I'm wondering how best to respond to queries from non-academics along the lines of "Why should you be paid during the summer holidays?" This is the sort of question I hear a lot in this economic climate here in Ireland, though I strongly suspect that one encounters similar questions and opinions elsewhere.
There is a subtext that public money is scarce, that people in "real" jobs work themselves to the bone and pay high taxes, while some people get to spend a significant proportion of the year on a sun lounger at the tax payer's expense. I like to think that we academics do earn our crust, but as somebody paid public money I think it's a reasonable question, and one I would like to answer better.
There are a couple of obvious responses.
It's nothing like nine months, especially when you factor in exam marking and processing, dealing with appeals, Autumn repeat exams, lecture preparation for the following year etc.
Did I forget to mention research? That's a full-time job in itself! And there are secondary activities such as applying for grants, judging grant applications, and supervising (post-)graduate students.
However these points don't apply to all academics. For example, I work in an Institute of Technology, possibly akin to a liberal arts college in the US, where there are typically 18 teaching hours per week in term time, but research is a bonus activity, and we have 10 weeks' summer holidays. So the core point seems to be that it's near-universal practice to have a teaching break during the summer months (exactly when this break is, and its length vary of course). But why is this? Are there good reasons that might satisfy somebody who is not already steeped in the academic life?
It's tempting to say that teaching is particularly intense, and this period of estivation is needed to avoid burnout. But is this true of teachers and academics more than, say, junior hospital doctors or care workers?
Presumably this question is tied to the question of why school teachers have summer holidays: I realise that this latter question may be off-topic for this site, but to the extent that answers to it have a bearing on my question, I would like to hear them.
Finally I am aware that not all academics are paid during the summer months. Many have temporary contracts that don't span the summer vacation. I hope that this situation remains the (in my opinion, disgraceful) exception rather than the rule.
EDIT: Thanks to Oswald Veblen and Dave Clarke for pointing out the general practice in US academia of being paid for only 9/12 of the year. In Ireland, and I think in much of Europe, academics are usually paid for 12 months. So some of the motivation for this question ("Why are we paying you academics during the summer?") may not apply in the US, although the basic question still stands ("Why don't academics typically have to teach during the summer?" or, in the more provocative (and inaccurate) terms that this is sometimes put: "Why don't academics work during the summer?")