Angie McQuaig – Camp Inquiry

March 13, 2009

Angie McQuaig is a distinguished educator whose PhD is in educational leadership. Dr. McQuaig has served for nineteen years in public education as a teacher and administrator both in the US and abroad. She is currently chief academic officer in a professional development company that trains teachers on exemplary pedagogy. Dr. McQuaig is the education advisor on the steering committee of Science Debate Inc. and Director of Camp Inquiry, an educational program for youth emphasizing humanistic, scientific, and critical thinking.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Angie McQuaig talks about Camp Inquiry, the Center for Inquiry’s summer youth camp. She explains the camp’s mission, and how it aims to encourage humanistic, scientific and critical thinking among young people. She contrasts the mission of Camp Inquiry with religious summer camps like Jesus Camp. She explains the process of critical inquiry that is emphasized at Camp Inquiry, and argues against “secularist indoctrination.” She recounts how campers at Camp Inquiry come from many different backgrounds, including religious backgrounds. And she details the various kinds of activities teacher-counselors and children engage in at Camp Inquiry, including magic, games, science experiments, workshops, skeptical investigations and secular ethical inquiry.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, March 13th, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. I’d like to welcome all of our new listeners to the show, and here’s a little background on the Center for Inquiry to let you know where we’re coming from. Center for Inquiries, the headquarters to a number of advocacy and educational organizations. And they’re all devoted in their own ways to advancing CFI mission, which is to defend science, reason and freedom of inquiry in every area of human interest. These organizations, headquartered at CFI, include the Council for Secular Humanism PSI Cop. Now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Commission for Scientific Medicine, among many others, through education, research, publishing, social services and campus and community outreach, CFI works really hard with a network of volunteers and professionals throughout North America and around the world to present affirmative alternatives to the reigning mythologies of the day alternatives based upon the scientific outlook. On this show, we try to look at the big questions in our society through the lens of scientific naturalism, focusing mostly on pseudoscience and the paranormal, or on alternative medicine or on secularism and religion. The intersection of science and religion in our society. My guest this week is Angie McQuaig. She’s a distinguished educator whose H.D. is an educational leadership. She served for 19 years in public education as a teacher and as an administrator, both in the U.S. and abroad. She’s currently chief academic officer and a professional development company that trains teachers on exemplary pedagogy. Dr. McQuaig is the education advisor on the Steering Committee of Science Debate Incorporated and also director of the Center for Inquiry’s Camp Inquiry, an educational program for youth emphasizing humanistic, scientific and critical thinking. That’s what we’ll be talking about today. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Andrew McQuaig. 

Thank you, T.J.. It’s great to be with you. 

Angie, let’s start with the basics. The Center for Inquiry has been doing camp inquiry for a few years now. What exactly is camp inquiry and why should our listeners care about this? Summer camp, right. 

Well, CFI established camp inquiry in 2006, and it was part of the philosophy of the center that the future of skepticism, of critical thought of scientific literacy and appreciation for science really rests with our youth. And so while the center offers a number of outstanding educational programs for adults, that they wanted to move below the college level and really bring some rich activities to that lot. 

Where’s the camp located? It’s in upstate New York, right? 

Yes. Camp is in upstate New York. It’s at Camp Seven Hills in Holland. 

So a kind of outside Buffalo or right outside Buffalo, about 20 minutes. 

It’s an absolutely resplendent campsite with, you know, beautiful hiking trails and absolutely wonderful rustic cabin. 

It’s very comfortable, but absolutely beautiful. Jim Underdown the dates of the camp this year. This year, we’re meeting between July 6th and 12th. 

Okay. So located in Holland, July 6th through 12th. 

What are the campers age range if students can come between ages seven and 16. 

Okay. You talked about the purpose of camp. It’s kind of CFI for youngsters. It’s not just all of us graying folks getting together, you know, debating how many angels don’t dance on the head of a pin. It’s it’s for young people to get together. And what do critical inquiry, if all of this should begin with the youth? That’s your argument. You just kinda made that. I believe children are our future spiel. What’s the difference between inculcating in the youth who attend camp inquiry and appreciation for science and all the good stuff you just talked about? And then, on the other hand, indoctrinating them in, say, a secular humanist worldview? 

Well, it’s a good question and it’s often asked. Last year we were featured in a number of national news stories and we’re criticized for that very thing. And I wondered if it wasn’t because people were viewing us as sort of a religious camp. We’re not. 

Or maybe the alternative to our religious camp, but still with that evangelical push. 

