Looking behind Boy Scouts’ decision to admit girls
Summary: The Boy Scouts have decided to allow girls into their core programs. Let’s look at this decision, how it was made, the possible effects, and the vital context. It’s modern America in a nutshell.
Boy Scouts of America admits
girls into their core programs.
Attempting to boost their sagging numbers and reduce criticism from liberals, the directors of the Boy Scouts unanimously voted to allow girls to join the main Cub Scout and Boy Scout groups (they already participate in Venturing, Sea Scouting, Exploring, and STEM). Success at the latter is certain (until the next demands come); success at the former is less so. As for the effect on the organization and its Scouts — only time will tell. It also shows how decisions are made by America’s leaders, and why the results are so often unexpected. Here’s a brief description of this revealing story.
I write this based on my research — and my 15 years as a Boy Scout volunteer leader, at all levels from Den Leader to Council Vice-President and Director.
Membership in Boy Scouts of America peaked in 1973 at 4.8 million and has dropped relentlessly since then. In the first decade of this century it fell by 16% to 2.8 million. Since then it has dropped another 18% to 2.3 million. During these decades they tried many ways to “modernize” the BSA, all unsuccessful. The result has been decades of downsizing, a steady sale of camps, and consolidation of its local councils (many of which were financially broke). The problem is structural and probably unsolvable:
(a) The principles of Scouting have been unfashionable since the cultural revolution of 1965 – 1975. There have been countless rounds of modernization — multiculturalism, admitting girls into four of their programs, accepting gays and transgendered. These have made BSA acceptable but not fashionable.
(b) The deeper problems are less fixable. Scouting is a middle class organization. It requires extensive parental involvement — far more than competing youth organizations (such as sports). This works well only for two-parent financially stable families. That market has been shrinking since the 1970’s, with no sign of it stopping.
(c) The demographics are growing worse. The population of young Americans is shifting to groups who are poorer and with higher rates of fractured families. Scouting has found that these families can be reached by Scouting — but only if the local groups are subsidized. Since Scouting can barely support its existing groups, that kind of expansion is not possible.
(d) America’s youth are changing. Kids are raised by helicopter parents who tightly grip their reins (and so prefer regimented sports teams), raised watching TV in day care centers, whose play consists of pushing buttons and watching screens — have less interest in outdoor treks than previous generations. Offering merit badges in video games won’t attract enough of them.
Two things have keep Boy Scouting alive. First, Mormons — themselves outsiders in modern America — use Scouting as their youth program for boys. Without their boys — and more importantly, their adult leaders and financial support — BSA might enter a death spiral (unable to afford their infrastructure).
Second, the reputation of Eagle Scouts has kept BSA alive. The record of BSA’s best and brightest over generations — despite their class — made the Eagle rank one of America’s most respected certifications. (Girl Scout’s equivalent Gold Award has, unjustly, not developed the same reputation.) As David Halberstam said in The Best and the Brightest…
“In a nation so large and so diverse there are few ways of quantifying intelligence or success or ability, so those few that exist are immediately magnified, titles become particularly important.”
This has brought in many parents seeking to bolster their boys’ college applications. Troops become Eagle “factories”. Parents complete the projects. Outdoor treks are done only as needed. All this is antimatter to Scout spirit. Sometimes the parents run troops like schools; boys grudgingly cooperate, and bounce out after getting the little eagle pin — depriving Troops of what should be their Scout leaders.
The Directors have research showing that opening BSA to girls will produce a bounty of new members. They commissioned two nationwide surveys. They found that many parents not now involved in Boy Scouts wanted their daughters in Boy Scouts.
This shows why leaders so often make bad decisions. Such surveys are easy to do and produce clear results. They often do not ask the necessary questions. Large changes affect every factor in the equation. It is not just a matter of how many girls join. How many boys will decide to join boy-only sports teams instead of Boy Scouts? Why will girls join? How many will join for Scouting’s outdoor activities vs. credential-seeking? The answers to these questions will determine the outcome of this change.
So many of these changes in America are made on the basis of ideology. People, left and right, who just know things. Here’s my favorite response to questioning about the BSA decision (on Twitter).
“Because they’ll be harder workers and better scouts, especially at a young age?”
Needless to say, this person offered no evidence for this claim. Scouts entering existing co-ed programs have not shown this extraordinary jump in performance.
A larger context
This can be seen as another step in the end of American exceptionalism. Just as women are being integrated into America’s Armed forces, as they already are in the militaries of other developed nations — girls are being integrated into Boy Scouting, just as they already are in Scouting of other nations. World Scouting claims to have 33 million youth, with America the largest (but still small) component — and one of the few that is not coed.
So letting girls into more BSA programs is nothing unusual. The default expectation should be that nothing happens. Perhaps a few more Scouts. Perhaps a few less. Only small changes to Scouting.
But every society is unique. America is in the midst of unusual change in its society. Boys losing ground in school and drugged in incredible numbers (summary here), while gender roles are rapidly evolving. We are conducting a social experiment on a scale seldom seen in history. That is the context for this change in Scouting. Lots of potential for unexpected outcomes as we tinker with the deep mechanisms of our society.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Perhaps we should expect the unexpected, with many small changes producing large effects.
For More Information
- A brief guide to the new war of the sexes. Both sides are 100% right.
- America’s war of the sexes gets worse. Here’s why.
- Disturbing next steps in the gender revolution.
The context in America.
I recommend reading The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men by Christina Hoff Sommers. For an intro to it see her 2000 article in The Atlantic. From the publisher…
“An updated and revised edition of this controversial classic — now more relevant than ever — argues that boys are the ones languishing socially and academically, resulting in staggering social and economic costs.
“Girls and women were once second-class citizens in the nation’s schools. Americans responded with concerted efforts to give girls and women the attention and assistance that was long overdue. Now, after two major waves of feminism and decades of policy reform, women have made massive strides in education. Today they outperform men in nearly every measure of social, academic, and vocational well-being.
“Christina Hoff Sommers contends that it’s time to take a hard look at present-day realities and recognize that boys need help. Called “provocative and controversial …impassioned and articulate” (The Christian Science Monitor), this edition of The War Against Boys offers a new preface and six radically revised chapters, plus updates on the current status of boys throughout the book.
“Sommers argues that the problem of male underachievement is persistent and worsening. Among the new topics Sommers tackles: how the war against boys is harming our economic future, and how boy-averse trends such as the decline of recess and zero-tolerance disciplinary policies have turned our schools into hostile environments for boys. As our schools become more feelings-centered, risk-averse, competition-free, and sedentary, they move further and further from the characteristic needs of boys. She offers realistic, achievable solutions to these problems that include boy-friendly pedagogy, character and vocational education, and the choice of single-sex classrooms.
“The War Against Boys is an incisive, rigorous, and heartfelt argument in favor of recognizing and confronting a new reality: boys are languishing in education and the price of continued neglect is economically and socially prohibitive.”