So, here we are coming up on mid-July. Time was when school-aged kids could safely and enjoyably say, “No big deal. We’re only halfway through with summer vacation.” And they were right. It wasn’t that long ago that traditional breaks from ’readin’, ’ritin’, and ’rithmatic’ lasted from basically Memorial Day in May to Labor Day in September. Pretty much three solid months could be devoted to play, play, play. If the sun was out, so were you.

There were summer camps to attend, neighborhood baseball games to play, swimming pools to splash, creeks to explore, imaginations to run wild, and plenty of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to fuel every activity every day. Sometimes you might even read a book for fun, but nothing that was going to make you think too hard. Comic books were more the published material of choice in June, July, and August. The supposed “classics” could wait until the Fall. Although Tom Sawyer was a pretty good compromise.

All that traditional time off has changed drastically over the years. Now, when mid-July rolls around, the dreaded Back-to-School sales start popping up in stores everywhere. That’s because school in many parts of the Land of the Free now starts in early August. Forget about Labor Day being the kick-off to a new year of learning. Students are several weeks into their first grading period by then, given the latest school calendars.

From what I’ve heard, those who supposedly know such things say that kids lose a lot of academic ground during the summer. According to some, teachers have to spend quite a bit of time during the first weeks in a new school year re-teaching what the kids supposedly learned in the previous year.

With that in mind, many school districts have instituted academic sessions that spread out over the 180 yearly mandated days of teaching, which I believe are rather standard for accreditation. Instead of having the summer break lumped together in the traditional summer months, kids and teachers now have often moved to a repetitive pattern of several weeks of learning followed by a break in the action of a week or two throughout roughly 10 months of the year.

Having thoroughly enjoyed my full three months of nothing-to-do-but-play summers, I’ve never been a huge proponent of kids being back in school in August. But I’m not an educator either. So, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how today’s high school graduates compare academically with those of the 1960s and 70s.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the national illiteracy rate of those ages 14 and older in the United States in 1960 was about 2.4%. The South tended to have the highest illiteracy rates, while the Midwest had some of the lowest. In some places such as Iowa, virtually everyone was literate. (Literate, by the way, is defined as being able to read and write.)

Fast forward to the more recent past. A study conducted just a few years ago by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy claimed that “32 million adults in the United States can’t read above a fifth grade level, and 19% of high school graduates can’t read.”

Say what? How is it possible to earn a high school diploma if you can’t even read what’s on the diploma itself? And I’m just guessing here, but if you can’t read nor write, chances are your math skills are suffering a bit too.

Are kids a lot more stupid now than they were 50 and 60 years ago? That’s hard to believe. They have more access to more information and more ways to learn than ever before. Are teachers just not as good now as they once were? Again, hard to believe. I’d venture a guess that virtually everyone who goes into the educational field does so with a passion to impart knowledge to the next generation of citizens. That wasn’t an easy task decades ago, and it hasn’t changed now.

So, what’s different? Well, hey, here’s a possible reason why people were more literate decades ago than now. You don’t suppose the adventures of Superman, Batman, the Fantastic Four, Spider Man and even Archie and Jughead we read during those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summers gone by actually helped whet our appetite for reading, do you? Not to mention all the creativity and brainpower it took to fill up those long days with fun in the sun.

It’s just a thought.

©MMXXII. William J. Lewis, III – Freelance Writer