Students need a summer break

Oh great. Here's an idea for school reform so bad it's bound to prevail. Get rid of summer vacation. Yup. There's a winner in the anti-fun, make-life-dismal sweepstakes. Coming soon to a faculty of education near you. Monday's Globe and Mail says more than two million U.S. students already attend schools with a year-round calendar, a.k.a. "balanced" or "modified," in which instead of getting most of their vacation in one big happy summery chunk, they get it in monotonous dribs and drabs throughout the year. Thus far it's only been adopted in a few schools in B.C., Alberta and Ontario. But just you wait. The Globe quoted the head of the department of educational studies (a bad start, folks) at UBC, "I always say, 'We've got a 150-year-old compromise.' Everything else in society has changed. Maybe it's time to change the school calendar. People are nervous because they don't know anything else." Well, I always say, "I don't fear change; I fear stupidity." If we had real school choice there wouldn't be just one calendar but since we don't, we should fight this idea.

The esteemed educationist is right about the compromise; the reason we have long summer vacations is the government wanted to put kids in school all the time and parents wanted them around to help on the farm and they split the difference. And it's true that most people no longer need their kids pitching hay into the barn on a July day (although seeing pale rickety kids lurking endlessly in the basement playing video games, I could hand them a pitchfork). But "everything else in society" hasn't changed; Aristotle's advice to "Bring your desires down to your present means; increase them only when your increased means permit" has paradoxically become more true as we have grown richer and more indebted. (And money still can't buy happiness, but people won't stop trying.)

Much has changed, of course. Foul language is now routine, crime is common, we get most of our public policy from Laputa but have forgotten its location. What say we change some of it back, not change the rest then dance around the flames?

For instance, when I read that some U.S. universities now use software to grade essays, including, the Citizen says, "real-time feedback about grammar, style and organization," I was reminded that Malcolm Muggeridge wanted to live to see the last sociologist fed into the last computer. I feel the same way about abolishing summer vacation.

It's not that I'm in favour of laziness. At least not to excess. But I'm much in favour of variety. Rest homes are apparently realizing that giving Alzheimer's patients monotonous surroundings is a good way to process human units but not a sympathetic way to treat our fellows. It's time to apply the same insight to education.

Have you ever lived in a place without seasons? They're nice to visit in, say, February. But for the long haul, give me spring, summer, autumn and winter every year. Their changing texture, with varied drawbacks as well as advantages, adds richness to life. So does a year with nine months of school and three of vacation. It's better to spend a few months occasionally hanging around on lazy days, to be sure, but also pursuing hobbies with time to explore them thoroughly, getting out of the city regularly, devoting entire days to reading or sports, than spend 14 straight years in a school that looks like an insecticide factory whirling round in an endless series of modules, PDAs and allotted vacation units in between classes that start at 11 minutes after the hour because a computer said they should.

An unbalanced school year emphasizes a key point about the mysterious fourth dimension in which we spend our lives immersed but, like fish in water, rarely observe. In a physics lab, every second is like every other (they're all "9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium-133 atom"). But psychologically, time expands and dilates in dramatic ways; we all know time flies when you're having fun (and in fact I'm still trying to figure out what they did with 1987) whereas in my ninth-grade history class it was frequently an open question whether the clock was working at all.

I don't endorse Dunbar in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, who actively sought boredom so his life would seem longer. Rather, experiencing life at different paces, intense during the school year, contemplative during the summer, tends to infuse even intense moments with a contemplative quality and even contemplative ones with a certain intensity, to the enhancement of both and of our humanity. If we still have one.

So of course the schools will try to get rid of it. I give the idea an F but only because, as I was occasionally frustrated to observe when grading essays using the antiquated person method, they don't let you give an H.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson