A Camp on the Rebound
By DAVID BROOKS
Published: August 21, 2004
The most successful institution I've ever been involved with closed down last year, and is now being resurrected. It's the teen summer camp section of the Episcopal Camp and Conference Center in Ivoryton, Conn. It takes mostly New York area kids out of the familiar context of their lives and sticks 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.
I've never been to a place where race and class mattered less. For two years, while I was a counselor, I had Robert Rubin's son in my tent. I knew a lot about that kid, but I had no idea who his father was or how much money he was making. On the other hand, we had poorer kids from Brooklyn and the Bronx who had never been out of the city before. One looked up at his first night sky and exclaimed: "Wow! It looks just like the planetarium!"
I went to and worked at the camp for 15 years, which was a not uncommon tenure. Such was our fierce love of the place that we just kept coming back. A friend returned while at law school and used to lead discussions on jurisprudence in a rowboat on the lake. I returned year after year from the University of Chicago to teach classes - absurdly - in machismo.
But over the past decade, the camp withered. Parents and campers lost interest. College kids didn't want to work at a place like that. It fell victim to a series of broad social forces that are still devastating generalist camps across the country.
First there is the liability crisis. Camp was a place where teenagers learned to build courage. There was cliff diving. There were river rapids. There were survival-style camping trips, with kids sleeping alone in the forest.
But society has become more risk-averse, and liability costs have escalated. So in the 1990's, the people running the camp banned most of the activities that scared and thrilled us. Camp became safer, but also more tepid and less meaningful.
The second broad social change is the professionalization of childhood. Parents have become more involved in running their children's lives, even by remote control when the kids are away at summer camp. So over the past few decades, camps that promise to develop a specific skill - music, basketball, computers, video-making - have prospered while generalist camps have suffered.
In fact, the Episcopal Camp and Conference Center, which is the second oldest camp in the country, was self-consciously cultivating leadership and self-confidence. But these are cultivated through spontaneous and, often, kid-run activities. We used to mount elaborate games with bizarre names like Investment Opportunities in Zimbabwe. What's a parent supposed to make of that? If parents choose a camp with a tennis or computer curriculum, they can sit at home and know what their kids are going to be achieving.
Third, society has become more stratified. Ambitious kids are supposed to do summer internships or work on skills. That means they spend their summers doing the sorts of things they do during the year, around the same sorts of people. It's become harder to get upper-middle-class parents to send their kids to a place where they will be crammed into little tents and showering in outhouses 75 yards away.
In short, over the past few decades, parents have made childhood more to their liking. The side effect is that camp became less exciting, less meaningful and less compatible with résumé-building lives.
I'm happy to report, though, that the Episcopal Camp and Conference Center is now on the rebound. After spending a decade trying to adapt to the social forces, a new director, Peter Larom, has been brought in, and one of my former campers, Peter Giles, is running the teen section. They've got the blend of traits required of great camp leaders: they are mature enough to run something, but deep down they're immature enough to get excited by the things that excite kids. It will take years to rebuild the camp, but this first rebound summer was a success. More than a quarter of the teenagers who went to camp in July opted to stay for an extra two weeks.
And it could be that even we boomer parents are finally acknowledging that we've become too obsessive about running our kids' lives. There needs to be at least one place where teenagers can go, at least one month out of the year, that is totally different, where kids can build themselves.