The history of Spring Break

Robert Valentine Senior lecturer in advertising

     Spring Break has come.

     This long-standing seasonal event is actually a relatively new arrival on the list of University traditions. We rarely pause to think about its origins. So happy are we to hit the snow-lined trail to the Tennessee border that points south. Very, very south.

     In fact, paleolithic man (and woman) did not indulge in this annual sun worship. There is no written record of any paleolithic Spring Break, probably due to the absence of any paleolithic colleges and universities. In those days, education was restricted to very simple forms of training such as gathering berries, hunting for elk, moose and Rotarians and writing legislation for the congress.

The medieval university featured long, boring lectures, uninteresting food and excessive drinking. Since that time, however, a few things have changed, to wit: professors now take attendance.

In fact, medieval students like Prince Hamlet of Denmark (see Shakespeare’s laugh-filled madcap comedy about a misunderstood undergrad) might not go home once in a four-year period. Hamlet is obviously a work of fiction because he was always popping back to the house to kill some old servant, attend a girlfriend’s funeral or go to the theater. When you’re going to school in Paris (France – not Tennessee) and they don’t take attendance, why go home?

It is not until the democratization of college in the early 20th century that we encounter a holiday set in the first semiwarm months of March and April. The reason is found in the agricultural base of the North American economy: in planting season, we need all hands on deck (or, “in the dirt,” as may be). Students who were not princes or trustfund babies would take time off from diligent study to go home to help plant and then check out the local farm girls before heading back to college.

Two important developments freed the college student from this annual trip to serve as unpaid farm labor: the invention of the motorized tractor and big time college basketball.

First, parents found they could get more done with a tractor and without the interference of students who a) needed to do two months of laundry in five days, and b) thought they knew more than their parents because they had read “The Great Gatsby.”

Second, universities began to demand attendance on campus in order to increase the size of the crowds at sports venues. During the time of which we speak, popcorn and lemonade sales at basketball games were a significant part of school budgets.

Even though this revenue source was later replaced by parking stickers and parking fines, big time college basketball had made its mark right in the middle of the traditional season of Spring Break.

The impact of this phenomenon actually created a boom in the American economy as inventors leapt at the chance to capitalize on this opportunity. It was Henry Ford who put the final nail in the coffin of tradition by building an inexpensive automobile capable of carrying sun-starved bathing beauties to the warm shores of the Atlantic and gulf coasts. It only remained for Georgia and Alabama to build the necessary highways for use by students at schools without one of the 2,087 teams who qualified for one of the 38 national tournaments.

That is why, to this day, as this newspaper is being dropped at stands all over campus, 55 percent of the students will have already taken flight on a vacation celebrating their sincere promise to “take all my books with me and catch up on my studying while I’m soaking up the rays.”


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