[Note: This post was published on GeekDad last year.]
Today, February 8th, marks the centennial of Boy Scouts in America. Over the past century, more than 110 million boys, young men, moms and dads have been members of the BSA. However, with such a momentous celebration at-hand, the Boy Scouts, in many ways, are a struggling organization. At a time when shows like “Man Vs Wild” and “Survivorman” are experiencing immense popularity and global awareness of the environment is at a high, wouldn’t it make sense that an organization like the Boy Scouts would see a surge in enrollment? After all, the scouting program specializes in promoting survival skills and enjoyment of the outdoors as its biggest recruiting tools for boys and young men.
But in the past decade, enrollment numbers have seen continuous annual plunges. Not as many boys are interested in the program and fewer parents are making the choice to enroll their sons in Scouting. The published enrollment numbers that the BSA share show that membership has dropped year after year, a tough pill to swallow for any organization, and the BSA has been accused on several occasions that their rolls have been inflated to enhance appearances. Even if you ignore those rumors and accept the BSA’s numbers, with just 2.8 million members, Scouting is half of what it was in 1972 when enrollment peaked. That means that Boy Scout membership in the US is down by 11% in the past decade and Cub Scouts have seen their membership drop by 23% during the same time.
While some of this can be attributed to more choices for kids – from soccer to chess club to year-round basketball clinics – and busier schedules for both children and their parents, those are still tremendous declines. Plus, the Scouting program has been dogged by allegations of discrimination – mainly in cases brought by gays and atheists. It’s been a tough road lately, with some questioning why Scouting hasn’t changed more to adjust to a new social climate. But is the drop in Scouting membership due to the materiality of its programs or to other factors? It’s impossible to say, but, perhaps, there is a larger question at hand: As Scouting celebrates its 100th anniversary this month, are the Boy Scouts of America still relevant?
THE CASE IN FAVOR OF SCOUTING
The benefit of any program can be measured by those who rise to its top. And, for Scouting, the top is the rank of Eagle Scout – an accomplishment that caps years of work, progressive leadership responsibilities, civic awareness, community volunteerism, dozens of merit badges based on learning specialized skills and (in most cases) countless nights spent camping in forests and wilderness. It is a long road and a difficult one, but – if a boy sticks with it and accomplishes his goal – the reward is great. He has been tested and challenged over and over in a way that not only gives him a greater understanding of his place in his community, but a better understanding of who he is and what he is capable of achieving. Over the history of the Boy Scouts of America, just under two million boys have become Eagle Scouts, a rank that is awarded for life. The list of Eagle Scouts is impressive; it includes a president (and several presidential candidates), representatives and senators, astronauts, many very successful businessmen, a couple of filmmakers, and some guy that does a lot of dirty jobs.
But what about the millions of other boys in both the Cub Scout and Boy Scout programs who never make Eagle Scout? Do they get anything out of the program? The argument can be made that – as long as you are involved, you get something out of it. The skills taught in weekly meetings or earned on campouts stay with boys forever. From Lifesaving to Citizenship, Scouts gain a deeper understanding of skills that will affect them for the rest of their lives. And in the case of some skills, like First Aid and Emergency Preparedness, Scouting is a unique opportunity to gain know-how that boys might not get anywhere else. In fact, from youthful Cub Scouts to seasoned Boy Scouts, boys are consistently showcased in newspapers and the TV news for saving the lives of family, friends or strangers, simply because they knew how to “be prepared” in a life-threatening emergency.
Scouting places a very high value on community involvement and scouts take that commitment very seriously, volunteering for a wide range of projects – improving public land and property, serving food banks, and assisting the elderly, impoverished and the unfortunate, among others. Scouting For Food, a project that collects food for local food banks, contributes not only food, but nearly a hundred million service hours across the United States every year. The Order of the Arrow, the Boy Scouts honor camping society, has hosted an event called “Five Sites, Five Weeks, Five Thousand Arrowmen” where a thousand Order of the Arrow scouts descend upon one of five national parks to improve, clean and work on conservation and fire-prevention projects. All told, volunteer Scouting hours probably total more than any other group in the United States – more than 2 million hours a year by a conservative estimate.
Boy Scouts – and to a lesser extent, Cub Scouts – spend countless nights exploring and camping in the nation’s forests and parks. Environmental responsibility plays a large role in the program’s curriculum and campsite locations are left in the same situation as they found them, under “Leave No Trace” camping rules, if not improved upon by the group. Camping, especially for urban youth, is a rarity, if not unheard of. Scouting provides a conduit for getting boys – urban or otherwise – out away from couches, Xboxes, cable tv and computer monitors into the outdoors. With all the technology surrounding today’s youth, it’s not difficult to imagine a childhood where the outdoors plays a substantially reduced role. Yet, Scouting is the antithesis of a sedentary life, introducing day-long hikes, cooking over an open fire, and survival skills. The argument can be made that these skills aren’t necessarily important on a daily basis, but because they are immensely valuable in a crisis or dangerous situations – and because they really aren’t taught anywhere else – the fact that Scouting still teaches them makes the program more relevant than ever.
Scouting emphasizes a strong bond between boys and their families. In many cases, this is exemplified by the relationship between boys and their fathers, who are most often volunteers for the program. This traditional arrangement provides an ideal opportunity for boys to step away from their daily routine and not only learn core Scouting skills like orienteering, cooking or first aid, but also skills outside the Scouting curriculum, like negotiating the pitfalls of adolescence and growing to become men. Yes, these are things that boys can learn elsewhere, but Scouting provides a conduit – whether a weekend-long campout, a two-week backpacking trek or just a weekly meeting – where interaction with teenagers and their fathers is mandatory — an occurrence that’s sometimes difficult for many families at home.
Then, there are Scouting’s values, those twelve points that both brand and identify a Boy Scout as, that squeaky-clean, do-gooder kid: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. For the most part, these are ideals that most of us want to see in our family, friends and neighbors. Scouting has consistently forwarded these values over their 100 year history. Peter Applebome, an editor of The New York Times, once wrote that, as an adult volunteer involved with his son’s scouting, he observed that “Scouting’s core values … are wonderful building blocks for a movement and a life. Scouting’s genuinely egalitarian goals and instincts are more important now than they’ve ever been. It’s one of the only things that kids do that’s genuinely cooperative, not competitive.”