More than twenty-five years ago, I spent two summers as a camp counselor in North Carolina. This year, I sent my fourteen-year-old daughter for five weeks to the same place. Located in the mountains near Asheville, Green Cove is an old-fashioned camp of the kind featured in The Parent Trap, where girls go for long stretches of the summer to live in rustic cabins and climb mountains, ride horses, paddle, and sail. The camp’s buildings border Lake Summit, where water temperatures hover in the high sixties. Despite the cold, the girls have to prove their swimming abilities by treading water for at least thirty minutes.
The camp has been owned and run by members of the Bell family since the 1940s. The current director is Nancy Bell, now in her seventies. Her hair turned white more than thirty years ago, making her appear ageless, since Nancy at seventy looks just like Nancy at forty. She is a bit frightening to the campers because she gives no hugs or high-fives. She is a benevolent ruler, detached and observant.
The buildings at Green Cove consist of a main lodge, an infirmary, and a variety of cabins arranged in “lines” according to the ages of the girls who inhabit them. Most of the camp’s structures were built in the 1940s and have changed little since then. The cabins have concrete floors, screened windows, and bunk beds. They have no heat or air conditioning, and by the middle of camp everything smells faintly of mildew from wet swimsuits and muddy hiking boots.
When I was there in the early 1990s, the camp looked exactly as it does today. Things are maintained but never much improved. The institution rejoices in being what it is. There is no need for Wi-Fi, paved walkways, or greater efficiency in food delivery. The camp radiates warmth in its untidiness and nobody presses for renovation.
Even more important than Green Cove’s unchanging physical structures are its unchanging customs. Though the camp is not religious, it resembles a thriving religious institution. There are distinct roles for everyone, levels of hierarchy and authority for campers and staff, clear expectations of moral behavior, and quasi-liturgical practices that come out in song and action. A normal day at camp is a mixture of order and freedom: The same activity periods obtain every day (except Sunday), though the campers have some freedom to choose what they will do.
Every morning after breakfast, the girls sit on the floor of the main lodge and sing for more than half an hour. Their songs range from the sweet and old-fashioned “Mountain Greenery” to the music of James Taylor and Carole King, to the Indigo Girls and Taylor Swift. This repertoire is an index of the camp’s chronological history: Many of the oldies are kept in circulation, but new songs are incorporated. Like any living tradition, the music at camp changes while retaining a core identity.
Also among the camp’s quasi-liturgies are Camp Christmas, Ice Cream at Odie’s, Tajar Day, and other occasions that are more or less opaque to an outsider. Particularly affecting in this age of “anything goes” between boys and girls are the co-ed dances, which take place every Saturday night with Green Cove’s brother camp, Mondamin, and which the older girls anticipate eagerly. Many boys and girls pair up at these dances, but not with any particular intensity, since they see one another only once a week and are monitored by counselors. They send letters back and forth by “Pony Express,” an intercamp mail service that takes nearly four days door-to-door, though the camps are located less than a mile from each other. This time frame allows for the letters to be monitored by staff and counselors before delivery, to forestall the problems that might arise between teenagers left to their own devices.
If a boy and girl really like each other, they “go to the seawall” to watch the sunset during the final co-ed dance, and the boy may put his arm around the girl. Their friends sometimes watch the couples as they walk toward the seawall (built on the lake’s edge) and might tease them gently when they return. All of it has a nostalgic feel. I detected lightness in my daughter’s voice as she described her co-ed partner as a great guy who was sweet and fun. But she assured me that they were not in any kind of “relationship.” She seemed to wish that dating could be more like this in the world outside of camp.
My daughter and her friends thrive within these constraints. Because no electronics are allowed, the girls are “forced” to play cards, talk, read, and write letters. Because they can’t sit idle in their cabins, they must get out and try new activities. Because meals are served at set times, they must eat during mealtimes or not at all. Yet in the midst of all these structures and limitations, the girls want nothing more than to come back year after year: to see friends, to rise through the ranks to become counselors, and to send their own children to camp. The tradition of life at camp forms a central part of their identities.
What I have described is not as elevated as a religion. It is not as venerable as an intellectual or moral tradition. Nonetheless, this camp experience is bounded and visible; it illuminates what traditions offer to human beings. It requires what all traditions do: that we interact with other people who share our loves and inclinations. This doing-with-others happens not just once but regularly, year after year.