Right. Well, I disagree entirely. When you focus on critical thinking, as we do at Camp Inquiry, we focus on the process of critical thinking. We don’t talk about what issues you should be skeptical about or what issues you should you should pull apart. Now, that being said, you know, it’s important to stipulate that many of the folks, folks just like your listeners who send their kids to a center for inquiry camp, already sort of have a predilection or predisposition toward being skeptical, toward appreciating science, for having a skeptical outlook in the world. However, you know, that being said, there were there were kids there who had been a religious family members, religious training and still held some religious viewpoints. 

Right. I remember one of the campers last year actually was an evangelical Christian. Yet he came to camp inquiry and kind of fit right in. 

He fit right in because what he appreciated about it was the critical analysis that culture of discourse among kids, which was fostered by, you know, the teacher counselors that allowed everybody to sort of vet their thoughts and vet their ideas and critically analyze them with respect. And there was joy in it. People really got a kick out of, you know, tossing around, you know, you know, all kinds of arguments for the ontological claims that they made and then, you know, pointing fingers and claiming logic fallacies. 

So it was it was really it was really a wonderful opportunity to get those ideas out there. 

I love hearing your description, Angie. You’re talking about ontology and logical fallacies. Are a bunch of eight year olds sitting around being philosophical at summer camp or it’s it’s also just a fun summer camp, right? 

It’s also a fun summer camp, but it’s not just a fun summer camp. And yes, last year, Joe Nickell came out, who is a very famous investigator of the paranormal. And, you know, the eight year olds and the young kids were reading his books. He’d be more bad of their own volition. I’ll tell you, it’s not that we sit around as teacher counselors and say, all right, everybody, let’s pull out. You know, the Origin of Species and read Chapter six through eight. Although amazingly and you know, you will recall this, D.J., there were kids who had read it and who were cognizant of the theory and who could really speak to it. Very, very articulately, Jim Underdown. 

But the point you’re making is that this isn’t the it’s not an atheist summercamp, it’s not the secular alternative to Jesus camp. The kids aren’t showing up and being indoctrinated in a world view. On the other hand, you’re arguing they’re being taught a method of inquiry, which we think will likely let them end up skeptical. But, you know, it’s not like they’re flipping open the noggins and we’re putting complete ideas in in their heads. 

Actually, that’s antithetical to critical thinking. And so that being, you know, critical thought being our foundation, it would not make sense for us to do that. So our our objective is for kids to walk away, sort of having that, as you put it beautifully last year, tools in their tool box for, you know, intellectual self-defense, as you call it. I think mental Corradi. And so it’s more about tools that they can use to apply to any truth claims, be it from their friends or, you know, a claim made on the back of a cereal box. We want them to be able to walk away with an ability to pull those things apart, analyze them, and then draw a conclusion that is based in reason. 

You mentioned my being involved in camp last year. I’ve been involved every year. We’ve done it. And of all the things I do at CFI, it’s one of the most rewarding things that I do. I look forward to it every year. Last year I was floored with the kind of the depth, the sensitivity of the responses from the campers. So for our listeners, I’ll mention I did a session where we kind of just talked about why we believe what we believe. And I got an education about skepticism from these youngsters. Question. Have you ever had a camper at Camp Inquiry as they go through this process of inquiry? Have all the emotional baggage that sometimes happens when you’re dealing with these central questions. In other words, you’re addressing the biggest questions people can ask. And oftentimes that’s a real hand-wringing kind of nervous process, you know? Does God exists? Do ghosts exist? Is there life after death? I remember these kids were talking about those questions. That’s pretty heady stuff for a kids summer camp. 

Yeah, it was heavy stuff. But, you know, when you talk about inculcating kids, you may remember and our campers certainly still reflect on the fact that the teacher counselors probably spoke know one tenth of one percent of the words that were spoken at that camp. We were facilitators, but it was a privilege to sit around and listen to kids address those questions. I remember one camper, a 16 year old boy, who said, you know, we started getting to the to the discussion about life after death and the idea how we grapple with not existing. And he said it scares me to death. You know, that’s not the kind of discussion that kids typically have on on the recess playground. So what’s beautiful about camp is it provides a landscape and a and a culture of that kind of sharing and exploration that allows us to be vulnerable in the safety of sort of, you know, like minded kids who are exploring and grappling with the same issue. You know, my my grandmother is a Catholic and I have to go. You know, I go with her to church. How do I handle that? And another 15 year old might recommend, hey, just go and get out of it what you can and be respectful. I mean, that’s the kind of exchange that’s really, really a privilege to to watch. 

