Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Scouting in a Fractured American Culture

The New York Times runs an article about how the national leaders of the Boy Scouts of America are seeking to address concerns about shrinking membership as they celebrate 100 years of boy scouting in the US. The number of boy scouts has declined 42% since it's peak in 1978, with 2.8 million boys currently in the Scouts.

To judge from the commentariat at the Times, you would think this is entirely the result of the BSA remaining firm in their ban of gay scout leaders and statement that "homosexual conduct is inconsistent with obligations in the Scout Oath." Not to mention saying that boys who refuse to recite the Scout Oath because of its references to God and reverence may simply not have a place in the program. Commenters claiming to be Eagle Scouts line up one after another in the comments to announce that no son of theirs will ever be a member of the Scouts while it remains homophobic and theocratic.

I find this rather hard to believe -- especially as girl scouts (who have chosen the other side of the cultural divide, with acceptance of atheist girl scouts and an open door for Planned Parenthood to provide sex education through the organization) have suffered identical membership declines, with only 2.3 million girl scouts in the US as they near their own centenary.

What I think this underscores is rather two related but separate trends:

1) The US have become culturally fragmented to an extent that an organization such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts is not capable of appealing to the entirety of American culture. These organization must, by their nature, have a philosophy of what it means to be a responsible and maturing young person, and in formulating any set of principles along these lines they will necessarily estrange a significant portion of the country. Be assured that for parent claiming he will never let his son join the boy scouts because they are homophobic, there are other parents who would never allow their sons to join a troop led by an gay scoutmaster, or to belong to an organization which assured boys that homosexual activity is "normal and healthy".

2) The scouts thrive in a culture in which there is some degree of father/son culture, and in which people are excited about outdoor activities. Certainly, some of the boys who benefit most from Scouting are boys without fathers -- and many other boys from stable families have fathers who don't have time to be "scout dads" and come to all the meetings and camp-outs. (I was among that latter group, as my dad worked many nights and weekends.) But if virtually no dads are willing to put time into helping to run a troop and do outdoor activities, scouting simply won't happen. Adult leadership is always an essential component. And although troops can thrive in urban or suburban settings (my troop was sponsored out of our working-class parish in the old suburbs of Los Angeles) it has to be at least possible to interest boys in the idea of camping and hiking and trying knots and building fires. For people to whom the idea of going camping seems totally pointless, scouting will have little point.

As a result of these two, it strikes me as unsurprising that scouting finds less fertile ground in some parts of the country and among some cultural groups in the modern US. But so long as it remains true to its core values, the Boy Scouts will continue to thrive among those open to its values, and where scouting does thrive it will continue to provide boys and young men with a chance to learn skill and independence while gaining an appreciation of the great outdoors. I certainly look forward to the day my son is old enough to join.


Anonymous said...

I'm sure Mrs. Darwin is looking forward to that day too. Knives, fire, swimming, camping gear strewn about, dirty sleeping bags with who know what crawling out... hehehehee :) Yes, your posts will only get more interesting as time goes on...

Barb said...

Mark led a Cub Scout troop here for several years and his biggest gripe was that there were so many leader meetings and fundraising activities that it barely left time to do what he wanted to do with the boys. He was frustrated to say the least. Michael wanted to quit after several years because our parish's troop only went on one campout a year and Mark couldn't get any other parents to go with him on outdoor activities and of course, he couldn't take them on his own.
I hope that you have better experience...

mrsdarwin said...

Cliff, as long as I don't have to do the camping myself, it's all fine with me. :)

Barb said...

He actually led a den, not the troop..

Darwin said...

The character of the individual pack or troop is key -- one of the main reasons I went all the way through is that in my pack the Webelos went camping every other month, and the boy scout troop did the same. We also did basically no fundraising (a camping trip might cost $10-20, but overall we just did things cheaply) which was definitely a plus.

Jeffrey Kinney said...

Another aspect in the article that I found amusing was the assertion that the BSA was hurting for membership because of they do not allow girls. The article touches on Venture scouting being inclusive, but Sea Scouts and Explorers (also under BSA) are inclusive as well. Additionally, the BSA partners with other organizations (including American Heritage Girls) to support girls. I find it interesting that no one ever questions why the BSA should be hammered over this while GSA has also declared itself a single-sex organizer.