In corporate worship, in a college’s ceremonial events, even in celebrations of family birthdays, routine is not a sign of failure but an occasion for appreciation. At these times, we see ourselves as members of communities who live in certain geographical places. The places themselves dictate the activities to an extent: the Blue Ridge Mountains, a church’s sanctuary, the college campus. We are reassured by these familiar activities and places that not everything is in constant flux—that some things do not change, or change only incrementally and only for good reason. “At camp,” a girl explained to me, “I know things will be exactly the same as they were last summer. And that’s what I want.”
When we perform ritual actions, the rituals form us in turn. Girls who sing and paddle canoes together form strong bonds of friendship and affection. The girl who climbs mountains, rides horses, and spends days in the woods with her peers learns that she can be self-sufficient and generous at once, that independence and care for others go together.
These experiences also teach girls that they are capable of the same things as their male peers: climbing, sailing, mountain biking, mastering outdoor survival skills. Self-reliance has been taught in just this way to young women at Green Cove for more than seventy years. In this sense, the camp is conservative—not because it has anything to do with politics, but because it conserves a way of life that was judged good in the 1940s and is still judged good today. As a camper from 1957 wrote recently about her experience there, “I had no idea how life-changing and lifesaving it would be. Camp is with me all the time.”
Traditions like those at Green Cove provide a sense of self that is not based on a particular trait such as race, gender, sexual orientation, or political leaning. At camp, girls cultivate identities that emerge in the interplay between themselves and a group. “I am a person who does what these people do,” a girl thinks to herself. This unforced solidarity among campers is not a constraint but a support. And it also shows the girls that certain modes of life are good, respectable, and praiseworthy. Clear paths are set before them. The first-year camper wants to be the senior camper; the senior camper wants to be the counselor. Equality is not the summum bonum. An acolyte is not a priest, and a counselor is not the head of camp. Hierarchy exists, and it is celebrated.
Outside of camp, we see this kind of modeling when a young woman wants to be like her mother, a young man like his father, a student like his teacher. Such emulation is countercultural in our day, given that we are so often encouraged to pursue experiments in living by being different, creative, and always original. But roles exist for good reason. They embody virtues that many generations have seen as good and useful, perhaps even transcendently fulfilling. And the idea that people normally inhabit particular roles over the course of a life—that traditions inhere not only in places such as camps and churches, but also in a single person’s experience across time—is comforting. We do not stay twenty-nine years old forever, but this is no tragedy. Good things come with age: new duties and responsibilities, new authority, new opportunities to love and care for others. If he is lucky, a young man may progress from son to husband, then to father and grandfather.
Given all these benefits, why are we so keen to destroy traditions? Why, in the words of Edward Shils, does modern culture appear to be “a titanic and deliberate effort to undo by technology, rationality, and governmental policy the givenness of what came down from the past”? Why do we think that to assume a role is to fail?
The answer has much to do with our desire for absolute equality and our hatred of judgment. Yoram Hazony has identified both constraint and honor as ideas that would help to revitalize lost or eclipsed traditions. Honor, of course, is accorded on the basis of judgments about merit and virtue. But judgments imply inequality. People are judged more or less worthy of honor on the basis of the choices they make and the lives they live. The father who stays present in his children’s lives after a divorce is more honorable than the one who disappears. The man who tries earnestly to make his marriage work is more honorable than the one who quickly divorces. The person who works hard at something for years is more honorable than one who cannot commit to anything.
All of this is obvious, but I have found that my students shy away from moral judgment, or at least say they do. The vernacular has many phrases that make such avoidance easy: “You do you,” “I’m just expressing my truth,” “You’re good,” and other facile evasions. Adults have the same hesitancy. We do not want to make others feel ashamed. “People already know what they’re doing,” we rationalize, “and we don’t need to make things worse.” We are sympathetic and want to be kind, but in truth this isn’t the better way. A well-intentioned public and private judgment (Augustine’s benigna asperitas, “benevolent harshness”) provides guardrails for good behavior. It shows young people that not all behavior is equally praiseworthy and that some kinds of lives are objectively more fulfilling and better than others.
Such judgments need not be hard-hearted and after-the-fact. They are often best expressed in candid conversations about hypotheticals. Many years ago, a college friend who was engaged to be married wondered aloud whether it might be acceptable to have “one last fling” before the wedding. I asked her how she might feel, thirty years into married life, if her husband turned to her and expressed how much he had valued her honesty and fidelity from the outset of their relationship. She decided to forgo the fling.
