Letter to a supporter of boot camps and wilderness programs
Jordan Riak, August 20, 2001

August 20, 2001

Dear M_____,

I've looked at your materials and am pleased that you recognize some of the worst excesses associated with boot camps, wilderness/adventure experiences and the like. Hopefully your warnings will be heeded and fewer children will be hurt.

I take a stronger position. I believe that the whole movement is a dangerous fad. It invites cruelty and abuse no matter how closely it is regulated and monitored. I am certain that in due course it will join the long list of abandoned and forgotten quack remedies - testimonials of the cured notwithstanding.

As you well know, testimonials are not evidence. They are persuasive mainly to those who are either very naive or whose eagerness to be rescued, and/or to join a movement of rescue-seekers, overwhelms their better judgement. As for true believers' reports of epiphanies - having one's life "turned around," being "born again" or "seeing the light" - those have more to do with temporary, artificially-induced trance states than with salvation. Even after the effect wears off - it always does - they tend to cling to the memory because they are too ashamed to admit that they have been hoodwinked, and are frightened by the realization that they are still the same as they were before, with all the same old problems, and perhaps a few new ones.

Please don't misunderstand me: I'm strongly in favor of lofty goals, challenges, self-discipline and perseverance. But those things can't be imposed. They spring from the individual. As educators, the most we can do is model good behaviors and empower young people to recognize, imitate and improve upon the best available models. To think that one can corral a bunch of angry, frightened and confused youth and march their troubles away on a parade ground or mountain trail is self-deluding. In fact, there is nothing in the sciences of pedagogy or child development that supports the educational or psychological value of making captive persons miserable. Masochists, of course, will disagree. So far as I am concerned, they are free to march themselves into oblivion. Just leave others out of it.

The best, maybe the only, way to deal with whatever it is that cripples so many young people is to avoid doing it to them in the first place. That's where the emphasis belongs, and that's where I put my energy. But it's a hard sell. It puts a heavy responsibility on the very people who have been ducking responsibility all along and who would rather go after the kid with a stick than acknowledge their own blunders. The boot camp/wilderness experience-fad plays directly to their need. That's why it's so insidious and so destructive. Sad to say, the movement is gaining momentum in the United States and attracting a lot of very dangerous people. Many children are being put at risk. The mounting evidence involving non-accidental deaths, injuries, investigations, facility closures and lawsuits proves my point.

It's time that the self-styled kid-rescuers were put out of business. It's time to expose as quackery any program that promises to transform young people for the better by means of a few weeks or months of drill, goading, taunting, bullying, shaming, and other forms of maltreatment too numerous to list.

Jordan Riak

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