Keywords for the Age of Austerity 26: bootcamp

In the genre of “free college” rebuttals I discussed last week, the Clayton Christensen Institute education policy  director, Julia Freeland, has written one of the most execrable. Ridden with entrepreneurial jargon and redolent of a self-serving profiteering approach to education, her CNN op-ed described universities as a “broken business model.” This is in keeping with the Christensen Institute’s general philosophy of honoring its namesake by evaluating every institution as if it was a for-profit corporation like the ones in Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. We should all have a business model as lucrative as the think-tank industry’s.

Free-college critics are motivated by an elitist view of higher education, in which tuition is a gatekeeper as much as a revenue stream. So one of Freeland’s “solutions” to the problem of high college costs is to shift more low-income students out of college altogether and into things like “college bootcamps.” (As I wrote earlier, Hillary Clinton is a fan of something similar, the for-profit coding academies that are sometimes known as “coding bootcamps.”) These “bootcamps,” Freeland writes, aren’t just trade schools: they’re  “experiences,” whatever that means, which cost somewhere “between $5,000 and $15,000, and show extremely promising post-completion employment rates,” although she doesn’t specify where or in what fields.

It struck me as a fitting use of the term, in a way. Where Vietnam-era college deferments once bought middle- and upper-class students out of the draft and out of bootcamp, now a new generation of working-class 18 year olds can aspire to metaphorical “bootcamps,” which may keep them out of the military version (at least for now) but also still keeps them out of college.

The word’s origins lie in the de-individualization that military bootcamp is meant to instill, as raw recruits are acculturated to the service and the unit. According to the OED, WWII-era Marines were known as “boots,” a metonymic reduction of the soldier to his equipment that we still routinely hear when hawkish politicians call for “boots on the ground.” The place where a man or a woman became a “boot” became known as “bootcamp.”

The metaphorical use of “bootcamps” to mean any kind of intensive training became popular in the 1990s, which a quick survey of the Google ngram data will show. The word first comes into use before the second world war, picks up during the conflict, and enters wide usage after Vietnam.

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It really takes off in the 1990s, by which time many uses were metaphorical, rather than actual accounts of military training. It’s hard to say definitively, but I read this as a consequence of the militarization of society at large, and the remoteness of military combat abroad, in the last few decades. The military is ever-present, but since the 1990s, it has become such a regular, banal media fixture that it was easy to associate the distant carnage we saw on video-game smart bomb footage from the “boots” training to unleash it and to suffer it. Now, 15 years into the “War on Terror,” you will find that most journalistic uses of the term now have nothing at all to do with the military. So as the home front becomes militarized, the ubiquitous warfront becomes invisible: “bootcamps” for all at home, and endless war for the “boots” abroad.


People who have never been in the military, like me, probably still associate military boot camp with traumatic movie versions like the one in Full Metal Jacket–making its civilian popularity outside of the prison system especially bizarre. There is perhaps more to be said in another post about what it means to invite Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and his regime of discipline and self-abnegation into every sphere of life, from exercise and marriage to job training and, as we’ve seen, higher education.

But for now, here is a brief and provisional list of the bootcamps that will not prepare you to wage war in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Baltimore:

Yoga on the Rocks, a Total Body Bootcamp

Nutrition Bootcamp

Fitness Bootcamp

Bikini Bootcamp

Shutter Creek Correctional Institution, a prison bootcamp

Motherhood, both childbirth and just in general

Librarian Bootcamp

BootCamp, which installs Windows on your Mac

Cowgirl Bootcamp

Bridal Bootcamp’s Bootcamp for Lawyers

Competitive video gaming

Coding bootcamp

Applying for college

and, of course, “college bootcamp” for those discouraged from applying to college.





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