Beau Weston’s Theory Camp is the “distilled essence of intellectual life”
Every summer, Van Winkle Professor of Sociology Beau Weston hosts a camp for Centre students; however, these campers are not rock climbing, horseback riding or canoeing—they’re reading. Now in its seventh year, the camp meets for an intensive two-week session of analyzing and discussing various scholarly texts.
The program grew out of a collaboration between Weston and one of his students, Mark Mallman ’07, who spent the summer of 2006 poring over Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: The Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste.
“It’s one of my favorite books,” says Weston, “but it’s a very hard book, written in a rather convoluted French intellectual style. It was extremely rewarding to read a hard book like that, but what both of us realized is that it would’ve been even better to have a few other people reading and discussing it with us.”
And so it was that Theory Camp was born. Each year, Weston uses his summer research funding to host five or six students at Centre to read and discuss a particular work that Weston is interested in, working on or teaching.
“I’m a collaborative thinker,” he explains, “so I do better if I have someone to talk to about what I’m reading and thinking about.”
Each day, Weston assigns a segment of text which students are expected to read closely and carefully, arriving the next morning with questions and commentary. From 9 to 11 a.m., the group gathers in The Hub, a local coffee shop, and discusses the text.
The informal and social location of the camp is not arbitrary; for Weston, it represents the perfect place to have such discussions. It is an especially nice location for Theory Camp because Weston graciously buys students their drink of choice each morning. According to Weston, many of The Hub’s regulars have been known to show interest in the subjects and discussions of Theory Camp.
“The regulars like to listen in,” he says. “I actually had a friend in town ask me if it was okay if she listened in on our discussions. President Roush usually makes a point of stopping by to see what we’re talking about, too.”
Previous Theory Camp topics include Francis Fukayama’s Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity and Adam Seligman’s The Problem of Trust; Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; Michael Sandel’s Justice: What is the Right Thing To Do? and Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy.
This year’s text is Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, a book Weston used in a recent course on happiness.
“I was dissatisfied with my teaching of the text,” he says, “so I put it on the docket for Theory Camp, which has always been a rich and fruitful experience for me.”
Weston benefits especially from the unique and diverse mixture of students from various disciplines and backgrounds.
“Half of the attendees are students I have taught and worked with,” he explains. “The other half are students recommended to me by colleagues, students whom I usually don’t know. It’s very helpful to have a group that isn’t just anthropology-sociology majors. Their questions and comments bring up ideas and insights I never would’ve thought of.”
The Theory Camp is more than just a chance for Weston to learn from students; oftentimes, the subjects discussed have powerful effects on students’ intellectual and academic pursuits as well.
Weston gives the example of Jenn Joines ’12: “Jen participated in Theory Camp the year we discussed Tocqueville’s writing,” he says. “She ended up writing her thesis for her government major on Tocqueville and is now studying political science in graduate school, specializing in Tocqueville.”
The camp is also an excellent opportunity for students to hone valuable academic skills.
“For many students, it’s the first time they’ve read an entire text very closely and mastered it in that way,” Weston explains. “This kind of collaborative learning is one of the best intellectual experiences you can have; you’ve got people who are literally on the same page with you. There’s a delightful intensity in doing this kind of work.”
“It’s really the epitome of what the liberal arts experience is about,” he adds. “It’s the distilled essence of intellectual life: sitting around a table reading a book. With coffee, of course.”
By Mariel Smith