Character education is learning to live through a set of core values, including good citizenship and responsibility for ourselves and others. Which is exactly what camp was created to do.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, spent eight weeks at camp each summer from 1937 to 1951, first as a camper and then as a counsellor. While there were many formative experiences in her long, rightly celebrated life, camp was the first. She credited it as the source of her independence and her sense of duty. Ronnie Silver, an alum whose mother was at the camp at the same time as Ginsburg, recently said, “so much of the Justice was instilled at camp. It was always taught to us that there was nothing girls couldn’t do. Camp empowered us, and for someone extremely bright and curious, that was important.” Ginsburg would reflect those values within her work on the court, championing women ́s rights and gender equality, in essence a more formal expression of that early lesson that there was nothing girls couldn’t do.
Ginsburg returned to the camp many times, including virtually in 2015, the same summer the US Supreme Court was deliberating on gay marriage. (”Even with everything going on,” the director recalled, “she found the time to do that for us.”) Into her later years, Ginsburg could still sing the camp song and apparently often did, not because camp was fun—though no doubt it was—but because it was important. She developed her sense of self and her duty to others in an immersive setting: She became humane through experiencing a humane environment; she formed connections to others in a setting that was specifically designed for that purpose. It was where she became the version of herself that the world, through her life and work, would come to know. Today we call it character education. When Ginsburg was young, they simply called it camp.
“ … surrender to a community or a cause … ”
While it’s easy to recognize character—we know it when we see it—it’s a concept that’s famously difficult to define. Harder still is to understand where it comes from. New York Times columnist David Brooks com- mented that even when he wrote his book The Road to Character, “I still believed that character is something you build mostly on your own.” 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.”
Five years later, he admits his error. As he outlines in The Second Mountain, character “is not something you build sitting in a room thinking about the difference between right and wrong” but arises as a consequence of the relationships we have with others. “If you want to inculcate character in someone else,” Brooks writes, “teach them how to form commitments … commitments are the school of moral formation. … You surrender to a community or a 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.”
Community, attachments, serving others as they serve you—when camp professionals are asked to de- fine camp, it’s telling that those are the kinds of things they talk about first. “You find yourself surrounded by this new kind of ethos,” says Johnny Wideman, executive director of Willowgrove Day Camp. “It kind of gives a general reset to your values, to what you feel is important.” He sees camp as a window into a new way of seeing the world and our place within it. “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 of 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.”
John Jorgenson , long-time camp director and president of the International Camping Fellowship, agrees. “That’s really the point of growth that camp offers. It’s that transition stage where you really go from a me- centred experience to a we-centred experience: being able to read others, being able to understand the emotional needs of others, [learning] that emotional and social intelligence are the things that camp can give at a very critical time in most kids ́ lives.”
“ … make promises to other people … ”
It’s important. “Today’s children will need a balanced set of cognitive, social and emotional skills in order to succeed in modern life,” says a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. “Their capacity to achieve goals, work effectively with others and manage emotions will be essential to meet the challenges of the 21st century.” For Jorgenson, “it equipped me to try new things, and that willingness to kind of come to the edge of what I was comfortable with, and to look a little bit beyond that, that’s served me my entire life.”
David Brooks spent 15 summers at camp, much as Ginsburg did, as a camper and, later, a counsellor and a staff member. He’s described camp as “the most successful institution I’ve ever been involved with.” His experience there has informed much of his writing about character, which has been extensive. “I’ve never been to a place where race and class mattered less,” something Brooks says he feels contributed to its value in his life. (In that sense, camp continues the goal of public schools as New York governor William Seward described them in the 1850s: the “great levelling institutions of the age … not by levelling all to the condition of the base, but by elevating all to the association of the wise and good.”) Says Brooks, his camp would take “kids out of the familiar context of their lives and stick them in tents in the forest, where they have to cook two meals a day over an open fire and socialize with people nothing like themselves.” There were the children of wealthy New Yorkers alongside, as Brooks says, poorer kids from the outer boroughs, some of whom had never before seen a starry sky. For everyone, it was time spent outside the normal structures of their lives, where everyone learned something new about the world and about one another. It was, more than anything, a place where young people lived within an environment that organized itself around a distinct set of priorities, and where they were immersed in an ethos of mutual care.
“ … lose yourself in the daily act of serving others as they lose themselves in the daily acts of serving you.”
What Brooks has come to know intellectually is some- thing camps have known all along: Character isn’t a lesson to be learned but a way of living. As educator James B. Stenson has written, “Children develop char- acter by what they see, what they hear, and what they are repeatedly led to do.” Camp is created quite liter- ally to do those three things: show them, tell them, and involve them in what it means to live well with others.
And that’s, ultimately, the power it has as an institution. Acquiring values and building character are the things that distinguish camp experiences from any other in a young person’s life, precisely because that’s what they’ve been designed to do. 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 discover who we are; it’s where we admire the values 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. At the end of the day, it isn’t so much what kids do at camp, fun as all that is, but what camp does to them. “Our conversation [with parents] is, ’What do you want your child to look like at the end of her time at camp?’” says Patti Thom, director of Camp Tanamakoon. “That’s where it starts.”