What’s wrong with the Boy Scouts?
As an Eagle Scout, the son of an Eagle Scout, and a professional with the Boy Scouts of America for about eight years, I have heard this question a lot this last week. The Boy Scouts of America just announced that they would allow girls to join their program, even earn the rank of Eagle Scout, and many people are confused. After all, it seems patently absurd that a program built for boys, which actually has the word “boy” in its name, would suddenly be appropriate for girls too.
So what is wrong with the Boy Scouts? I do not think, at its root, it is simply that the Boy Scouts capitulated on a whole range of controversial social issues—though they surely have changed with popular culture. I think these changes are actually symptomatic of a deeper problem within the BSA. To put it simply: the Boy Scouts are too safe.
Essentially, the Boy Scouts of America has abandoned its original insight into the soul of boys: They are natural warriors. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are girls out there who love to play cops and robbers, and boys out there who love playing with dolls. But we all know that, in general, whether it is biologically or culturally transmitted, boys like to play at war and girls don’t. This central vision into the nature of boys was what sparked the Scouting movement.
The History Of The Scouts
The Boy Scouts was founded by a British war hero, Lord Baden Powell, who subsequently published a number of books about military reconnaissance. These books proved popular among British boys, who formed “Scouting patrols” in their enthusiasm to act out what they had learned in the books.
Powell founded the Scouting program to help direct this natural inclination among boys toward a higher end: citizenship. Instead of simply learning military skills, the boys would learn about ideals like “duty to God and country.” Even though the ideals were lofty, the Scouting program remained rooted in a program that taught skills which would serve boys as future warriors: wilderness survival, first-aid, rustic cooking, shelter-making, etc.
Just look at any handbook written before 1970. Scouting used to teach boys how to survive on the land: looking for edible plants, tracking animals, even hunting. The modern Boy Scouts has abandoned the Bear Grylls approach to camping, opting instead for safer, more inclusive versions that not only satisfy the over-cautious helicopter parent, but also those legions of personal injury lawyers who would love to sue the Scouts out of business.
A Watered-Down Program
I’ll never forget the time, as a young professional with the Boy Scouts, that I attended a campout with a local Troop from Rockville, Maryland. I was fresh out of the Peace Corps, where I had spent two years teaching beekeeping to Paraguayan subsistence farmers. Those same farmers had taught me how to set traps for animals, which I demonstrated to a group of Boy Scouts—all of whom were spellbound by my tutorial.
The Scoutmaster, a grizzled retired Marine, whispered to me at the campfire that night—looking a bit ashamed for the BSA—that I should probably be careful teaching these trapping skills to Boy Scouts because they contravene several sacrosanct Scouting rules: by cutting shrubbery to make snares, figure-4, and deadfall traps, I violated the “leave no trace” rules. Also, Scouting frowns upon teaching boys to kill animals.
In ways that mirrored our “risk-adverse” education system, the requirements for advancement in the BSA have been watered down. The best example of this is that it is no longer required that a Scout learns how to swim to advance to the rank of Eagle. In 1972, it was decided that requiring kids to learn to swim might be too difficult for some, and instead Scouts could earn “Personal Fitness” or “Sports” to advance to Eagle Scout.
Although no Scouting professional would ever say so openly, this change in the requirements was made in order to make program more attractive to black and urban youth, who were often scared of swimming activities. Instead of doing the hard work of actually helping these urban youth overcome their fears of water activities (and learn a skill that could one day save their life), the BSA opted instead to water-down the requirements.
From the inside of the Scouting program, especially among some of the old-guard Scoutmasters who have been running Troops for decades, there is a palpable sense that the program can still be saved from itself. They are aware of how the Boy Scouts’ national office continues to bungle the public relations and marketing of their beloved program, but where Scouting happens—in church basements or school gymnasiums or in the great outdoors—is what really matters.
When Boy Scouts Lost Their Cool
And they’re right. There are Scouting programs all over the country where Scoutmasters ignore the guidance of their local council’s “risk management” team, and insist on the sort of rugged campout experiences that make for memories that last a lifetime. These Scoutmasters (like the grizzled retired Marine that I referenced above) let their kids run at camp. (Yes, running at camp is no longer allowed.) They let their boys wake up to go fishing at 5 a.m., and even allow them to fillet the fish and grill it for breakfast (also not allowed). They may even take their kids to a farm way off in the boondocks where they have the time of their lives learning how to safely shoot and clean a variety of pistols (again, not allowed).
From within my little world of conservative free-marketeers and Scouting friends, it is sometimes hard for me to understand the way that Scouting is perceived by outsiders. A good insight into this comes from my good college buddy, someone who had never participated in Scouts, who often texts me whenever he hears about the Boy Scouts in the news. This is what he texted me while the Boy Scouts were fighting to bar openly gay boys from participating in the program: “Why do the Boy Scouts of America want to ban gays? Aren’t Boy Scouts and gays like the two groups everyone picks on in school? They should be allies.”
I’m sure my friend said this tongue-in-cheek, but there was a truth in it that is undeniable. Being a Boy Scout is a serious social liability. There’s even a saying in the Boy Scouts about this. Experienced Scoutmasters will often tell parents to encourage their sons to earn Eagle by 14—before they get a case of the ’fumes. The “car fumes and the perfumes” distract older boys and they often drop out of the program by the time they reach 15.
Today’s Boy Scouts Are Too Safe
But the problem isn’t just that Scouting isn’t cool anymore. Scouting hasn’t been “cool” for a long time. In fact, my Eagle Scout father will attest to the fact that it wasn’t cool when he was in the program in the 50s and 60s. But, unlike the program I experienced, and especially the program as it is delivered these days, the Scouting program my father received was difficult. Some might even describe it as rugged. Because the program was demanding, the boys learned some of the important character traits that helped them cope with membership in a program that wasn’t “cool.” Sadly, those days are long gone.
The best example of the BSA’s decline might be a little-known program within the Scouts called the Order of the Arrow (OA). Nowadays, it’s known as the “Honor Society of Campers.” But back in my dad’s day, it was a “secret society.” This is a marked shift in the way the BSA talks about this program: The former sounds like a bullet item from a resume, the latter sounds like a bona fide rite-of-passage.
Nowadays the OA is transparent and “safe.” Back in my dad’s day, boys were terrified by the program, sometimes dragged into the woods, sworn to secrecy, sent into the wilderness for days with only a match and a little bit of water. Nowadays, there are still secrets to the Order of the Arrow, but the program is no longer terrifying or arduous. More importantly, of course, the program is also no longer richly gratifying to the boys who go through it.
We’ve Traded Liberty For Security
Look, I get it, the Order of the Arrow old traditions led to abuses. There was hazing, surely. And boys may have even gotten injured or spent their two days alone in the woods miserable and wet in the rain. But why did we throw the baby out with the bathwater? Can’t we see that a “safe” program will never appeal to boys who, by their very nature, are apt to form spontaneous patrols in order to mimic the military?
Scouts are still required to earn their “Citizenship in the Community,” “Citizenship in the Nation,” and “Citizenship in the World” merit badges in order to earn the rank of Eagle. These merit badges teach Scouts about the delicate and complex system of ordered liberty that has made the USA the envy of much of the world. How is it that an organization dedicated to helping its participants appreciate liberty is at the same time so full of overbearing rules?
Like so much else in modern culture, we have traded our liberty for a sense of security. There are too many rules in the Boy Scouts. And, as Benjamin Franklin observed (at least that it is popularly attributed to him), those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.