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  • Writer's picturekgmanley

Summer Camp, Narrative Plausibilities, and Moral Obligations

While I love summer camp and believe in its transformative capabilities, I struggle to maintain a pure and uncomplicated adoration of it as I continue learning about the industry’s enduring racist practices and its history of forming an identity around petro-masculinity and colonial Manifest Destiny-esque narratives. Needless to say, summer camp has a complicated history, one that has often mirrored and intertwined with coalescing American moral panics and worries about educational policy. Summer camp wants to see itself as a progressive organization, one of the nation’s leaders in new approaches to education and youth development, but it also has obligations to a very traditional and all-American clientele basis of rich, WASP-y parents. Nowhere is this odd counterbalance more apparent than in Camping magazine, of whose archives I’ve been pouring through over the past quarter. In Camping magazine, the bi-monthly periodical published by the American Camp Association since the 1930’s, one can witness how the organized camping industry responded to an evolving social culture around them while attempting to maintain a grasp on their identity as a “classic” American pursuit. The magazine usually contains a collection of articles about child development and ecological philosophy in addition to ads for equipment and legislative updates about organized camping. One of my favorite articles I found in the archives is from the 40’s, asking its readers in the title:“How does camping fit in today’s affluent society?” -- it’s pointed use of ‘affluent’ revealing exactly who this industry serves. There are multiplicitous other examples in decades following of the ACA attempting to appease its more conservative crowds while maintaining its identity as a progressive industry. My journey of going through these archives over this past quarter, in congruence with the reading materials from Education as a Moral Endeavor, has prompted me to reflect a great deal on what the moral obligations are of the summer camp industry. What follows is an attempt to consolidate such scattered meandering thoughts.

Camp has often advertised as a sort of ahistorical form of escapism for its campers, but it is still an industry that has evolved as a result of larger cultural forces within the United States. For example, different camp directors throughout history have interpreted the ‘ahistorical’ nature of camp often in two competing narratives. One interpretation falls into the category of fantasy and abandonment of societal rules: these kinds of camps encourage children to play with their gender expression, their identities, and how they interact with one another. This usually involves a form of ‘playing Indian’, but a version of ‘Indian’ that is scrubbed of context and appropriates aspects of Native American identities for its campers to play and ‘camp’ within. The other interpretation of the ahistorical manifests in more overt colonial retellings of American history. This kind of summer camp allows campers to participate in a sort of time-bent narratological retelling. Campers can become a cowboy, a pioneer, or even an Army soldier. In this version of camp, the camper becomes a patriotic American because they love the land in which they discovered themselves, and they feel they are a part of history, regardless of how invested the camp was in historical truth telling. In the former, more fanciful version, camp becomes the wilderness Thoreau found himself in, and so too the campers. Both versions of camp, however, rely on narrative storytelling of what summer camp is and why their version provides the best catalyst for the camper’s self discovery. This philosophical divide is enduring, and reminds me a great deal of the educational frameworks posed to us by figures like Brighouse and Freire. Are we liberating or oppressing children at either of these two versions of camp? Or are they inherently within a banking model of education given the colonial inherent history of summer camp? And how genuine are these forms of ‘self-discovery’ and the romantic sublime if they rely on ahistorical retellings of American history?

In addition to my own moral qualms, I again restate that these two versions of camp have a history of being at odds with one another. For example, Camping magazine began publishing articles about the merits and challenges of camper racial integration in the early 60’s, with vocal hesitation voiced in various notes to the editor. In the mid and late 60’s, Camping magazine also published more articles about the importance of instating scholarship programs at individual camps so more campers had the chance to attend, and there are also just as many opposing notes written by camp professionals attesting to the important role camp plays in the lives of affluent children -- that camp provides an oasis for wasp-y children access to a much needed escape from our rapidly increasing and chaotic world. Take for example a expert from a sermon delivered to campers and parents at Camp Pasquney in 1934, one of the longest running boys camps in New Hampshire:

“And while this turmoil is whirling around us in the big world outside, we at Pasquaney are hardly conscious of it. To be sure, we have our everyday problems, but they are mere drop in the bucket in comparison, and we are left to live the same lives as boys have lived at Pasquaney for the last forty years in an environment of peace, untroubled by the cyclone of serious events beyond our Camp boundaries”

