Monday, November 9, 2009

Memory Monday: The School-Year Calendar and Agrarian Society

I apologize in advance for the fact that today’s Memory Monday post is going to be half-rant, half-memory (specifically, what I remember my mother telling me about growing up on a cotton farm and why she quit school after the eighth grade plus my memories of reading the “Little House on the Prairie” books to my daughters).

Disclaimer: Although my children attended private school up through middle school, my family did experience the unpleasant aftereffects of the transition of the local public elementary school to a year-round school calendar. The neighborhood families who had school-age children with whom our children played – most of the parents were our personal friends as well – all ended up moving away, most of them out of state. Despite the active involvement of several of these families in the discussions leading up to the change (all of the families in our immediate neighborhood opposed the switch, though there were some in the larger neighborhood who supported it), the “tide of change” won out. Our neighborhood was never the same after that.

This is not a debate of the merits of year-round school. I am aware that there are both advantages and disadvantages to the system, and where you stand tends to depend on how the new schedule would impact your family. Second disclaimer: My own high school back in Seymour, Texas (which still has a strong rural/agricultural component) has gone over to the new system. According to one of my friends there who is a teacher, many students like it because they like being inside with air conditioning during the hot summer months (and Seymour gets very hot in the summer) and because there is not much to do in Seymour during the summer. I am a holdout for long summer stretches of idleness and alternative forms of learning, both for practical and admittedly nostalgic reasons.

There is one point that is inevitably raised in the debates on this system, however, with which I take issue: “The current nine-month September-to-June calendar is based on the rhythms of an agrarian society (and since we are no longer a predominantly agrarian society we no longer need it; in fact, we are so beyond it).”

This is not true. Based on my mother’s experiences, on the experiences of several other farmers and farming families I have known, on the numbers I have read in the censuses (in the column “Attended school any time since Sept. 1 [of the previous year]/Attended school (in months)” on the 1900-1930 forms, and even on some fictional accounts of rural life (such as the “Little House on the Prairie” series, which includes accounts of the author’s days as a schoolgirl and as a schoolteacher), not only is what we call the “traditional school calendar” not dictated by the work cycles of farm life, it is very much out of sync with them.

Even if the current school-year calendar may have been appropriate to certain agricultural cycles in certain places at certain times, there has always been a lot of variation in these cycles, depending on the location and local climate, the type of farming (crops grown, animals bred and raised, scale), local population concentration, type of terrain and accessibility of towns in different types of weather, and a number of other factors.

Based on the above sources, the “nine month” figure itself does not seem to hold up. The most common numbers I have often seen in that census column, at least for farm families, are three and six months. Often schooling appears to have been scheduled for the “down times” of the farming cycle: winter, when little or nothing grows and no animals are born, and parts of the summer, after planting and before harvest.

In my mother’s case, she and her brothers and sisters had to help pick cotton up until early December. This meant that they had to play “catch-up” every year, and by the end of the eighth grade, my mother was simply tired of doing that. (See My Mother, the High School Graduate.)

The debate on year-round versus traditional school calendars should be based on the advantages and disadvantages that would be experienced by the families and should avoid appeals to the yearning for a “progressive” move away from the old, rural way of life toward urban modernity. It’s time to give this tired old fiction a rest.

T’aint so and t’wasn’t ever so.

End of rant.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Greta! I know you have won a Kreativ Blogger Award, but I wanted to give you one! You were one of the first bloggers who reached out to say hello and visit my blog!!

    Bless You!