Square Root Camp:

This week’s New Yorker has a mostly very good article by Burkhard Bilger about the summer residential academic camps run by Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth– “nerd camp,” as he calls it in a move that would be cute two or three times but becomes kind of odd when he uses it every time. (The article’s not online, but there’s an online-only Q&A with Bilger about the article here.)

Unavoidably, I suppose, the article at least worries a bit about yuppie super-parents forcing their kids to become super-kids and try to get into CTY, and self-reinforcing social stratification. But Bilger has what seems to me the right attitude toward that worry.

I’m sure that some kids go to nerd camp just to please their parents. And for them the experience must be mind-numbingly boring: six hours a day in a classroom, in the glory days of summer, trying to cram a semester’s worth of work into two weeks. But I didn’t see many bored kids at Vanderbilt or Johns Hopkins. Most of them have what Ellen Winner, a psychologist at Boston College, calls a “rage to master.” They were just naturally curious about the world and had an inner compulsion to use their minds. It’s almost impossible to force that kind of focus and diligence on a kid—just try getting the average ten-year-old to practice piano for half an hour a day.

(From the Q&A, not the article, but the article expresses the same thought at greater length.)

In retrospect, my admission to and financial aid for CTY (math, 1984) provided a pretty tranformative experience for me, and one of the major mechanisms for my own social mobility. The other major mechanism was my scholarship to Exeter. CTY made me realize how desperately I wanted to go to an academically first-rate boarding school. Once I was through Exeter, my course was pretty well set; at that point there was effectively no chance of my not going on to a good college and beyond. Had I stayed in my medium-town New Hampshire public school system– which was fine but nothing like the public-preps of wealthy suburbs– I would have stayed pretty miserable and continued to get full-time negative reinforcement for intellectual excitement and curiosity. I wouldn’t have understood the range of possibilities that were really open to me, and would have had my sights set much, much lower than they were ultimately set. And I do think I would have ended up internalizing (what I perceived to be) the hostility to nerdiness among my peers. It seems pretty unlikely that I would have ended up in nerd heaven, here at the University of Chicago. After CTY and Exeter excited me to possibilities I hadn’t understood existed– and that, it turns out, provide a path to significant social mobility.

But what I remember about it, rather than what I see in retrospect, has nothing to do with social mobility. It wasn’t about what would come after education. It was the sheer joy and amazement at being around kids my own age who were not only not hostile to the desire to read and learn and think, but who shared it themselves. I didn’t leave CTY thinking that continuing to go to places like that would earn me money someday; I left knowing that I’d been happier there than I’d ever been around kids my own age, and that it was possible for “smart kid” to mean something social other than “kid to get beaten up.” (It wasn’t an awful school system; really. I didn’t get badly beaten up or get anything broken or turn into a Columbine Kid. But it was pretty consistently unpleasant.) There was geekiness as well as nerdiness to be had– I played my first D&D at CTY– but sharing cultural or recreational tastes wasn’t as important as, well, the sharing a taste for spending one’s summer learning algebra.

I never went back to CTY, though I seem to remember most kids going for multiple summers. Once I got into Exeter, all available funds had to go into the “family contribution” part of my tuition there, and my summer months were for grocery-bagging. (Neither the CTY nor the Exeter scholarship was 100%.) But once was enough to get a lot of other things moving in my mind and my sense of the world. I didn’t end up in math or a particularly math-related field, either; a summer of algebra didn’t provide me with any particular head start on my career. But, manohman, did it make a difference. I’m glad to see that CTY is still going strong, glad to read that its financial aid budget has been further bulked up, and glad to see some sympathetic, supportive coverage of it.

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