What Are Summers For?
Summer is many people’s favourite season. But, for some people summer has a mythical status, as I learnt the hard way.
The last echoes of summer are still ringing. BBQs, cricket and music festivals. But cloudy skies and cool breezes suggest change is coming soon.
It’s been another odd summer, without travel, without that thing we’ve come to call “normality”. But it’s still summer.
Don’t Question Summer Holidays
“You can’t get rid of summer holidays. They’re sacred. They’re the foundation of this country’s social order.”
When I was trying to do a PHD, the research centre I was in invited me to join their board as a student representative. The university wanted all the research centres to submit new strategic plans. And those plans needed to reflect the concerns of students, especially postgraduate and research students.
My fellow students had questions – many of them about summer programs. Master’s students were curious why there was no summer semester. Taking a class over the summer would give them more flexibility in planning their course of study. Research students also liked the idea of more classes because that might create more teaching opportunities. And they disliked how there was no activity on campus for more than a quarter and nearly a third of the calendar year. This was especially acute for international students, who couldn’t afford to travel home and felt isolated in a foreign city over the summer months.
I took those questions, along with a little analysis of summer programs in similar research centres around the world, and wrote a paper for the board. Before the scheduled meeting, one of the faculty rang to suggest I should withdraw the paper. To say he was angry would be an understatement.
He started calmly at first, giving me a history lesson about the role of summer holidays in agrarian societies. Apparently, children couldn’t attend classes in summer because they needed to be in the fields helping their parents harvest the summer crops. But then his voice started to crack and the tirade began, calling into question everything from my ethics to my spirituality.
By suggesting the research centre could think about a summer program I’d clearly crossed a line.
The Point Of Summer
But why did that older academic have a such a visceral reaction to the idea of summer programs?
The obvious answer is because summer holidays are fun. I can certainly relate to the feeling of youthful nostalgia about summer, nostalgia for beaches and bike rides and hanging out with friends under the shade of the willow tree in my backyard as the days blurred into each other.
But why did he feel the need to lecture me about how the university had to protect summers? Why was it an institutional problem?
Clearly, he wasn’t out in the fields picking crops with his kids. I tried to imagine him, tweed jacket flung over a tractor, picking wheat with hands that spent the rest of the year thumbing through books and research journals.
There had to be another reason.
The Myth Of Summer
In Australia, where I grew up, summer schools holidays lasted about five and a half weeks. In the UK, it’s closer to seven. In most of Europe and North America, it’s even longer. But it’s not just the length of holiday that’s different.
Our summer holidays started with Christmas. Shops and offices would close and life would slow down as most people took a break. But that would last for only a few days. People took holidays during the rest of summer if they could. But kids didn’t go away to summer camp. No one relocated “for the summer”. There was no sense that summer was an extended break for society as a whole, or that you spent your summer living a different kind of life to the rest of the year.
After moving to London, I started to discover, a little brutally in the case of the research centre incident, that people around the world had different attitudes to summer holidays. It was clear that in countries where the climate didn’t allow you to live outdoors or at the beach very easily, summer had a different status.
An almost mythical status.
Summer wasn’t just a break from your work. It was a break from your life. Maybe even the chance to indulge in a very different kind of life. This brought with it a whole set of expectations.
The Weight Of Expectations
This approach to summer creates a lot of expectations – from diets to help you achieve the perfect summer body to fashion decisions for the perfect summer look, or lists full of essential summer reading.
Clearly, one needs to optimize for the best summers possible, maybe because after summer the inevitable questions come about how you “spent” your summer. After summer, and the liberation it carries with it, freedom feels like a limited resource.
My angst-ridden professor did allude to this in his rant. He needed summers in order to have the freedom to write. Academics are concerned about having enough output. “Publish or perish” is the cliché. But every time I spoke to him during regular semesters, he was writing something or other.
What he couldn’t articulate was perhaps the most important freedom of all: the freedom to think.
Learning To Celebrate Summers
I didn’t withdraw the paper. The research centre never did develop a summer program. Eventually, I quit the PhD. A few years later, the research centre ceased to exist, the victim of a subsequent review and restructure. These days, the university has a vigorous summer program.
But I did learn to value summer a bit more.
Not everyone can go to the beach all year round like I did growing up. The passing seasons are worth enjoying, in their own way, for the different experiences they bring.
Summer, in particular, with long days and warm evenings, can be an excellent time to think. Maybe not the kind of introspective thinking we do in the winter months. Perhaps summers are for a watching-the-world-from-a-distance sort of thought. Less concrete and more speculative, perhaps. Or just a good opportunity for the sort of mind-wandering that can fuel our creativity.
It’s probably best to relax into summer’s freedom rather than load it with expectations and hold it anxiously, like a nervous waiter with an expensive bottle of wine. We might just explode when someone asks us why summers matter so much, and we can’t give a better answer than “because they’re fun”.