Eric Bergeson: Summer school research isn’t what it used to be
Education reformers frequently propose that the school year should be extended and summer vacation eliminated.
The latest argument for formal summer learning comes from a researcher at Johns Hopkins University who demonstrated that kids from lower income households fall behind during the summer months.
C’mon. Should school really intrude into the holy and sacred three months of unstructured vacation bliss which the Founding Fathers, after a thorough study of scripture, declared should run from Memorial Day to Labor Day?
We’re not Japan. We’re not China. If those countries want to work their kids to the bone, fine.
For 60 years now, reformers have scared us about how the USA needs to keep our kids in school longer or we’ll lose some sort of contest to the Soviet Union. Or Japan. Or China. Or India.
What happened? Well, we’re so smart that we hire the hyper-educated Asians for cheap to design our cars and televisions, manufacture our computers and nearly everything else, answer our call lines, all while we spend summer out at the lake going in circles on the jet ski and mowing the lawn every now and then. With mowers made in Korea!
Isn’t that the way it should be?
The trouble is, nobody anymore, I mean nobody in the whole wide world, has the sort of summer vacation that my neighbor kids and I had when I was a kid.
One-hundred and sixty acres of playground! Woods! Swamps! Old cars! Old tractors! A dump pit! Old buildings filled with small engines that were too good to throw that I could tear apart and leave in pieces!
Trails! A BB gun! Squirrels! Turtles! Rabbits! A .22 caliber rifle!
One summer, I devoted endless hours to building ever more elaborate pinball machines with a jig saw, plywood, nails, rubber bands and magic markers. I was not interfered with once, not even when I liberated a perfectly good sheet of plywood from the shop for the project.
The final machine, which I completed in August, was a masterpiece. The peak of my summer was when I scored 265,000 points on a pinball machine I built myself.
The pinball machine then sat in the granary for 10 years, behind a Briggs and Stratton that had been removed from a hovercraft mower that was a bad patent.
I declared my pinball machines patented by writing 20-digit patent numbers on them in permanent marker, although I don’t know if you can just do that and have it stick.
Another summer, or maybe it was the same one, I set up a scientific research station out behind the corn crib on a hay wagon that hadn’t been used in three years.
My research, like my small engine studies, consisted of ripping apart things and never putting them back together again.
I once tore apart a rusty old lantern. Useless thing. Might as well figure out how it works.
Two weeks later, Grandpa was looking everywhere for the lantern he used once per year to melt the wax to seal the wounds when he grafted apple trees.
I did not fess up. The lantern was out at the hay wagon research station in many, many pieces. To see what was inside, I had shattered the glass. It was beyond repair.
No, Grandpa, haven’t seen it, I said, never thinking that Grandpa probably had been past the hay wagon.
Another summer, I did historic research in the attic of the granary, the floor of which amounted to loose boards thrown across the rafters. I could have fallen to my death at any moment, but back then nobody cared.
Treasure! Old business records, old letters, old newspapers, old yearbooks with mushy writing in the back, old atlases and, in a rare find, full-color flip charts dated 1895 depicting the pernicious effects of alcohol and tobacco on the body.
The true bonanza, however, was finding the grade books from the one-room school which used to be on the corner of the farm. From those books, I found out the grades of all the elderly neighbors. Blackmail!
Mervin Theodocious Olson got a D in grammar in 1918, I’ll have you know. I can say that because he’s dead and has no descendants.
I wasn’t in school during the summer months, but as you can see, I was learning, learning, learning the whole time.
Instead of keeping kids in school all summer in hopes they’ll turn into computer geniuses, can’t we just find an old farm somewhere and turn them loose with the agreement that they’ll be home by dark?
That’s how it used to work, and we haven’t lost a war to the Russians yet.