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Summer's Labour's Lost
August 1, 2010 - 8:15pm

My sons and I hold a recurrent discussion about the reason school lets out in early June and resumes on the cusp of September. They adhere to the notion that a summer vacation came to them as a birthright. I point out the critical difference between the break they receive and the vacation they claim.

“Do you know why you don’t have school? Because when schools first started, children had to help their parents work in the fields during the summer.” The lecture continues: “Do you know that because kids could only go to school in the winter, their parents had to give firewood to the teacher? The teacher would even go around to their houses with a wagon to pick it up.” A few more details about one-room schoolhouses, in which the older kids taught the younger ones (they know about their great-grandma’s), and the complaints about nightly reading die down.

Many undergraduates hang on to the vestiges of my boys’ sense that summer is supposed to mean getting to do exactly what you want to do precisely when you want to do it. For undergraduates, the desire for change frequently manifests in the desire to make money by whatever means and in the highest amount possible. Nirvana equates to a Goldman Sachs internship, which will miraculously produce the six-figure job offer and maximize this goal in the present and the future. Other internships result in less cash up front, but promise golden tickets to elite and lucrative legal or medical careers down the road. Then there are the camp counselors, shop clerks, and burger flippers. They earn a little and learn a little while the sun shines. Another set expends more parental cash to buy extra courses or “voluntourism” packages anticipated to ‘pay off’ in the future with graduate admissions and global influence to make newly-impoverished parents proud.

Any of these options may broaden a students’ minds and give them the ‘experiential learning’ opportunity of which academic administrators speak ad nauseam. However, the student has to conceptualize the opportunity as more than money/career-making in order for it to work. William Deresiewicz’s reflection on Ivy Leaguers’ inability to converse with convenience store clerks ( could be quickly overcome with a summer working in a convenience store, but only if the student forgoes the snobbery of assuming they have nothing to share with their colleagues. If the student comes from a snotty suburb, a job in a low income urban neighborhood offers far more potential for cross-class understanding than one at home. As George H.W. Bush and Barak Obama each learned the hard way, every citizen should know the price of milk (NOT arugula) and its percentage in a minimum-wage worker’s budget. Once you know it, you can talk about it with anyone whether at Harvard or in Harlem.

Summer should be about pushing boundaries, and the best opportunities need not be expensive. That hypothetical convenience store might stand next to a community center. A student could volunteer to work with those in need while earning a little to contribute towards the family bills. The choice between teaching country-club kids tennis for profit or offering underclass children a new definition of fun for free need not be so stark. Time abroad means little if a student leaves feeling like a self-satisfied saviour or never sets forth from the safety of a study-abroad ghetto.

I spent the summer following my freshman year on the Navajo reservation. My parents paid my tuition for the ethnographic field school, but money had no influence as my blond ponytail circulated a Gallup, New Mexico stadium in a sea of shining, coal-black hair during the Intertribal Games. I knew in that moment what it meant to be different. I spent the evening with Native Americans from across the country commenting on having ‘seen’ me, the only melanin-deprived person among the throngs on the field. They had not seen me, of course. They each noted the ponytail bleached to extreme by the southwestern sun. That visceral sense of having my appearance draw everyone’s attention to my outsider status never left me. I made no money, but my summer’s labor was not lost.

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is associate director of the office of fellowships and teaches history and American studies at Northwestern University, from which she earned her B.A. (1992). She earned M.Litt. (1994) and M.Phil. (1995) degrees in European History as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University before completing her Ph.D. at Princeton University (2000). In her so-called spare time, she fights household entropy, gardens, bakes boozy bundts, enjoys breakfast in Bollywood, and writes scholarly papers about funky monks. For more, visit or find Elizabeth on Twitter@ejlp and LinkedIn.


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