Perhaps another reason for the contemporary rejection of tradition is our discomfort with both the past and the present. Even many conservatives have forgotten, or never learned, how to enjoy an inheritance, largely because they are so future-oriented. What can be improved or changed? Where will the next project appear? What new initiatives press upon us? We constantly judge present experience unsatisfactory. We hope for something better, sometime soon.
Traditions do not look forward in this way. They preserve “pastness” and attempt to make the past live. This is the real function of liturgy, of the Great Books, of the classical violin repertoire, of museums, even of a family’s Christmas morning routine. All these things deliver the past to us in the present, recalling what has gone before and what associations we’ve had. We are not the first people to live, they tell us. Patterns of conduct and virtue exist independently of any individual, and the most important parts of personal identity often emerge not as a result of private thinking but in groups that do and love the same things.
Living traditions depend on constraint and judgment. They embody codes of conduct in which both success and failure are possible. They reward hard work and consistency with hierarchies that give more honor to some and less to others. They often require apprenticeships, long spans of investment in the tradition before a person can be a full participant. These challenges heighten the value of traditions. People know that their places were not bought cheaply and that renunciation will have costs.
I returned to Green Cove this past summer because I had been selected to go on the mother-daughter hike. A few other forty-somethings and I showed up near the end of camp. Guides drove us high into the Blue Ridge Mountains to a campsite where we pitched our tents. Two enthusiastic and fit college-age counselors led the way, cooked for us, and generally took care of us. It was the first time I had returned to camp since being a counselor, and I rejoiced in feeling no different from my twenty-year-old self. Other people might have aged, I recall thinking, but not me! I’m not so different from the counselors themselves.
On the second afternoon’s hike down from a high lookout point, I twisted my ankle, tripped, and fell ten feet down an incline. I knew immediately that I was hurt, and that it wasn’t just a sprain. After crawling back up to the trail, I called for help. The counselors came with a first-aid kit and wrapped my leg. We were about a mile out from the campsite, so I hobbled back, holding onto my daughter’s shoulders and taking many breaks. I soaked my swollen ankle in icy creek water along the way. I found out later that I had broken a bone in my leg.
As we made our way slowly back to the campsite, I was struck by my sudden dependence on others who are much younger than I am. I saw myself through their eyes, and I realized that even though I vividly remembered being their age, they did not see me as their contemporary. I wasn’t “just like” the counselors. I was a member of an older generation.
I also saw how even I—despite spending a good amount of time thinking about traditions and their virtues—had bought into the notion that what is admirable is the future, the young, and the new. The young are beautiful, vibrant, capable, full of energy; they have their whole lives ahead of them. It is easy to admire them, and I was a bit envious. We older people have made our choices. We are no longer so vibrant or attractive, and we do not have so much of life ahead, either.
But I was also reminded that traditions—unlike the superficial public culture that surrounds us—actually establish significant places for people at every age. They offer work and responsibility appropriate to a person’s experience. Some people serve as elder statesmen; those in middle age do the hard work of conservation and maintenance; children and young people are in training to inherit the institutions, if we can keep them.
Perhaps the greatest reward of growing older is seeing a tradition preserved so it can benefit the generations that follow. In a social environment that values change and progress above all, this is no small task. It may require resistance, defense, and even recalcitrance. But defense cannot be our main task. Rather, we must show others how to love the traditions that we already love and value. As Josef Pieper put it, “The activity of the living transmission of a traditum is a highly dynamic business.” Such transmission takes place only when we ourselves participate fully and joyfully.
In our cultural moment, it is easy for conservatives to despair. So much is against the preservation and cultivation of traditions. But there really is work to do. Our task is to build and care for institutions like classical schools, Great Books charter schools, Christian and Jewish colleges and universities, churches and synagogues, neighborhoods, camps, and, of course, families. And little of this most important work is done at an explicitly political level.
The most important work takes place at camp and in places like it, with no mention of the word “tradition.” We do not need to tell anyone that we are conserving something valuable. We do not need to let slip that we are forming people, giving them a group, and saving them from alienation and loneliness. We can keep secret the idea that role models will benefit them as they grow older; that constraint, order, and judgment will not hurt them but help them to flourish. We must merely go about our business with confidence, secure in the knowledge that traditions remain living possibilities and may yet serve as restorers of culture.
Elizabeth C. Corey is associate professor of political science in the honors program at Baylor University.