Productivity and expertise are the goal of today’s summer getaways.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
For more than 100 years, parents horrified at the prospect of having to care for their restless, sullen teens have been dumping their progeny on summer camps. In the old days, as ‘80s period pieces like Meatballs and Friday the 13th document, these camps were shabby, isolated Edens of adolescent anarchy. Adult supervision was almost non-existent. The air buzzed with sex and mosquitos. Bloodthirsty maniacs skulked in the shadows. It was a lot like MySpace.com, only with canoes.
Which means that camps were way too awesome to last in that form. According to the American Camp Association, there are more than 12,000 camps operating in the US – and yet how many tout their ability to develop character through food fights or advertise themselves as places where 15-year-old girls bet on who will lose their virginity first?
In the old days, summer camps had their share of scheduled activities, but even with archery lessons, their main draw was the Thoreauvian idleness they imposed. Out in the woods, with no malls, TVs, or arcades, there was nothing to do except smoke like French existentialists and ponder one’s place in the universe – or play strip Monopoly until some lunatic gutted you with a rusty sickle.
Now, however, idleness and introspection have as little cachet at summer camp as they do everywhere else. Instead, productivity and highly specialized expertise are the goal. At the Digital Media Academy, for example, campers study “the most relevant software while gaining hands-on experience under the eye of highly-accomplished professionals.” Others promise to launch kids on the fast track to Harvard, Broadway, and the NBA via intensive, nuturing tutelage from world-class ulcer inducers.
As the tubby misfits get funneled to tubby-misfit camp, and the tween Bible-thumpers get funneled to tween-Bible-thumper camp, should we mourn the passing of the melting-pot ethos that made it so easy to cast summer camp movies? (“You must be the short depressed kid we ordered,” Bill Murray says in Meatballs. “Glad you made it.”)
No, don’t worry too much about the long-term impact of this cultural shift. The traditional camp experience – with its contemplative down-time and heterogenous drama – is still available. We just reserve it for adults only now and call it by a different name: reality TV.
Greg Beato is a journalist who has written for SPIN, The Washington Post, and his own Soundbitten.com.