Long, lazy summers?

Is a child’s progress affected by the long summer break? Research seems to suggest that it is. Classroom teachers often report that some students struggle in their first few weeks back at school in the autumn. The phenomenon of summer learning loss means that young people lose academic skills and knowledge as a result of the long break.

Photo by Drew Perales, published on Unsplash

One obvious question is to consider why on earth it is that we have such a long summer holiday in the first place. A popular myth is that school children were let out of school over the summer so that they could help with the work in the fields. There seems to be no basis to this widely-held belief (I believed it myself for years).

The UK school system was in fact developed over the course of the 19th century, by which time English farms were rapidly becoming mechanised. Children being required to help with the harvest would only have been relevant to a vanishingly small percentage of the population and besides, anyone who knows anything about farming will tell you that a holiday ending at the start of September is not going to be of much use for bringing in the harvest, the bulk of which tends to happen in early autumn. Whatever the origin of the traditional six weeks off at the height of summer might be, it certainly wasn’t for agrarian purposes.

The educational tradition of a long summer break allowing for travel dates back to the concept of the Grand Tour, which in the 18th century was an important rite of passage for young men graduating from Oxford or Cambridge. The Grand Tour involved visiting classical sites, viewing great works of art and architecture, developing their language skills and cultural knowledge and collecting souvenirs; the whole process was seen as an extension of a young man’s cultural education and an essential part of their initiation into society. While the Grand Tour may seem like something from another era, its principles are still with us – what we do as tourists (visiting museums, buying souvenirs, practising our language skills and trying to absorb local culture) is strongly influenced by the aims of the 18th century; the enduring popularity of Paris, Rome, Florence and Venice as essential destinations for all perhaps betray the fact that we’re not as far from that mindset as we think we are. Given that the educational reform acts of the 19th century were driven in parliament by enlightened educational idealists, it seems plausible that they were (perhaps unwittingly) influenced by the notion that extended time for leisure and travel must be built into the academic timetable. Quite how they thought the working poor were going to access its benefits is anybody’s guess, but maybe they were able to see into the future and predict the advent of cheap flights in the 20th century.

But, I digress. The long summer holiday is here to stay and while there have been numerous calls over the years for the system to be adjusted, nobody has yet come up with a viable suggestion for how to make it happen. So here we are, with all students facing six to eight weeks out of school and the potential learning loss which comes with it.

Let’s look at what the research says about summer learning loss, which has been superbly summarised in a recent blog post by Innerdrive. They point out that according to a recent meta-analysis of 13 studies, which looked at over 50,000 students, children experience an average summer learning loss of around one month. But learning loss over the long summer holiday is neither inevitable nor insurmountable – not all students suffer from it. Therefore by taking some proactive steps and preventative planning, not only can summer learning loss can be minimised but the long stretch away from the classroom can be an opportunity for catch-up.

So what can families do to support their children during the long break? Without a doubt, the most powerful thing they can do is to read to and/or with their child. Children benefit in multiple ways from being read to. Adults reading aloud to children exposes them to material that may currently be beyond their reading age but to which they are able to respond; this helps to increase their vocabulary as well as their general exposure to literature and the wider world.

Many families like to make the most of the holiday to do more educational trips and visits; museums and galleries are much more child-friendly these days and most of them offer interactive workshops free of charge. While such experiences may not appear to support your child’s curriculum directly, you’d be amazed what a difference they make to a child’s general view of the world and their place within it.

There has been a notable increase in demand for summer catch-up sessions this year, and I wonder whether more and more families are taking action to counteract the various ways in which their children have suffered learning loss over the last two to three years. This summer I have several clients who have specifically sought out a tutor for intensive work during the summer holiday and this can certainly be a powerful way to make up for lost time. Parents can help with studies too by supporting their child when it comes to the rote learning; a tutor can do the complex work, demystifying a subject and identifying misconceptions, but the process of memorisation requires frequent repetition: unless you want to pay your tutor to meet with your child every day (or even several times a day!) this is where you come in. Ask your tutor to give you a copy of what your child should be learning and spring frequent quizzing upon them: there really is no substitute for regular, short bursts of retrieval.

