“Back-to-school” is like a holiday time of year that isn’t a holiday. Like Christmas, we can feel it coming every year, and it requires preparation. Even those not living by a school calendar can sense a change in the air and experience the increase in busyness that comes with the start of September. It’s a time of new beginnings, new possibilities, and a lot more work.
While many people believe that American traditional long summer vacation is an old practice originating with the needs of farm families, the truth is almost the opposite. In most of the U.S., labor was most in need on the farm in spring and fall (planting and harvest seasons), while winter and summer were the seasons of least activity. So in many rural communities, school met for a term in the winter and then again the summer. Meanwhile, in urban areas, anyone who had the money or family connections to escape the heat and disease of the city would retreat to the country during the summer. Even those who remained in the city would be somewhat safer from diseases like cholera if their children weren’t crammed together in a school building with hundreds of others during the hot summer months.
Of course, working parents wanted their children in school as much time as possible—it kept them busy and safe. So until the early 1900s, schools in cities operated almost all year round, though many students attended only parts of the year. Meanwhile, schools in agricultural areas were open only for short terms. Taxpayers hated paying for schools that weren’t being used, and the summer seemed the best time to close them. So schools in urban areas started closing during the summer, and schools in the rural areas extended their school years and added a summer vacation to match their urban counterparts. (It seems to me that the farm families were the losers in this arrangement.)
So the “ancient” tradition of a long summer vacation is only about 100 years old and even extinct in a few areas where (air conditioned) schools are on a schedule that provides for longer breaks throughout the school year and a shorter summer break. However, the concept of a summer break and the “back-to-school” non-holiday holiday is truly of long standing. Since the middle ages, the school year at Oxford began with the Michelmas term in September of each year. This was based on the legal calendar, which dates back many years before that. So the concept of a new school year beginning in September actually dates back as long in our collective memory as the concept of celebrating the birth of Jesus in December.
And for those of us with children in college or private schools, we spend more money during this non-holiday holiday than we do at Christmas. We just don’t need to wrap anything.
Something to be thankful for, I suppose.
Next time, we’ll take a look at education for those not in school – a day in the life of a governess.