A Lament on the Shrinking of Summer

It’s the end of August; not so long ago this was still a lazy time to enjoy the last few days of summer. It used to be that Labor Day marked the unofficial end of summer — not so any more.

The erosion of summer is driven mainly by the start of school. I have watched with sadness as the school year seems to begin earlier and earlier and earlier. In the Washington, D.C. area, some schools have been open for more than a week already. College classes start even earlier, early August in some cases; and new students who need an “orientation” generally arrive on campus even before the general student population.

What’s the big rush? Why are some people in such a big hurry to get back to the grind? Families have so little time to spend time together as it is! I hope that the concerns I express today will be seen as having spiritual components and not just as the complaints of an old curmudgeon.

The purpose of rest, both the Sabbath rest and vacation, is to enjoy the fruit of our labors. We should work to live; many today live to work. What is the point of having a livelihood if we never get the time to enjoy life? God commanded the Sabbath for many reasons, but among them was justice. He set forth a particular day of the week (Saturday) as well as other times (feasts) when work was forbidden so that all could rest. Without the collective agreement and commandment (under pain of sin), the rich get time off but the poor must still work to facilitate the leisure of the rich. God set forth a system that sought to prevent that injustice. All, including slaves and even beasts of burden, were to refrain from all but the most necessary work.

In our culture, Sunday has been the day of rest. Most who have better paying jobs get that day off. Before 1970, even the poor typically had Sundays off because most retail establishments were closed. Today, for our convenience, lower-paid store workers and restaurant staff must work.

It is the same with holidays and holy days. It used to be that days like Christmas, Good Friday, and Thanksgiving were days off for just about everyone. Non-essential operations were generally closed.

Today almost nothing — no day, no time — is sacred. Market demand and the need to get ahead of the competition drive this. Work, work, work; compete and strive to win. It is usually the poorest among us, however, who pay the greatest price for this.

Families also suffer; time together has steadily eroded over the years. The tradition of eating evening and weekend meals is all but gone. Sunday and holiday gatherings seem to be shorter and more perfunctory—if they occur at all. Summer itself is now on the chopping block. Churches are affected because the window in which we have to conduct summer festivals and Vacation Bible school is more limited.

I have been given numerous explanations as to why schools are champing at the bit to begin the year.

School officials (in both secular and Catholic schools) tell me that many parents are delighted that their children are back in school earlier, thus freeing them to do other things rather than minding the children. But what does that tell you about the vision of family life today? Shouldn’t families want extended time to vacation together and to engage in other local activities, Church offerings, and so forth? Shouldn’t parents enjoy spending time with their children? Shouldn’t they want to use the extra time in the summer to form them? Do parents have children merely to send them off to school, happy to be rid of them for a few hours? I hope not. I know that we all get a little tired, but I find it alarming that parents would be as eager for school to start as school officials insist is the case.

I am told that teachers require more days for professional development, thus forcing schools to open earlier in the year and/or close later in order to meet the required minimum number of days of student instruction. But professional days and ongoing certification have always been necessary. My mother was a teacher for over twenty years and teachers had professional days and took certification courses (mainly in the summer) back then. Teachers already have two and a half months away from classes. That’s a lot more vacation than most of the rest of us have. Is there a reason that teachers could not have most of June and July off and then return at the beginning of August for these sorts of things? If schools opened after Labor Day that would still give them more than a month for these activities.

Further I would argue that the impact of such a system is not a good one. It sets up a “death by a thousand cuts” throughout the school year as half-days, teacher in-service days, and professional days seem to eat into most weeks of the school year. In some school systems nearly every Friday is a half day for one reason or another. Working parents must juggle schedules all year long, not just in the summer when vacations are already common. Schools even collect a lot extra money running “aftercare” programs on those half-days of classes. Parents are not only deprived of time with their children, but they are pressured financially as well.

The school system is supposed to serve children, parents, and families, but it seems instead that the school systems have started ruling our lives and dictating our schedules. Even in Catholic and other private schools, parents who are already struggling just to afford the tuition must now also pay for additional childcare on those days when school is not in session or closes early.

My final concern is that school schedules carving away more and more of the summer from family time means that the formation of children shifts from the families to the schools. Is that really what we want? I would hope that parents would want to play the most significant role in forming their children. Parents should ask themselves if they want to raise their children or increasingly hand that task over to strangers. Sadly, as we all can see, many schools have become less and less places of teaching basic academic skills and more and more places of indoctrination into values that are often inimical to Catholic and biblical teachings. Although there are exceptions, the infiltration of secular and immoral ideologies into the curriculum has made major inroads in public schools.

I recommend we attack this problem by starting simply. Can we at least have the month of August back? How about an agreement not begin school until the Tuesday after Labor Day? It’s just a little thing, but the steady erosion of rest, family time, Church time, and “downtime” has taken a toll on our society in many ways. Here’s to summer … all of it!

9 Replies to “A Lament on the Shrinking of Summer”

  1. Thank you, Monsignor. One of the iron rules of bureaucracies is that after awhile, except in extraordinary situations*, the members of the bureaucracy care more about themselves than those they are ostensibly supposed to serve. Schools, public and Catholic, unfortunately mostly follow that rule.