Regarding homosexuality, GSA has a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy, something that I am sure the New York Times has never addressed.

Caveat B said...

Scouting was a great experience for me. I was a baptist and my troop was sponsored in the basement of a Catholic church, which was great exposure, and I even remember the jewish scouts praying the Lord's Prayer. My scoutmaster was a marine corps colonel, still serving, after doing tours in Vietnam a decade or two earlier. Camp in the summers was awesome. And while I wasn't the most ambitious scout, I appreciate what I learned there, and I think it helped me stay out of trouble and get ready for the next phase of life: girls!

Anonymous said...

While outdoor activities are growing in the US, it is mostly adventure type activities that are seeing the fastest growth: mountain biking, rock climbing and mountaineering, kayaking, etc. Hiking is growing too, but only day-hiking.

Overnight hiking of the sort that the Scouts traditionally practise, with big backpacks and cramped tents, is actually declining all over the US. National Parks across the board are reporting a decline in overnight backcountry travel, in spite of the apparent increase in outdoor activities nationwide.

The BSA's decline might be less due to its stance on cultural hot-button issues, and more due to its simply being outside the trendy mainstream of activities.

Joel (backpacker and rock climber)

rhinemouse said...

Girl Scouts are a tool of the patriarchy!

(My troop never went camping, and I'm still bitter.)

Teresa said...

Boy Scouts are AWESOME. My son's troop goes camping every single month.

You're right ... it depends on the dads in the troop to get involved and make it a great troop. Our parish troop is quite small as BSA troops go ... but full of dedicated dads.

My daughter's American Heritage Girls troop is also a great experience for her. They camp only twice a year ... but they do other skill-building activities. The girls are not clamoring to go camping every month. Boys and girls are different, who'd a thunk it?

mts1 said...

Did the article point out how badly *adult* organizations such as the Lions, Moose, Rotary, Jaycees, etc. are doing? I don't see then as homophobic and theocratic (whatever those terms mean), so that's not the cause of their demise. No.

And is everything a numbers game? In the question of if I'd rather see a Church (or if the scouts want to see their organization) be smaller but true to the genuine mission vs. large but watering it all down, the answer would seem to be draw down to the honest smaller numbers, circle the wagons, then figure how to build membership while keeping the faith. And why are gays so headstrong about being Scout leaders? Scouting can keep the core values while finding activities that appeal to a country that is no longer significantly rural.

Elizabeth M said...

Our son went all through Cub Scouts and is now in his 2nd year of Boy Scouts. Here in our town in South Jersey, he actually had a choice of at least 3 Boy Scout troops when he was getting ready to cross over. His troop has more than 50 boys in it, of course with varying levels of involvement. The troop camps every month and usually has the largest troop contingent at their Summer camp.

Yes, there are very active adult leaders (the "emeritus" scoutmaster is still involved, and he started the Troop in the 60s).

I'm sometimes a little disappointed that this troop is much more anti-Mom involvement than others (since I like to camp a lot more than my husband does).

But I'm grateful for the activities available to my son and the very "boyness" that it encourages. Imagine -- it's OK to get dirty and get outside!

I think the membership may be smaller overall because the general image of scouting is somewhat old fashioned -- many people think of Boy Scouts as something that boys used to do. But then again, the idea of building character and holding to values (like honesty, reverence, obedience, kindness, etc.) is foreign to too many people in our culture right now. Also, as pointed out, if fewer parents (esp. dads) have time to be involved, Troops can't grow. Many kids are also now already overscheduled, so it's hard to fit in Troop meetings and outings too. But Scouts is not just another activity -- it teaches so much more.

I hope the BSA sticks to its roots and its values and enjoys another 100 years -- even if the numbers

Darwin said...


You've got a point there. Though some troops and summer camps have added "extreme outdoors" kind of activities (rock climbing, mountain biking, white water rafting, etc.) it's not the sort of thing you can easily do with a large organization (thus with liability) of boys mostly in their early teens.

