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.

—Jay P. Greene

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