While it’s easy to recognize character—we know it when we see it—it’s famously more difficult to define. Harder still is to describe how character arises. In his recent book, The Second Mountain, David Brooks struggles with the concept, something that he’s been doing since he wrote, The Road to Character in 2015. There he described character only in terms of the individual: “I still believed that character is something you build mostly on your own,” he wrote recently. You find your faults and then, “mustering all your willpower, you make yourself strong in the weakest places. … you do your exercises and you build up your honesty, courage, integrity, and grit.”
Now, he supports a different view, namely, that character “is not something you build sitting in a room thinking about the difference between right and wrong and about your own willpower.” Rather than a product of austerity or determination, he sees character as a consequence of the relationships we have with others. “If you want to inculcate character in someone else,” he writes, “teach them how to form commitments … commitments are the school of moral formation. … You surrender to a community or cause, make promises to other people, build a thick jungle of loving attachments, lose yourself in the daily act of serving others as they lose themselves in the daily acts of serving you.”
Camp is as camp does
If you had to define “camp”—something no doubt as difficult as defining character—you could certainly do worse. Community, attachments, serving others as they serve you. Johnny Wideman, executive director of Willowgrove Day Camp, recently commented to me that the benefit of camp is “finding yourself surrounded by this new kind of ethos. It kind of gives a general reset to your values, to what you feel is important.” He describes that experience as foundational, a window into a new way of seeing the world and ultimately a better way of knowing ourselves and our communities. “I think it’s the most effective way of community building. … To actually connect with other people, empathetically and compassionately. And to do that outdoors, to build an appreciation and future caring and protecting the environment. I think that’s basically all of the building blocks we need to make our communities and the world better.”
“To look beyond themselves,” said John Jorgenson when I spoke with him at the recent OCA conference. “That’s really the point of growth that camp offers, is that transition stage where you really go from a me-centered experience to a we-centered experience: being able to read others, being able to understand the emotional needs of others, that emotional and social intelligence are the things that camp can give at a very critical time in most kids’ lives.”
Spreading the word
When families see camp as simply a vacation option, they’re selling the experience painfully short and risk missing the opportunities it offers for growth and development. We’d like to ensure that they don’t, which is why we’ve been looking at ways of communicating that message, bringing it forward on the platforms, and making it an important element of camp profiles. Character development is going to be the anchoring topic in the editorial section of the upcoming guide and will become a 14-page hub that we build out online. It will also become an important piece of the camp profiles, online and in print, something that we’ll be rolling out in the coming months.
As Brooks has ultimately come to know, character isn’t a lesson to be learned, rather it’s a way of living. Acquiring values and building character are the things that distinguish camp experiences from any other in a young person’s life. Whether it’s an overnight camp deep in the bush or a coding camp in the heart of a city, camp is about providing space—both physical and mental—to explore how we relate to the world, who we are; it’s where we admire the values that we see expressed in the action of others, and then learn to express them in our own; it’s where we find the kind of life we’d like to lead, and discover communities that share our aspirations. Which, perhaps, is what character is all about.