In Praise of Summer Camp

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Outdoor education isn't just about learning how to build a fire or wield a bow and arrow. It's a crucible for personal ethics and identity.

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In the last hours of his life, Welles Crowther saved at least a dozen other lives. An analyst for Sandler O'Neill and Partners, Crowther was working on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center's South Tower when United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the building on September 11, 2001. Trapped amidst smoke and debris, office workers recall a young man with a red bandana over his nose and mouth bursting onto the floor, instructing survivors to follow him to the stairwell, physically carrying those who were injured or unsteady on their feet.

Welles, a longtime volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Nyack, New York, made several trips up and down the stairwell through the upper levels of the tower, searching for injured workers, before the building collapsed with him inside. Several credit Welles directly with their survival. "If he hadn't come back, I wouldn't have made it," Judy Wein told CNN in 2002, recalling how Welles led her to safety on the 78th floor. "People can live 100 years and not have the compassion, the wherewithal to do what he did." On 9/11, Welles was no longer an equities trader. He became a firefighter.

I heard the story of the "Man in the Red Bandana" in 2004, during my first summer as a counselor at Camp Becket-in-the-Berkshires. Welles attended Camp Becket as a child and was an avid Boy Scout before he became a volunteer firefighter at 16. The trust fund established by his parents makes annual gifts to Camp Becket and other organizations that impacted Welles during his youth.

"The most fundamental thing we can do as a human being is to not run away in the face of a crisis, but turn around and run into," recalled Tim Murphy, a long-time Becket staffer, when I asked him about Welles in May. "It's such a compelling example of the Becket values at work, those lessons we try to instill in campers. Whether or not Welles was manifesting those, or they were in the back of his mind, who knows?"

When I heard Welles's story, I found my mind drifting back to my own first day at camp in 1997. I was standing at dinner in the dining hall, a cavernous gallery that would serve as a major meeting space for more than 300 boys and staff for the next month. I was 10 years old and terrified. Bookish and diminutive for my age, I shied away from strangers and felt overpowered by the taller, more energetic boys surrounding me. Most had already spent a summer at Becket, and their intimate, extensive knowledge of camp lore made me feel even smaller.

When the meal ended, the entire hall burst into raucous song. Overwhelmed by the sudden assault of alien noise, I fled to the grass leading from the lower part of the building to Rudd Pond, the man-made lake on which Becket sat. My counselor, Jon Roy, followed me.

Jon, now a teacher in Newton, Massachusetts, had been at Becket as both a camper and counselor for nearly a decade. "I know this seems like a lot to take in," he said, lowering himself to one knee so he could make eye contact. "But this place will seem like home before you know it. There will be good days and bad, but I promise you that by the end of this session, you'll carry Becket with you for the the rest of your life."

He was right. I spent 11 summers at Becket, first as a camper, then on teen leadership programs, and finally as a staff member. But it wasn't until I found myself faced with the Welles's final act of compassion that I truly realized what a dramatic impact outdoor education could have on a child. Summer camp isn't just a place to make new friends and learn new skills. It's an essential feature of American life, a crucible for the moral and personal development of young people into adults.

* * *

American summer camps and other forms of outdoor education -- organized, experiential learning in a natural setting -- owe their intellectual foundations to Henry David Thoreau and his sojourn into the wilderness in Walden. Fearful of the encroachment of "over-civilization" during the mid-19th century, Thoreau took to the woods surrounding Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, to gain a better sense of society and himself, ensconced in the "raw" and "savage" delights of nature. "I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately," remarked Thoreau in one of the most famous passages from Walden, "to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,"

The first North American summer camps embodied Thoreau's belief that sojourns into the wilderness were essential in the face of "over-civilization." Earlier ventures, like the two-week camping trips organized by the Gunnery School in Washington, Connecticut, in 1861, had been extensions of existing educational institutions. The first private summer camp, the North Mountain School of Physical Culture, was founded by Dr. Joseph Trimble Rothrock, an environmentalist and "father of forestry," in 1876 near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The idea behind North Mountain School, as Dr. Rothrock put it, was to take "weakly boys out into camp life in the woods ... so that the pursuit of health could be combined with the practical knowledge outside the usual academic lines."

As Abigail A. Van Slyck noted in A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth 1890-1960, the rise of outdoor education was a natural reaction to industrialization. Summer camps were "aimed at providing respite from what were regarded as the moral and physical degradations of urban life, evils to which women and children were understood to be particularly prone." The growing interest in outdoor education eventually gave rise to programs like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America. Children were challenged with self-improvement, both moral and physical, far removed from the din of urbanity and the drumbeat of familial and academic routines.

By the beginning of the 20th century, summer camps had evolved into an entire system, running parallel to America's schools. This is partially thanks to Charles W. Eliot, the longest-serving president in Harvard's history, who transformed his institution from a provincial New England college to America's preeminent research university. He summed up his sweeping case for education reform in a 1869 Atlantic article titled "The New Education."

"We are fighting a wilderness, both physical and moral," wrote Eliot. "For this fight we must be trained and armed." An educational institution, argued Eliot, should be an environment built on strong communal bonds and foster students' ability to adapt to change. In this, he came to see the summer camp as a natural role model. In a 1922 treatise on education, he sang the praises of the camp experience: "I have the conviction that a few weeks in a well-organized summer camp may be of more value educationally than a whole year of formal school work."

Summer camps, like their academic counterparts, often reflected the political complexions of their times. Following World War II, the American Camp Association developed its first accreditation standards and began to encourage patriotic duty. This civic responsibility, wrote Callie Millner in The Daily, didn't mean simply fretting about Communists: "It was also the point when U.S. camps began to reach out to the rest of the world by inviting international campers, for instance."

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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