Yesterday, my-about-to-be 13-year-old and I visited the Great Books Summer Program at its Amherst, MA, location. It made sense to bring Sasha because he was just back from three weeks at the John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY). I wanted his take on how the two programs were similar and different, and what I might tell you about them. I’ll get to that, but first here is the news as it relates directly to school librarians reading this column: these programs, and doubtless similar others that focus on music (Read*Teach*Play at the Ravinia Festival, DARTS at Tanglewood), and the other arts and sciences are exactly what middle and high school students need. They offer what schools straining under reduced budgets and months of test prep simply cannot provide. And they are not just for wealthy families, tiger parents, and super-motivated kids. Not at all.
Every high school has a college guidance counselor. But the school library should be the Summer Mind Camp clearing center—where brochures are gathered and websites curated, and from where, via an email blast, parents read about these opportunities. Every school library has a summer program to keep kids reading, which is great. But these camps do so much more—and every child deserves to hear about them, and see if there is one that is a fit for them.
At CTY, Sasha took a class that focused on great Supreme Court cases, starting coincidentally, the very same week that the Court handed down its key rulings on the Voting Rights Act and same-sex marriage. He loved the moot courts and debates. For the first time in his life he was, as he desperately texted me one morning, “surrounded by Republicans.” It was a great experience. But as much as he was stimulated by the classes and the discussions, he grew because the other students hailed from all over the United States, and indeed, the globe. Sasha met, and got to know, the world of people and ideas he will grow into.
CTY offers many courses, including some focused on math and computing, and perhaps, as a result, drew a real mix of boys and girls. Great Books focuses on literature: the plays, poems, essays, and novels that its designers consider, in the Mathew Arnold sense, “the best that has been thought and said.” It appeared to me that there were more girls at Great Books, but the population was equally international. A boy who had arrived from China showed Sasha around, led him to the basketball courts during a break, and became an instant pal.
One key difference between the camps was that CTY— a very large, long-established program across many campuses—often uses middle and high school teachers as its instructors. This means that the best of them are quite skilled at stimulating discussion and directing campers to come up with their own answers, even if they are not necessarily experts. Great Books, by contrast, hires college professors and its three campuses—Amherst, MA, Stanford, CA, and, just recently, Oxford, England—provide students with an opportunity to meet, to interact with, and to learn from leaders in their fields. These are not full-on college lectures—there is give and take. But to my eyes, the liveliest conversations occurred when the campers broke into smaller groups and processed what they had heard and read that day.
Both programs understand kids—these are not cram courses. They build days around an interplay of art, sports, social time, and learning. And what each supplies—in its own way, by its own rules—is a humanistic education, that exposure to deep thought, rich literature, and probing minds, which we all too often see squeezed out of our K-12 schools. These camps give young people an intense exposure to everything the Common Core tries to achieve—with their international peers.
The programs are not an extra for the few. They are necessary mind medicine, soul fodder, for our kids. And school librarians can, should, and must be the ones to let students know that these opportunities exist. CTY does require certain test scores. Great Books needs only a recommendation from a qualified adult (such as a librarian or teacher). Both programs are expensive (not including travel), but both also have well-established financial aid and scholarship systems in place. When you think of the young people in your school, start by asking who would really benefit from attending this kind of mind camp—this amusement park of ideas and creativity and global connections. Make sure he or she, and his or her parents, know they exist. Don’t begin with the question of who can afford the experience.
The real question is: who can afford not to have this opportunity?*
*(We came upon Center For Talented Youth on our own; the Great Books program invited me to visit and paid for our overnight stay. I do not believe my views in this article were slanted by their blandishments, but in fairness you all should know that I was their guest.)