Camp Liberty

When I was a counselor at Sun Fun summer day camp in Glencoe, Illinois we had an annual tradition of “boys day.”  The girls had a sleepover the night before, so they all went home to finally get some sleep, while just the boys and male counselors remained at camp.  We would divide the boys into color-coded teams and have a “color war” pitting each group against the others in every activity from singing to lanyard-making.  At the end of the day, following a giant capture the flag contest, the boys were so riled up that we could have conquered neighboring Winnetka and claimed it for Glencoe.  Hubbard Woods was ours for the taking!

At the time my fellow counselors and I used to joke that “boys day” resulted in an anarchic state like Lord of the Flies, with the only exception being that we didn’t kill Piggy.  But looking back on it, I see that summer camp was probably the closest thing to true liberty that our kids had experienced.  It was certainly more conducive to liberty than school, which gave almost exclusive emphasis to obedience to authority.  School was where kids were trained to obey the state and become cogs in a giant corporate machine.  Camp was where they learned to be free.

Yes, camp has rules.  Yes, camp has authority figures to enforce those rules.  But the rules are quite minimal compared to what we find in schools.  At camp, kids are given remarkable freedom to explore their interests and develop their individual personalities.  They literally can choose to fish in the morning and write poetry in the afternoon.

How is camp able to accommodate so much individual freedom while school seems determined to squash it?  A big part of the answer is that camps are generally organized around clear and strong missions, such as religion, sports, music, dance etc…   Because people usually choose their camps based on their agreement with the camp’s mission, the leaders of the camp do not have to regulate camper life so tightly to ensure that the organization’s mission is advanced.  Schools generally have weaker and less focused missions and so have to create a more oppressive environment to produce compliance.  Similarly, freely chosen governments have greater legitimacy and so do not have to use as much force on their subjects.

I’ve argued before that schools might have a lot to learn from camps.  They are both engaged in the activity of trying to prepare young people for adult life.  But I think camps are much more effective at preparing young people to be free adults.  I even think camps are remarkably effective at conveying traditional academic content.  And they do so at much lower cost. 

As the summer ends and school begins, think about why life has to change so dramatically for kids.  And next time someone starts talking about the benefits of year-round schooling, think about what would be lost if we further crowded-out liberty-loving camp for more oppressive schooling.  Yes, I know disadvantaged kids tend to have less enriching experiences over the summer, but we could address that with expanded camp opportunities — maybe even camp vouchers — rather than expanding the school year.  Let’s not forget the advantages of camp.

5 Responses to Camp Liberty

  1. Greg Forster says:

    “I desire macaroni pictures! And those little shaker things where you put beans inside of paper plates that are glued together! And let us put patterns of glue on the outside of those paper plates so we can then pour glitter on them so they look nice and sparkly!”

  2. Mike G. says:

    Good idea. Has anyone ever experimented with an education voucher where you take the per-pupil spending of a large urban district, say $15k+ per year in Boston, and divide it into $10k for schooling and $5k for everything else…summer camp, tutoring, music lessons, swim team, etc?

    Since part of the voucher challenge is political, I wonder if the clear demarcation of funds, with $5k that is clearly for “everything else” and controlled by parent as an education savings account, would create wide appeal among suburban families?

    • I wonder whether ESA programs, like that in AZ, would already allow this kind of dividing of educational resources between school and non-school activities. The rules may currently be too restrictive to allow the funds to pay for summer camp. But if we could relax those rules for ESA programs and collect some data, we could learn quite a lot about how to balance different experiences to benefit children.

  3. Jason Bedrick says:

    Hear, hear!

  4. The freedom to choose–both by staff and students–is critical. Groups formed around a shared vision or shared story are far more likely to have a “character” than are groups determined by geographical proximity.

    The mission problem at schools is one of the most hopeless messes in the annals of human folly. A public school is not really or group or even an organization. It’s more a knot of other organizations–unions, state and federal agencies, special interest lobbies, marketers. There are many agendas being pushed, some quite coercively.

    A hapless teacher who wants merely to create a compelling message in the classroom will find that he or she is operating in a very high entropy environment, creating tremendous noise. The PA system regularly interrupting instruction to announce anything from class ring salesmen in the lobby to applications for AltaCare is emblematic.

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