Friday, July 02, 2010

In Defense of Summer Vacation

We often hear from education "reformers" and tabloid editorial writers that the summer vacation should be abolished. This proposal is usually accompanied by attacks on "lazy teachers" who get summers off when nobody else does. We are told that summer vacation was originally instituted when America was an agrarian society and children were needed on the farm, summer being the busy season for farmers. Now that few children are needed for farm chores, summer vacation outlived its usefulness. I am not sure how true this is; wasn't harvest season in autumn, when kids return to school? But in any event, summer vacation for students and teachers is a venerable American tradition, and that alone argues for keeping it. We Diaspora Jews keep an extra day of Yom Tov, originally because word of the correct date, based on the sighting of the new moon in Jerusalem, might not have reached outlying areas in time. However, we have had a fixed calendar since the fourth century C.E. There is absolutely no doubt of the correct dates of our holidays. We keep the tradition of the extra day simply because it's a tradition; minhag avoteinu b'yadeinu.

Some traditions (and features of a language) originate for one reason and acquire new meanings with the passage of time. For instance, Shavu'ot originated as an agricultural observance, evolved into a commemmoration of the giving of the Torah (zman mattan Torateinu) and is now, praise God, returning to its agricultural roots. Similarly, summer vacation might have originated to free children for farm work, but it took on new utility that more than justifies holding on to it. It is said that two months without learning causes children to forget everything they learned in the previous year. If so, wouldn't kids working on farms have also forgotten their lessons? Does urbanization ruin kids' brains? The sad fact is that children, regardless of where they live or how they spend their free time, tend to forget what they learned as soon as they take the test, unless it is relevant to their lives or of particular interest. I remembered most of what I learned in science, biology in particular, because that is my passion. I fell in love with biology before I fell in love with my wife - or met her. I forgot most of my Shakespeare, except for some quotable quotes (the fault, dear Brutus. . . .). The summer does not cause children to forget what they learned, but it provides an opportunity for learning of a sort that one cannot get in a classroom. Warm temperatures and long hours of daylight enable children (and adults) to recharge their batteries, and acquire habits of physical activity that are absolutely essential for their good health. Playing with friends builds social skills that are not acquired sitting behind a desk but that are necessary for society to function. And children are free to read what they wish, and experience the ethereal joy of learning not because some adult is forcing them to, not because they have to pass a test, but for the pure joy of learning something new. Looking back to my own childhood, most of our parents were struggling and travel was out of the question. But the public library was our home away from home, and we explored the world in books, some of which were borrowed in June, taken to summer camp and returned in September. Summer camp itself was our first experience away from home, and we learned to solve our own problems instead of running to Mommy. You don't get that kind of learning cooped up in a classroom. Most of the summer's seasonal jobs, such as lifeguarding and manning concession stands in parks and beaches, would go begging if not for students off from school. These students are learning that they have to work for the things they want.

Columnists and editorial writers in tabloids begrudge teachers our summers off - and would have children develop sedentary habits that will condemn them to a lifetime of misery. Face it - how productive are you cooped up indoors when the sun and surf beckon? Are you able to concentrate on work when you have to dress in a manner inappropriate for the summer's heat? Instead of abolishing summer vacation for teachers and students, we ought to experiment with prolonged time off for workers in general during nature's time for fun in the sun.

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