    We test like crazy in this country. The tests are scheduled for the fall, and are required by law. In Colorado parents are not allowed to opt out of the mandatory testing. Starting earlier squeezes more weeks into the calendar before the testing. The last Catholic high school I taught at things in the spring were such that we had fewer 5-day weeks than weeks with either a half or full day interruption. Rather hard to get into a rhythm when the schedule keeps changing.

    *One more piece of evidence that this Catholic Church, which you and I are fortunate to count as accepting us as members, is the Church of Jesus Christ. There have been, from time to time, priests and bishops who may have slacked in their zeal, tried to make things to ease their burden of serving the weak, the poor, and the sinners, less. The Holy Spirit strengthens and renews His Church. When this Church of men wanders off course, she is directed back to His work.

  2. The schools have stepped in to become everything to families that the Church once was. When my children were in school ten years ago it was apparent. They were the hub of everything for families as though we lived and had our being through the school. It was disgusting and I resented it and made that clear. The homework was becoming such a burden that there was little time for anything else. I called the teacher that was piling it on the most and simply told him my child’s homework wouldn’t be done the next day because believe it or not we had other things to do….Religious Ed, taking care of sick parents, volunteer and quite simply dinner and household things. I told him she was there for 7 hours a day, now we had other obligations. He was dumbstruck, then said he understood. After that, homework from him became a trickle. Ha! Most parents are afraid to speak up but it’s necessary. I’m pretty sure my picture was in the office with a red line through it but I didn’t care. It was ridiculous then, and it’s ridiculous now.

  3. In the past, the Monsignor has made the claim that he is not a bachelor. I do not dispute that claim. If I have disputed that claim in the past, I hereby withdraw my dispute. As a bachelor myself, such is my life, I note that this article gives evidence that the Monsignor is not a bachelor. Why? Because as a bachelor I have only the vaguest understanding of when the school year begins and almost no understanding of the effect that has on people’s lives.

    I used to think that school should be year round. Summer vacation seemed like a scam to me. Now, Summer vacation appears as a beautiful ideal that people seldom live up to, though it probably happens, sometimes.

  4. Understanding that it is not an option or desire for all, this is one reason that homeschooling has such an appeal. While we have state guidelines to adhere to, making our own schedule allows more control over our own time in addition to allowing us generous amounts of time together before the children leave home to pursue their vocations. I attended traditional school and know very well that its very set-up does not encourage family time.

  5. Which is why more and more families are home schooling.
    Heck, even the so-called “Catholic” schools have turned into Liberal indoctrination pits since the nuns have disappeared.

  6. When I was a kid we started school in August and were done at least a week before Memorial Day.

  7. The roots of summer vacation lie in polio scares. Rich city families, and all who could afford it, sent their children away in the hot summer months, when polio seemed to be the most dangerous. June, July, and August are not busy farming months. Planting mostly needs to be done before the end of May and harvesting starts towards the end of September. Those months are great for walking bean fields.

  8. As usual, your writing is very good, Monsignor. However, I wanted to give you a view outside your locale. It’s legislation that pushes the calendar around.

    In Michigan, state legislation pushed school opening day to past Labor Day. Prior to that, school began in August and children started summer vacation in the last week of May or the first of June. Mid-June, July, and the first part of August tend to be the warmest months, and most schools didn’t have air-conditioning. Now the legislature has allowed schools to apply for earlier starts – something that our local school wanted to do when various tests started falling earlier in the year.

    In some cases (certainly in my hometown), school years were shorter but school days were slightly longer. Now the calendar can’t be adjusted by adding minutes, with the exception of making up snow days.

    The student time requirement is quite a separate issue from teacher training. My district has two days of training/development before the first student day; most other development is done in one-hour sessions after a full day of school. Looking at the upcoming events, I see only 10 half-days this year – six of those are when kids take exams and teachers spend the afternoon grading them – and one full day of training scheduled at the end of winter break.

    The teacher training is quite different from your mother’s (and my mother’s) time. Previously, one pursued classes until achieving a Masters of Ed or administration, and in the process moved from a provisional certificate to a professional certificate. Those certificates were permanent, as evidenced by the fact that my aunt, who died in the late 1970s, is still listed as certified in the Michigan database. Certificates are no longer permanent, so getting continuing education credits CHEAPLY is a concern especially for young teachers with families. Hence having regional training done on-site is more important than ever, and usually that means teacher-only days scheduled during the school year.

  9. Yup! Back when I was in school, no grammar or high school opened until after Labor Day. And we got out early June, as I remember. Give the kids a break. The schools, with some exceptions, are factories of trash, brainwashing, and places for violence in these sad times. Thanks to liberal parents who relinquish their authority to strangers. So, the schools get the children for nearly ten months a year, 8 hours a day. Compulsory education for 6 -16 year-olds is a modern abuse of state government. Massachusetts was the first state to mandate it by law in 1852. Private and parochial schools had to fight for their rights to educate under the volition of parents. School ought to be voluntary, as the parents wish. The State should stay out of it.

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