Whatever decisions you make for your child during the long summer break, remember that learning in itself is a valuable and enriching process. Too many people remain convinced that children require a “complete break” from learning, as if learning in itself is a strain. The reality is that children are hard-wired to learn; asking them to continue to do a little bit of academic work is not going to ruin their life (although some teenagers may of course claim otherwise …).

Man’s inhumanity to man

A humanist perspective on the crucifixion story.

Historical, mythical or legendary, the crucifixion of Christ represents the story of many. Whether or not the man called Jesus existed – and the modern scholarly view on this seems to range from ‘probably’ to ‘possibly’ – the gospel narrative reflects a wider human story, the story of thousands upon thousands of nameless and forgotten individuals who were crucified at the hands of the Roman state.

Anyone who assumes that crucifixion was an unusual or extraordinary event in Roman times should consider the case of the rebels led by Spartacus. This low-born Thracian gladiator-slave led a revolt so successful that it caused considerable embarrassment to the ruling Senate. When Crassus finally crushed the rebellion in 71 BCE, he ordered the crucifixion of an estimated 6,000 slave-rebels along the Appian Way, the main road leading out from the city of Rome; he also brought back the ruthless practice of decimation to punish and terrorise the cohort of soldiers that he deemed to have failed him the most in his earlier attempts to quash the rebellion.

Crucifixion was public and humiliating – deliberately so – and its use in the case of the slave-rebels illustrates several important points about this notorious and brutal method of execution. Its aim was to demean the victim and intimidate the observer – this was what happened to you when you challenged the Roman rule of law. Crucifixion was a servile supplicium – reserved for slaves and foreigners, non-Roman citizens, deserting soldiers, pirates and insurgents. Wealthy Roman men were often removed from society due to political machinations or the whim of current authority, but never was crucifixion used as the method to dispense with them.

In its broadest definition, crucifixion meant that the victim was impaled and/or tied to some form of frame, cross, stake or tree and left to hang for anything from several hours to several days. Causes of death included exhaustion and shock brought on by extreme pain and exsanguination (sometimes in part from a scourging prior to the crucifixion), heart failure and/or pulmonary collapse from the immense pressure put upon the victim’s heart and lungs; the victim’s demise could be hastened dramatically by increasing the intensity of this pressure, hence the common practice of breaking the legs to precipitate collapse. It was a sadistic and grotesque formula for murder, exploited in extremis by the Romans.

It is not clear whether the emperor Constantine outlawed crucifixion in the 4th Century CE, as is claimed by Christian triumphalist writers, but certainly it had been outlawed in the Roman empire by the mid 5th century. However, the Classical world is not the only context in which this abhorrent method of slaughter has been practised. Japanese haritsuke started with the execution of 26 Christians in Nagasaki in 1597 and recurred intermittently up until the last century. Islam has also subsumed the practice, with verse 5:33 of the Qur’an calling for the crucifixion of those who wage war against Allah or the Prophet Muhammad. Crucifixion is still practised in some Islamic countries and there have been recently-documented cases in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Yemen; it is most commonly used to make a degrading and threatening showpiece of the victim’s body rather than as a method of execution, but this is not exclusively the case.

The Easter story means nothing to a humanist from a spiritual perspective; we do not believe that Christ was the son of God, nor do we believe that he died for our sins and was resurrected. Yet each year the human side of the Easter story can serve as a sober reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. In a modern context, we can and should take action by giving support to the work of organisations such as Amnesty International, who campaign tirelessly and effectively against the use of torture and capital punishment right across the globe.

But as a Classicist, I cannot help but see the story of Christ as a legend within its ancient milieu and recall the incalculable number of wasted human lives that resonate through its narrative. In the name of ‘Roman civilisation’, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people were tortured and crucified, forgotten souls with no afforded legacy of reverence or pious gratitude to preserve them in the conscious minds of the living.

At this time of year, I choose to remember them.

This piece was first published in Humanist Life in 2016.

Herd Mentality

At primary school, I rarely played with other children. For me, playtime usually meant a walk around the edges of the playground, observing others and thinking to myself.

