Summer vacation is to students what weekends are to working adults-an agreement about time off so seemingly universal that it’s hard to imagine life without it. But the current, standard American school year of 180 school days and nearly three months of summer vacation is a relatively recent development, and not something often observed in other parts of the world. The American school systems of the 19th century typically required 240 or more days of attendance, and gave students no extended vacations, just short breaks between quarters.
While there are those who would do away with summer vacation as we know it for a variety of perfectly valid practical reasons, the fact of the matter is that, like the weekend, summer vacation works. It’s a great invention, and without it, the American educational system would lose one of its strongest features: The general recognition that learning is only possible when people-students, but also teachers and parents-are given time to rest and process the work they do during the school year. No one knows this better than teachers, many of whom are as busy during the summer as they are during the months of instruction, but virtually all of whom will agree that, without a break, their profession would be inhumanly demanding.
So now, in the final weeks of August 2007, it’s time again to remember that there are such things as shoes and schedules, and to thank summer break for its last, best gift of all-the first day of school. Without summer vacation we would never know the excitement, the renewal, and the sense of possibility that every September now holds. Perhaps it’s an inadvertent consequence of our need for rest and relaxation, but the rush of early September, with its promise of a fresh start, may be summer’s secret strength.