I think will give the impression that camp inquiry is all about philosophical inquiry. But there’s all kinds of fun inquiry happening, too. It’s not just sitting around talking theology. 

Absolutely. And we do normal stuff that, you know, campers do. We have marshmallow roasting every night, you know, but but that’s an example of what happens when there’s sort of unfettered access to other kids who are exploring issues that you just talked about, issues that you talk about on your show while we’re reflecting at the end of the day, roasting marshmallows like everyone else of their own volition. They sort of bring up, you know, bring up pretty deep philosophical topics. But of course, they also talk about stuff that kids talk about, particularly as, you know, the younger group. So, you know, but we have sports every afternoon and the kids have a blast. Every one of them reported that they just can’t wait to come back. And so we’re we’re filling up quickly and enrollment because most of our campers from last year eager to return the way you’ve just described camp inquiry. 

I think it’s obvious how it’s different from other camps. You know, this isn’t Krafts camp where people go and just, you know, do the craft of the day or whatever. It’s not one project after another. There’s a lot of inquiry going on. That’s what makes it unique. Is this really for everybody or primarily is our market? You know, young skeptics? 

I think it’s for everybody. And I say that because every parent wants their children. I hope I hope desperately to understand the scientific method to sort of adopt scientific dispositions and ways that we understand the world. We’re gonna have a songwriter come out this year that he has done the whole week with the kids and, you know, during which time they’ll be writing their own songs about their experience and then recording them at the end of the week. I mean, that’s a it’s a it’s a secular, non-denominational activity that’s that’s enriching. We’ll be doing team building activities. That’s not germane only to sort of the skeptical community. But again, that being said, most parents who came and I interviewed every one of them last year as they drop their kids off. Most parents who came said, listen, I’m here because my kids need an outlet. They think differently than the majority, particularly those. I think that we’re in certain regions of the country, the south, perhaps. And I want them to be around like minded kids so that they can share their experience. And I have to tell you, that’s the reason I came. Last year, my son was seven years old. We were living in Georgia at the time and he’d been told on multiple occasions that he was going to hell. He was in first grade. I wanted him to be able to share some time with others who consider the existence of God or the nonexistence and who can talk about it with respect for one another. 

Yeah, that was something that was really obvious to me last year, the year before as well, how alone these youngsters feel in their lives. You know, as young skeptics, you know, I one of the sessions I did one year was skepticism on the playground. And there were anecdotes, you know, these kids shared stories about how unpopular it is to be skeptical about this or that claim. And these boys and girls shared stories about things their friends believed that they didn’t believe that they were skeptical of. And, you know, when you’re that age, it’s kind of a lonely process sometimes. 

Absolutely. And I think you’ll recall last year when we had our sort of roundtable discussion with the teenagers, that they shared strategies with one another about how to deal with that sort of intellectual loneliness, if you will. And they were respectful strategies. You know, there were there were some angry kids who had, you know, have to deal with this kind of thing. They shared the narrative, just like you mentioned. But I particularly appreciated the sort of healthy way that they approach dealing with it. So they were providing some support for one another for being different. And, you know, most skeptics who, you know, sort of are vocal about their outlook need that. And we find it online and we find it in forums. We go to conferences and we can share those things with one another. But when you’re in a school, you know, as they are every day, you can be pretty lonely. Mm hmm. 

Another thing about camp inquiry that I love a lot personally. You know, it’s given my background is the camp’s focus on magic, on legerdemain as a means by which youngsters can look at things a little critically, you know, skeptically using critical thinking as it’s dovetailed with magic. Every year you’ve had some magical component. 

Right. And this year we’re ramping it up. So this year, our theme is the wonders of science. And so we have several illusionists, sleight of hand performers coming out who are not only going to perform magic tricks if I’m permitted to say that, D.J., but they can they do it because it helps to illustrate the power of our mind, to interpret the world as we want to see it or as our mind tricks us into saying it. And then it provides a great backdrop for critical analysis of what we believe. We just saw. So our minds are perhaps the most unreliable organs in our bodies. And we need to we need to consider that as we evaluate claims. So, yes, we do have several people coming. And this year I’ve asked you and I hope you’ll I hope you’ll join us again this year to do a session about E.S.P and, you know, sort of help kids evaluate those kinds of claims. 

