Learning beyond the classroom

Making a bet on civics in camps

In Short

Our democracy depends on informed, engaged, civic-minded communities, and there is both a demand and a need for civic education in the Jewish summer camp setting.

“The bidding will open at $10. Do I have $10 for Freedom of Speech? $10? Thank you very much from the group in the corner. Would anyone like to raise the bid to $20?” And so it went: One by one, I auctioned off a series of values to groups of teens at Jewish summer camp, where they had welcomed me in for a visit to lead a program focused on civics.

This exercise, a Values Auction, allowed for the campers and staff to think about how much they were willing to put their (fake) money where their values are, especially stacked up against other values they might think are just as important, while doing so in a context where those decisions were measured against people with whom they shared a community. What might the outcome of this auction say about themselves, the values and ideas they hold dear and the community they have built? And afterwards, when we compared the results of the auction to one of America’s foundational texts, the Declaration of Independence, how did their values compare or contrast with those of America’s Founding Fathers?

These were some of the questions I had the privilege of exploring last summer as I traveled around the country to different Jewish summer camps, observing, learning, listening and teaching. 

I work for Civic Spirit, a nonpartisan organization that supports civic education in day schools. As the director of student experiences, I was excited that our work was growing to include piloting some programs at summer camps.

The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress shows a decline in civic knowledge for the very first time since 1998. This reality underscores why civics education at a place like camp is so important. Camp provides an environment for kids to explore and test the boundaries of their identities with trusted friends in a safe space. The pressure of school is off, and learning new skills and ideas can take place in an experiential manner that has staying power long after the summer is over. The application of what it means to be a good citizen and upstanding member of a community is tested on a daily basis at camp in a different way than it is back at home, where campers are often given more responsibility and leadership roles.

What I found in my work with teens and young adults at every camp I visited was remarkably, though not surprisingly, consistent: When asked to engage in questions about identity, community, values and the roles those play in their lives as Americans, teens have tremendously thoughtful and deeply felt responses to the incredible times through which we are all living. Teens are not shy to engage in these conversations and often welcome the opportunity to discuss these matters, as they are all impacted by the political, cultural and social environments in which they live.

The camps I visited had teens from all parts of the country with varying backgrounds and perspectives. Interestingly, regardless of which camp I was at, the same values tended to sell for similar prices. While I could barely give the value of “Modesty” away for free, “Equality” was most often the value that captured the highest price. Other values that earned top bids were “Security,” “Privacy” and “Freedom of Bodily Autonomy.” “Freedom of Religion” and “Freedom of Speech” regularly fell in the middle. To draw any conclusions about the state of teens’ thinking about what they value from an activity like this would be premature and unwise, but the fact that some general patterns emerged from this program might give one a snapshot in time about how their values are currently interacting with their community and society at large. I’ll let you, dear reader, draw your own conclusions.

My camp visits also drove home for me how challenging it is to be a teenager at this moment in history. Climate change. Guns. Mental health. Misinformation. The myriad threats that we are all facing feel particularly vulnerable for a group that cannot yet claim agency over many decisions in their lives, or vote. Teens and young adults have power to enact tremendous change, especially when it is harnessed and channeled in effective ways, but they have to be taught the skills and given the right tools to do so.

Civic Spirit believes there is a tremendous opportunity to grow the work of civic education in camps. Our pilot programs last summer indicate that there is both interest and need for this work to be done, and when it is done in partnership with the camp administration and staff, it can be successful. We at Civic Spirit are committed to growing this work and seek additional partners. A more informed, engaged, civic-minded Jewish community is good for everyone. Our democracy depends on it.

Hillary Gardenswartz is the director of student experiences at Civic Spirit.