Happy Camp

Happy Campers convene in Oregon.

HUMANITIES, September/October 2010, Volume 31, Number 5

So, what makes you happy?

Not necessarily an easy question to answer, but about eighty high school seniors from all over Oregon set out this summer to try. At a three-day overnight retreat hosted by Oregon Humanities at the University of Portland, they examined the idea of happiness from a variety of disciplines—literature, art, history, philosophy, and even biology. But there is something to the name, people find, that brings a smile to the lips even before the coursework begins: Happy Camp.

Devised in 2006 by a group of Portland-area high school humanities teachers who wanted to go beyond the standard curriculum, it began as a day camp for a handful of their students. In 2009, Happy Camp became a free, three-day, overnight program. Students from across the state are invited to apply, regardless of grades, test scores, or the ability to pay. Instructors team-teach the seminars, though the underlying goal is to have students lead the way.

Teacher Frank Caro discusses recent biological and psychological studies of happiness in his popular breakout session. Caro briefs the students on the newest research concerning the primitive brain chemistry of pleasure and then plunges into questions about what that means. “Do we have control over our own happiness, biologically or not? What about going too far, and addictions? Are we upping our tolerance for pleasure when we’re too young?”

Then the students take over. “Every session can be a little different. You have to let it roll,” says Caro appreciatively. “I come away feeling like I really accomplished a goal of giving students a unique experience that is really going to guide them going forward. It’s about learning about the process of thinking.”

Why happiness? “Happiness is a central question that shapes all of our lives and our communities,” explains Jennifer Allen, director of programs for the Oregon Humanities and one of the founders of the camp. They tried a different topic one year, the concept of generations, but came back to happiness because they found it was more accessible and compelling, never boring. “We want the students to walk away understanding that engaging in the humanities, thinking about big ideas, talking with other people who are really different from themselves, that it is all fun. It’s not just hard work and a good idea for your future, but it is really fun.”

There are no grades, no credits to earn; learning is for its own sake. The ethos of Happy Camp may be its most important lesson, especially for students from remote schools that don’t offer AP classes or other educational enhancements. Many kids who enroll have never been on a college campus before. Allen remembers one camper from a tiny Oregon town remarking, “It’s so great to be with other smart kids. It’s not embarrassing to raise your hand.”

Students who apply are nominated by their teachers, not for being the smartest kid in the class but for showing a desire to learn. Once selected, they receive a hefty package of reading materials. “It was a little daunting,’ says Wylie Ahl, who attended in 2009. A senior at a tiny high school in southwest Oregon, she was editor of the school’s newspaper—the first it had published in twenty-five years.

Ahl remembers one of the short stories from the syllabus, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” by Oregonian favorite Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s a story that touches on the concepts of happiness, guilt, despair, and sacrifice. Le Guin spends the first part describing the abundant joy in the fantastical town called Omelas. Then she explains that all of it exists because of the excruciating suffering of one child. Those from Omelas who can’t live with the guilt of knowing about the child are the ones who voluntarily walk away from guaranteed happiness.

The essay is read at camp every year for good reason. “It’s so powerful and beautiful. Not a single word in there is extra,” says Ahl. “Some people thought it was disturbing, some thought it odd, some thought it too complex. Pretty much everyone had a different opinion.” Ahl, who matriculates in the honors program at Brooklyn College this fall, hopes to become an English teacher. And she swears to make her future students contemplate the complexities of happiness found in Le Guin’s provocative story.