In years past, I did magic shows and then taught some magic at a very basic level for these youngsters who want to learn magic. This isn’t exactly a magic camp there. There are such things. Instead, this is, you know, skeptics camp that teaches some basic magic to youngsters. This year, you’re right. You’ve asked me to focus on E.S.P. And I’m up for the challenge. I think it would be a lot of fun teaching these boys and girls, these young people, what it might be like to combine our five senses to create the illusion of a sixth. Right. There are going to be some other magicians involved, some really prominent ones. We won’t say which ones were kind of keeping that close to our chests right now, but. People can check the Web site in the near future to find out, correct? 

Right. The Web site is Camp Inquiry dot org. And we do limit our enrollment pretty significantly because we want our teacher counselors to develop really close relationships with the kids. And we keep a very low ratio of counselors to two campers. But we have several illusionists coming out and slight of hand performers who use magic and illusion to teach both science scientific principles, as in physics and chemistry principles as well as you know about perception. 

Mm hmm. Angie, you said you’re keeping an enrollment low. What’s the total number of campers that you can have in? And can you give me a clearer idea of when the cutoff would be? In other words, if someone’s listening right now and they want to send their little girl to camp inquiry? Is it too late? 

It’s not too late yet. But most of our campus from last year are coming back. 

So the age range is seven to 16 and we like to cut it off at 60. We have two separate lodges. The girls stay in one and the boys and the other just a few yards from each other. But we we like to keep it comfortable and have lots of space. So 60 is our cap and we project that will probably fill up enrollment within the next sort of eight weeks. 

So you’ll want to go to Camp Inquiry dot org if you’re interested in registering Angie, before we finish up and and talk about another project, you’re interested in that then I find fascinating. Tell me what’s next for Camp Inquiry. Do you imagine that a few years from now there will be camp inquiries all over the country in different regions? Or is this one camp just going to get bigger and bigger, maybe have multiple sessions per summer? What’s the shape of this going to be three years from now? 

Well, I get more e-mail than I ever imagined from folks who say this is great. I’m 20 years old. Can I please apply? I wish I had this camp when I was a kid, and I wish I did, too. So absolutely, my vision is that is that camp will continue to expand that we’ve got loads and loads of applicants to come in and be teacher. Counselors were very, very careful about who we select and all of our counselors from last year are returning. So, yeah, we’d like to see camp placed in other parts of the country to make it more accessible to to see if I communities everywhere and to others who are interested in our curriculum and our outlook. And we very, very likely will have more than one session in 2010 and beyond. Mm hmm. 

So the bundle of energy that you are, you’re also involved with Science Debate 2008. Tell me about that outfit. And tell me what what it’s doing now. It’s no longer 2008. Are you still hankering for a big debate? 

We are hankering for a big debate. That is our main mission. Science debate. 2008 was founded by a number of people, including Matthew Chapman, who’s the great great grandson of Charles Darwin. And it was really birthed out of the idea that our elected officials were not addressing critical questions of science and technology, all of which have an ethical and moral component and foundation. And what we do is we compel them into addressing those questions. 

And you’re the education advisor on the Steering Committee of Science Debate, Incorporated. 

That’s right. And, you know, with my philosophy that the folks we need to be reaching are the younger set. This year, we got together and decided to work on a science debate, 2012 sort of national ball. And what we’re what we’re thinking is, you know, look, high school students can address these questions, questions about climate change, questions about technology and ethics and stem cell research and, you know, other questions that affect us all. These are things that are at our doorstep. They’re not, you know, ivory tower scientific, you know, experiments that happen only in the lab. So what we what we want to do is we want high school students to debate with each other on YouTube, in forums, but we want to provide curricular materials for teachers because they can use these to teach them, you know, the national science standards in their classroom. So the really the purpose of my involvement is to support an excellent cause, which you can read about at Science Debate 2008 ARCOM. We we all acknowledge that in order to create a culture of scientific appreciation of the public understanding of science, we needed the discourse to be more widely spread. We also understand that one of the most important places, as evidenced by what’s happening in Texas, is that school boards, school boards, your members are elected officials. And we think it’s important for them to state their positions on science standards, on evolution, on what student thought to be taught in the class. So we’d like to host debates among among those elected officials in addition to, you know, mid-term election candidates. And then in 2012, of course, we are hankering for a major debate. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get more information about science debate at science debate 2008 dot com. And if you want more information about camp inquiry, that’s at Camp Inquiry dot org. Angie McQuaig, I really appreciated the discussion and I look forward to Camp Inquiry this next summer. 

Thank you, T.J., so much for having me. 

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DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.