Plus, there's just an image of scouts as being kind of old fashioned, square, and goody-two-shoes.

Amber said...

My husband is an eagle scout as are his brothers and his father. His father is still involved in scouts a little bit, even though his youngest son has been out for 10 years. He was very involved both with the local troop and the bigger organization. In fact, he's just getting back from volunteering at the national Jamboree - something he's done for many years.

That being said, my husband and I have little to no interest in doing scouts. We'd rather do the camping, hiking and backpacking as a family, and we are very concerned about the early exposure to pornography and bad language that seems to go hand in hand with BSA. I have no idea how universal this is, but it has definitely been a problem in a number of troops from a variety of areas. I have no problem with a boys will be boys attitude when it comes to getting dirty and having adventures, but I find that attitude abhorrent when applied in those other areas. The clique-ishness and "in-crowd" aspects of many of the troops (both for boys and parents!) are also very inappropriate.

It'll be sad for my father-in-law for us to not participate in BSA, but I think for the appropriate development of our family and our boys it is the right decision.

BettyDuffy said...

My husband doesn't like to attend scout meetings because the other boys all bring their mothers. It's like being the lone dad at a women's playgroup. Weird.

Jeffrey Kinney said...


I agree with your assessment that there is often a gap between what the scouts want to do and what the leaders can set up. However, most camps and many individual troops seek out lite 'high adventure' activities. Back in the early 1990s when I was just getting into Boy Scouts, our council's main summer camp added mountain biking and COPE (custom built challenge courses and rope courses). I've seen much of the same over the past 20 years at other camps.

My son's troop is actively looking to have two different summer camps for the boys: a typical summer camp closer to home focused on badges, aquatics, etc. (mostly for the younger scouts) and a second one for the older scouts that involves horseback treks, COPE or similar activities. The age of the scout is a factor with these activities. The BSA's Guide to Safe Scouting dictates what age level and ability level scouts must be at to participate. Swim tests for canoing and kayaking, age limits for climbing walls, etc. They tend to be on the side of safety so most of what the older scouts are working towards will not be allowed for the first year scouts for another 4 years.

Backpacking is a little different but it depends on the flavor of the troop you are with. Some troops buy gear that is appropriate for backpacking, but this can be cost prohibitive for many scouts and parents. Most troop are set for front country camping and only hike from their vehicles a few hundred yards to make camp.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, scouting offers a rock climbing badge. I know because I have worked with troops to help boys to earn that badge - at an outdoor crag, not in a gym. So I know that *some* troops do adventure-outdoors type stuff.

But I also know that these troops are the exception, not the rule, and that the BSA as a whole is not known for that sort of thing.


Anonymous said...

I'm finding the comments interesting.

I think the importance placed on sports in our society has a lot more to do with the decline in scouting than politics and religion. I currently have 2 sons in scouts. We've noticed that once the boys get old enough for organized sports they often drop out of scouts. When Coach requires 5 practices and one game each week, there isn't much time left for scouting.

Also, there seems to be a lack of distinction between Cub Scouts (K-5th grade) and Boy Scouts (5th grade to age 18). My younger son's Cub Scout den only camps 2 times a year, and one on one parent involvement is crucial to the success of the den. Boy Scouts is boy-led, with adult leadership to guide, not to control. My son's Boy Scout troop camps monthly, and our leadership is comprised of a handful of dedicated dads (many of the Eagle Scouts) who encourage the boys to be their best.

The poster who said scouts is behind the times in terms of activities is out of the loop! My son just returned from camp - in addition to sleeping under the stars and a 5 mile hike, he did BMX biking and rock climbing. Merit Badges can now be earned in software design or computer gaming as well as woodworking and archery.

Anonymous said...

Totally second what Joel said and Anonymous just above...Around here everyone is utterly obsessed with organized sports. Every kid seems to be on multiple teams once they are in second grade. My boys love camping, and we go as a family, but our cub scouts have yet to have a camping overnight. I personally think that camping should be a required activity for all children(and maybe adults). It does more for your appreciation of what your have and your understanding of what you really don't need than any other activity I can think of.