Clearly, camps like Pasqueney believed the moral role of summer camp was to offer a respite from multicultural pluralism. Other camps, however, have long since believed that summer camp is the ideal place to facilitate integration and cooperation. There are more provocative pieces in Camping in the late 60’s about how camp counselors deserve to be paid more and be given more independence (and sometimes even unionize!), and some camp directors even question if cabins need to be separated by gender. As one camp director writes in an article titled, Should cabins be inter-aged and coed?, their camp decided to go without age or gender separation in their cabins. According to the camp director, the campers responded positively and the camp counselors enjoyed it immensely. Countering this push for progressivism, in the next issue of Camping, there are multiple responses in the Letters to the Editor calling this housing model blasphemous and a recipe for disaster. Though I approach this issue with a modern lens and experience running an all girls camp, I can’t help but wonder -- couldn’t it be just as disastrous to indoctrinate young girls to think they are only safe around other women? And for boys to learn that they can only reach self-actualization in the absence of distracting girls?

I digress. The summer camp industry, as a whole, has continued to bank on nostalgia and escapism while also attempting to be a progressive and social justice focused movement. A large reason why I think the summer camp industry struggles in meaningfully embracing more progressive policy and leaving behind its more appropriative and racially driven historical traditions is because its identity construction derives heavily from it’s own storytelling capabilities. Summer camps love an origin story. They love nostalgia. The first summer camps, especially on the West Coast, were advertised to parents as a way for their children to connect to their Pioneer roots. Popular games at summer camps depict playing as cowboys and indians. Narrative is instrumental in the formation of how summer camps construct their identities, and it's an industry that relies on nostalgia. It enables a white escapist fantasy wherein middle and upper class white folks can pretend that the wilderness, true, virginal, and unpenetrated wilderness, exists for them as an arena for romantic self-discovery and the sublime.

And I’m still largely working and wading my way through these historical issues. But I do also understand that summer camp has long since been a way for parents to address anxieties they have about their children. Does your kid not get outside enough? Do they have trouble making friends? Do you think they would benefit from some toughening up? Send ‘em up camp! I empathize with these parents -- their motivations are (hopefully) rooted in love. And even if summer camp isn’t the best way to address all of the challenges presented to youth populations, can’t it still be considered a viable option for promoting diversity and acceptance? Does all of this history I’m learning undo the immensely positive impacts that summer camp can pose? And can we fault parents for sending their kids to camp, even if its a largely white and exclusive opportunity, when they’re just trying to do the best for their kid? Brighouse also speaks to this complex educational issue -- on offering solutions that aren’t perfect because they rely on corrupt systems: “in a some- what unjust society, one might be entirely justified in doing what one would be entirely unjustified in doing in a fully just society, and that the dispositions good citizens have with respect to pursuing their private interests should be sensitive to that.” (Brighouse, On Education, pgs. 66-67). I think especially, now, of the challenges presented to youth populations particularly in the last three years, and school experiences that largely demanded that students remain glued to devices and screens. Summer camp could potentially still provide a viable framework within which we could at least begin to address some of these complex issues: a chance for young people to communicate and make friends without the mediation of a device. And even if summer camps are somewhat limited in the diversity of their campers, it still does provide an opportunity for kids to be removed from their everyday environment and be away from societal and parental pressures.

The ahistorical narrative of summer camp endures is because it feels true, especially now. Summer camps are still largely in remote areas that lack screens and phone reception, and camps are usually environments where kids meet peers who don’t live in their hometown or go to their school. Where else do kids, especially now, get this kind of socialization opportunity? This environment provides children with the enhanced opportunity to reflect on their life and choices, and the ability to endorse their life, or consider different, alternative possibilities for their future. I think yes, camp does do these things, especially when I think of the dozens of girls at my camp who came out at camp or asked their counselors to try different pronouns. I know camp made a difference for those kids, and why I hope that when the summer camp industry moves (hopefully) towards a more liberated future, we decide to acknowledge our history and traditions, and, as a result, change our outdated rituals.

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1 Comment

Miao Zhi
Miao Zhi
Mar 18, 2022

I have a chance to be a summer camp teacher this year (2022). Without attending a lot of summer camps myself and the cultural knowledge of summer camp in the USA, your analysis brought me a totally different view to understand summer camp more deeply and hstorically. Thank you.

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