In Defense of Indoctrination

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August 5, 2013

One of my proudest moments was when Rush Limbaugh attacked me. Well, he didn’t attack me, per se, but he attacked my family. Kind of. Specifically, he attacked my summer camp — which three generations of my family had attended and which was coincidentally the subject of my work-in-progress documentary. In June of 2012, the right-wing libertarian organization Americans for a Limited Government “exposed” that President Obama’s nominee for director of the Bureau of Labor Statistics had sent her children to Camp Kinderland; Limbaugh then picked up and fleshed out the story of Obama’s guilt by association with this “left-wing Jewish summer camp.” Founded in 1923 by poor, mostly Yiddish-speaking immigrant factory workers, some of whom were socialists and communists, Kinderland, to Rush and his cohorts, was the American left-wing Jewish equivalent of Muslim madrasas, devoted to inculcating innocent young minds with dangerous, un-American ideas.

It’s true, at Camp Kinderland, ideas and concepts that are out of the mainstream crop up everywhere. Children sleep in bunks named not with numbers or letters or invented Native American tribes, but with the names of the camp’s heroes —Harriet Tubman, Anne Frank, Chilean poet and activist Pablo Neruda, executed Swedish labor organizer Joe Hill, and Goodman-Schwerner-Cheney, the three young American men killed by the KKK for organizing black people to vote in Mississippi. Children perform in the Paul Robeson Playhouse, named after the great (and blacklisted) singer, actor, athlete; they get their Frisbees and basketballs from the Roberto Clemente Sports Shack, whose namesake was a Puerto Rican baseball player and social activist. Kinderland hosts the World Peace Olympics, the camp’s less competitive and way more social-justice-based version of other camps’ color wars, when the camp is divided into teams of red, blue, green and yellow. Of course Kinderland would never have a “war,” much less one based on color. So, our team names are those of activists and organizations ranging from the Israeli refuseniks to A. Philip Randolph to the Suffragists to the United Farm Workers, depending on the theme of the summer. Oh, yes. We have a theme each summer: Nonviolent Resistance, Workers’ Movements. The summer I filmed my documentary, the theme was From Discussion to Action: Making the World a Better Place. And the teams were the Center for Constitutional Rights, Greenpeace, The Highlander Center and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

But it’s not just the Rush Limbaughs of the world who have a problem with such summertime kid fare. Even some of my friends, many of whom agree with the progressive politics of the camp, have reflexively objected to what they deem an inappropriate injection of politics into a program for children. Little kids at summer camp need to play, they say, not talk politics, which amounts to brainwashing or indoctrination. True, these are friends who have not seen camp in action. But the new blast of criticism last summer gave me pause: Had I been indoctrinated and brainwashed, during my five years as a camper and, in turn, programmed the minds of my campers during my four years as a counselor?

With these questions in my mind, I returned to my footage from camp. I saw that the children at Kinderland love learning new ideas, political and otherwise — if they are embedded in age-appropriate discussions and games. In one camp activity I filmed, each camper receives an envelope filled with slips of paper, each of which listed an issue or problem, ranging from “Same-Sex Marriage” to “Genocide in Darfur” to “AIDS in Africa.” Each camper has to choose the three most important problems. Then the campers are divided into groups of four and asked to decide which three issues are most important.

In an excited voice, Elijah, age 10, says to his group, “I think we could all agree that reversing global warming, because if we don’t reverse global warming, half the population on earth could die.” All agree.

Miki Lee, 8 years old, advocates including violence against children on the list. Elijah, however, opposes the idea, since he sees child abuse as symptomatic of another problem. “Lots of times,” Elijah explains, “when parents are cruel to their children it’s from stress from not having enough money. And if you end poverty, lots of that will be ended.” Elijah advocates including “child labor” as an additional problem to be addressed, but then, realizing that it is already covered by the topic “Poverty,” argues for “Stopping the torture of political prisoners,” as one of the three most important issues facing the world today. “That was fun,” kids say as the activity ends. First-time Kinderlander Jacob, age 8, reflects, “It was fun because it was hard. I like hard things when they’re fun.”

I admit that when I started the film, five years before, I was already inclined to think that camp’s political content was justifiable. But I was surprised by the depth of the conviction that filled me as I finished my film. The political content seemed not just defensible, but urgently needed. The Kinderland kids were discussing the kind of world they wanted to live in and peaceful ways to achieve it.

As I reviewed footage, the idea that kids are too young to talk about politics struck me as condescending and naive. Children are certainly not sheltered from the fallout of political actions, but rather, exposed to them constantly. And not talking about politics with children is not apolitical or neutral, but amounts to an acceptance, if not endorsement, of the status quo. Given that some children experience politics by working in sweatshops, losing access to Head Start or suffering what we euphemistically call “food insecurity,” isn’t discussing these issues with children who don’t suffer such plight, the least we — and they — can do? Engaging campers in thoughtful political discussion also allows children to prepare to become active and engaged citizens, and the kids at Kinderland want that preparation.

“Kids are not too young to care about politics,” Leda, age 10, says. “It’s better to learn it when you’re younger from people you know and trust.” Her twin, Danny, agrees: “Anyone can care about politics. And it doesn’t matter how old you are. You won’t know as much when you’re older if you don’t do anything when you’re a kid.”

Ultimately, Camp Kinderland is about teaching values more than teaching any political approach or allegiance. According to Kinderland’s program director, Ira Polansky, “The predominant value out there is consumerism for kids. We don’t make any bones about wanting to push other values … namely thinking about and caring for the rest of the world, your friends, people here at home, people around the world.”

A Kinderland veteran who now sends his own daughters to camp, Ira is clear that indoctrination is not the camp’s mission: “None of us want to have a dogmatic position, a line to force-feed the kids…. We want them to think.”

If that’s brainwashing, I’m all for it.

Katie Halper is a comic, writer, blogger, satirist and filmmaker based in New York. Her documentary “Commie Camp” has its West Coast premiere on August 11 as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, following sold-out screenings in New York.

You can read the Forward’s write-up of “Commie Camp” here.

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