There were lots of reasons why I found it difficult to connect with my childhood peers, none of them particularly interesting or unusual, but I do sometimes wonder whether my early experiences have defined my temperament; I’ve never been much of a joiner and find many people frankly depressing.

Large scale groups make me feel particularly uncomfortable and I hate the idea of “losing myself” in a crowd. A crowd takes on a mind-set and a force of its own, one that’s both independent from and beyond the control of the individuals it contains. It gave us looting and destruction during what started as a protest about the tragic and violent death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham; it gave us the devastating online lynching of Justine Sacco for a misguided and poorly-worded tweet; it gave us the Salem witch trials.

Herd mentality – in all its forms, both ancient and modern – is probably the thing that frightens me most in the world.

That is not to say that my failure to merge cohesively with a group has not caused me some anguish over the years – it can be a lonely existence. A few years back, it meant separation from a group of writers with many values that I share due to my innate inability to agree with them on everything – or at least, to pretend that I do. More recently, it has meant the editor of the magazine blocking me for defending people’s right to ask questions. Apparently, I am “no longer an ally”.

As a lifelong supporter of social justice, the new wave of “social justice warriors” and their denunciation of healthy debate has come as a horrifying shock to me. Until recently, I believed that the fight for equality would herald a new age of empathy, diversity and understanding. Instead, many of my previously liberal allies have been taken over by the cult of victim-hood and a collective fear of rejection. Like the teenagers in my classroom, they constantly check in with each other to affirm whether or not what they think is acceptable – and who can blame them? The consequences of dissent are excommunication from the tribe.

Experience has certainly taught me that being part of a group is not in my nature, and broadly speaking I am proud of the fact that I won’t play ball for the sake of staying on the team. It may not be my most attractive quality, but it’s the one that will drive me to raise the alarm whilst everyone else stays silent; it makes me the kid who will shout that the emperor’s got no clothes on.

In the past, I found myself briefly drawn to a range of people, many of whom describe themselves as “libertarians” – only to find once again that there’s a hymn sheet of horrors I’m expected to sing from. According to most of the Americans that I have met online, to be accepted as a “libertarian” then I have to be in favour of guns. Lots of guns. I have to agree that the act of carrying a gun is a liberating experience (I mean – what?) and certainly that the act of carrying one is none of the government’s business. Every time I try to propose a different line of thinking (held by most sane individuals on this side of the Atlantic), I am simply told that I’m “not a libertarian”. So there we are.

Another “libertarian” approach that I struggle to respect is the puerile desire to offend, bolstered by the dubious claim that this is somehow a noble and worthwhile antidote to the equally tedious culture of taking offence. Certainly, I relish challenge and debate, and I also believe that free speech is more important than the inevitable risk of causing offence to some. As Salman Rushdie said following the horrifying attacks on the staff at Charlie Hebdo in 2015, “I … defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.” But in an article on what he has termed “cultural libertarianism,” Breitbart author Allum Bokhari argues that “deliberate offensiveness plays an important role in the fight against cultural authoritarianism, … showing that with a little cleverness, it’s possible to express controversial opinions and not just survive but become a cult hero.”

This surely sums up the unambitious and self-seeking aims of those who make it their business to offend – preening contrarians whose sole function is to cause shock and awe, their online communications a heady mix of clickbait, worthless insults and self-aggrandisement. Depressingly, I have observed this behaviour on #edutwitter as much as anywhere else; I thought better of the teaching profession, but once again I am proved mistaken. There is no evidence whatsoever that anyone’s personal liberty is furthered by such infantile sneering; yet swarms of self-proclaimed “liberals” rejoice in this toxic effluence with excited applause, like an encouraging mother will celebrate her toddler’s first shit in the potty.

Maybe I am still that little girl on the edges of the playground, the one with the problem joining in – but as I stand at the periphery, I see the herd mentality all around me. At its best, it gives us a sense of solidarity as we strive for the greater good or find our feet in the world. At its worst, it gives us mindless thuggery, the kind of collective violence exemplified and explored in Golding’s Lord of the Flies. On a mundane level, however, it gives us neither of these; it simply endorses mediocrity and prevents us from thinking.

This is an updated version of a piece I wrote for Quillette magazine in 2016.