The Intellectual Boot Camp

I often have recurring dreams about the absurdity of military boot camp. I relive the sense of having a knifehand at my throat, scared shitless as the drill instructor spits profanity in my face. He’ll do this again and again so that I can come to intuit, instead of just imagine, a sense of discipline around whatever behavior set off his explosion. The instructor’s resolved, intense belief is what allows a recruit to develop a deep, unique set of values. When I wake, I don’t call these nightmares.

For the 18-year-old Mark looking for discipline and drive, society didn’t provide many options. The things Marine boot camp came with—countless hours of drill, combat training, military tactics and history—seemed necessarily entangled in the idea of discipline.

But I don’t need combat readiness anymore. My 18-year-old self didn’t necessarily need it, either. I wanted to go to college, but was intimidated and beset by unaddressed fears. I didn’t see any alternatives for gaining confidence and character. If only there was a course of training that, instead of preparing me for combat, directly prepared me to be a rigorous, productive, confident thinker.

My experience in the Marines was both necessary and vital for who I am now, even as an academic, but it has also slowed me down. At best, combat training is a loose analogy to the mental work and discipline needed for intellectual pursuits. At worst, it’s counterproductive and alienating.

On the one hand, the military gave me an eye for practical solutions that align well with research goals. It is good tactical discipline to assess circumstances, cut out the excess, and evaluate possible outcomes in service of a quick, executable solution.

On the other hand, the nature of battle is not like the nature of thinking (or debates, even). Assuming limited resources and taking an aggressive or defensive stance, is less relevant than trying to accurately identify critical similarities, differences, and possibilities for improvement. I’ve wasted a lot of energy by applying military notions of competition to my research.


I want to see a boot camp whose purpose is to train young adults to think harder, clearer and more effectively; to produce intelligent, usable solutions to personal and social puzzles; to have a higher cognitive discipline; to instill shared values about reason, thinking and discourse, but ultimately to empower strong individual identities.

Modeled after the drill instructor-recruit mentorship seen in military boot camp, my intellectual boot camp (IBC) would be a training program designed to break down bad habits of thought and build a more rigorous, disciplined, effective mind. To emphasize cooperation, equality and dedication recruits would give up personal possessions, wear a uniform, share living quarters, adhere to a strict code of ethics, and accept only limited contact with the outside world for the duration of the training.

The central experience of an IBC recruit would be intense, relentless intellectual challenging and confrontation of their own ideas about the world by instructors. This would be through drilling of intellectual skills (writing essays, arguing for ideas, and developing proposals for action) under pressure with limited resources (time, information, attention). They would be trained to focus in the face of perceptual, physical, or emotional distractions. Over time, recruits could expect to cultivate a sharper focus on cognitive objectives, resilience to distractions and challenges including personal ego.

Recruits who survive the gauntlet of tasks and challenges would graduate with the ability to identify, develop, and communicate ideal critical, rational arguments, positions or plans (orally or written) given the available knowledge, finite time, and resources at hand (reference material, teamwork). Recruits would also learn responsible, ethical ways to interact in a broader community—leading, collaborating, and competing with existing systems of problems and solutions, subordinates, peers and supervisors.

For such a boot camp, I imagine application could be open to any high school graduate entering or returning from the workforce or higher education. The central requirement is a commitment to better understand the self and world. Recruits would leave with a sense of pride and accomplishment, and the capacity to approach a broad range of unforeseeable and foreseeable problems and goals.

My waking hours have slowly been taken over by these ideas. I now dream of them. I don’t have it all worked out, in fact, I don’t even have all the skills I’m describing of my idealized graduates. But true to the values I aim to cultivate, I warmly welcome any and all input. What I have is the belief that an immersive, intense instructor-student model can sharpen minds in ways our education system is not designed to, and our society increasingly needs.

I’m hoping to have a prototype of the curriculum ready to test by this time next year.

Next: How to talk to a veteran.

Related: Political Debate

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