of the nineteenth century went to school in two seasons: winter and summer. They usually had no school during spring and fall, when extra hands were needed for planting and harvesting. Summer was a slower season when children could be spared for a term in their one-room school.
One-room schools of the nineteenth century did not divide students by age. Children were put in recitation groups based on their knowledge. If some kids missed a month or arrived long after the term began, they could be assigned to whichever recitation group was appropriate. They did not have to repeat a grade because there were no grades to repeat.
As America became urban and jobs required more than basic literacy, one-room schools were consolidated into the multi-classroom facilities we have today. They offer a more advanced education, but they work best if everyone keeps the same schedule. A fourth grader who arrives to start in October puts herself and the rest of the class at a disadvantage.
Summer vacation is thus a coordinating device to facilitate age-graded education. If we operated schools all year round, it would be more difficult for teachers and families to move between schools. And we would miss the joys of summer vacation.