Friday, May 16, 2008

The creation of the world, and the beginning of school

From Fearful Majesty, by Benson Bobrick:

"A Note on Names and Dates

All dates are according to the Julian or Old Style calendar in use in Western Europe until 1582. Sixteenth-century Russians celebrated their New Year on September 1 and based their calendar on the date of the creation of the world, which they placed in 5508 B.C."

I've just begun this book, but this little note at the beginning intrigues me.

I have puzzled for several years over why there seems to be an almost universal "school-beginning" around the first of September. In every culture I've seen that has an organized school system, this holds.

The explanation usually given is that agricultural economies needed a summer off so children could help with crops.

Which doesn't hold on 2 levels. First, if that were true, it would make far more sense to place a school vacation into the Fall, when most crops are harvesting. And secondly, this also holds in cultures that are not agriculturally based.

The Mongolian culture is one I'm familiar with. The Mongols -- like virtually everyone else -- begin school in the Fall, and end in late Spring. But the Mongols have never been an agricultural economy. They were traditionally nomadic, and even today, there's a significant portion of the Mongol population that still lives in gers and moves around according to the needs of their animals.

So whence the near-ubiquity of a late summer-early Fall school beginning? Maybe our 16th century Russians give us a clue. I wonder if there's a cultural memory of a creation date, a memory that perhaps led our forefathers to begin important stuff -- such as learning -- around the time they remembered for the beginning of the world.

(Which would help to explain another, somewhat unrelated, question: why there's such opposition to year-round schools, even in very non-agricultural settings. This is not saying that such operations are wrong, but it's interesting to note with what little enthusiasm such school calendars are embraced. North Carolina even dealt with it by legislation. School officials had kept moving the begin date for school further back -- close to the first of August -- and were moving the school year's close date further out, usually until the 3rd or 4th week of June. Now -- by law -- public schools in NC cannot begin before August 25, and must close by June 10).

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