Fifty years ago, as a 15-year-old Eagle Scout, I earned a Golden Jubilee patch and neckerchief slide for attending a camporee celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in 1910.1 Today my red patch jacket sports patches testifying to my attendance at various Centennial Year events sponsored by the BSA, from the Golden Empire Council camporee at Beale Air Force Base in Sacramento to a summer camp on Catalina Island with my 15-year-old grandson. My Scouting experiences have played an important part in making me the man, husband, father, grandfather, teacher and citizen that I am. Like other Eagle Scouts, I never use the past tense to describe that aspect of myself. I am an Eagle Scout.
I believe deeply, too, that at a time when all evidence, from neuroscience to common sense, points to the importance of getting children outdoors and into nature, Scouting has never had more to offer America’s youth. America’s children need to learn the touch-labor skills that help round out the independent human personality. They need exercise, they need positive social experiences, and they need to understand the meaning of duty, honor and selflessness, as every generation of youth does. That is why it saddens me that Scouting today is a less positive force than it might be.
The BSA grew stronger every year in its first half-century, reaching its zenith in membership and social influence in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Then it got entangled in the culture wars and has suffered the consequences ever since. To give some sense of perspective, more than 43,000 Scouts gathered for the 2010 American national Jamboree—a large gathering, to be sure, the size of a small city. But that is considerably fewer than the more than 56,000 who attended the 1960 Colorado Springs Jamboree. To understand this depressed trajectory, we have to go back to the beginning.
1910 and All That
While 2010 is the centennial year of the Boy Scouts of America, the Scouting movement was founded in England in 1908 by Lord Robert Baden-Powell, a military hero of the Boer War who was so alarmed at the lack of physical and mental preparedness he saw in British troops that he resolved to start a youth organization to build strong, alert, dutiful young men for the 20th century. He began writing a handbook for the movement and in 1907 gathered young men for a camping experience on Brownsea Island, Dorset, to test his ideas for the program. With the publication of his Scouting for Boys in 1908, the movement was underway.
Even that founding generated controversy, notably about whose ideas inspired Scouting in the first place. Baden-Powell had corresponded with Ernest Thompson Seton, a Canadian-American artist and naturalist who had created his own movement, “Seton’s Woodcraft Indians.” In 1902, Ladies Home Journal began publishing pieces that Seton later gathered into his Birch Bark Roll, a handbook for a youth movement based on Indian lore. Seton had shared his handbook with Baden-Powell in 1906, and by the time Seton wrote substantial portions of the first Handbook for Boys (1911) for the BSA, he was blending ideas from his movement and from Baden-Powell’s. Meanwhile, a third early founder, Daniel Carter Beard, had created in 1905 the Sons of Daniel Boone, based on pioneer and woodcraft skills.
The founding legend of the BSA, one every new Scout reads about in the Handbook, begins with Chicago publisher William Boyce getting lost in the fog on a London street. He is approached by a boy who leads him to his destination. When Boyce offers the boy a tip for this assistance, the boy refuses, telling Boyce that he is a Scout. Boyce is so impressed that he asks around about this new movement and on his return to the United States organizes a gathering of businessmen, lawyers and youth workers (including Seton, Beard and a few men with YMCA experience, including James E. West, the first Scout Executive). The BSA recognizes the date of that meeting, February 8, 1910, as its founding moment.
Some cynics doubt the details of the Boyce story, but the facts are less important than the central truth it conveys: Selfless acts in urban settings, especially from young people, were then so unexpected that even one such incident could inspire a youth movement. Despite the iconic imagery of the agrarian democratic origins of the United States, the 1910 Census demonstrates the increasingly characteristic urban experience of Americans. This was a time of vast and unsettling change in America. Immigrants and internal migrants from rural America hustled their way into a lurching modernity. Clamoring streetcars and automobiles filled with mutual strangers shared the road with horse-drawn wagons. The sense that one could count on one’s neighbors died, and the idea of the “juvenile delinquent” was born. The American city became a Darwinian urban jungle.
Social Darwinism was in the American air in 1910, or at least Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” gloss of it was. At the same time, turn-of-the-century American intellectuals endeavored to reconcile social Darwinism, which they believed to be a “scientific” idea wholly compatible with free market capitalism, with their deeply cherished ideas about Christian selflessness. In his famous 1889 essay, “Wealth”, Andrew Carnegie argued that Christian stewardship and charity were necessary checks on the selfishness and greed that capitalism could breed. Carnegie created the Carnegie Hero Medals and Fund in 1905 precisely because he believed that selfless acts of heroism needed to be recognized in a Darwinian world where people felt less obligation to aid one another.
Like Carnegie, the founders of the BSA sought an American philosophy that made room for social Darwinism, Protestant Christianity, capitalism and American exceptionalism. Their ideas about masculinity encapsulated this amalgam of ideas. The concept of “muscular Christianity” provided a rationale for giving boys rigorous outdoor experiences that would build physical, intellectual and moral fitness. The Scout Oath adopted by the BSA as it “Americanized” the British movement captures these ideas:
On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my Country
And to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
Mentally awake, and morally straight.
In a way, the words “honor” and “duty” in the Oath alert us to the fact that by 1910 those two notions were in decline, making Scouting to some degree an inherently conservative, even restorative social movement. Identifying historical watersheds is a tricky exercise, but 1910 looks like such a moment. The great NYU and Penn economic historian Thomas C. Cochran saw 1910 as a convenient date for marking an “inner revolution”, as he called it, from an era of certainty about absolute truths to one of doubt about tentative truths.2 Biological and physical sciences, along with mathematics, were casting doubt on our ability to know truth and reality. Freud made his first and only visit to the United States in 1910 to give a series of lectures at Clark University about how surface realities mask hidden, unconscious realities. The year 1910 also saw the publication, under the auspices of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, of the first of a series of ninety essays in 12 volumes that became known as The Fundamentals, essays meant to defend orthodox Christianity against modern intellectual movements like Darwinism and German Biblical criticism.
The “inner revolution” of 1910 was about more than lofty ideas from philosophy and science. Cochran and Warren Susman, a Rutgers University historian, also pointed to a profound shift in the American sense of the individual “self.”3 The concepts of “honor” and “duty” were wholly sensible to 19th-century Americans, who understood that certain expectations and responsibilities attached to their domestic and public social roles. But by 1910, 19th-century talk about “character” had given way to 20th-century talk about “personality.” “Character”, “honor” and “duty” belong together as a cluster of keywords; they make sense of one another. But in the early 20th century the idea of an individual’s personality as something apart from constricting social roles began to make “honor” and “duty” seem like betrayals of the real self.
Susman and other historians also point to the transformation of American capitalism as a possible source of this change in sensibility and language. The shift from character to personality seemed to parallel a shift from a focus on production to a focus on consumption. Consumer-oriented commodity capitalism and the advertising apparatus that was key to its success depended on consumer desire. The new, consuming personality of an age of abundance acted on impulse. Disciplined self-control, a social virtue that helped build America’s industrial and business civilization, was no longer an asset in a world where advertising and the revolutionary artifice of consumer credit drove the economic system. As psychology was fleshing out the new concept of personality, the idea of “self-realization” emerged in the psychology literature and in fiction. “Duty before self” was giving way to “self before duty.”
This is the context in which the founders of the BSA acted. Like other youth workers in 1910, they were responding to a moral panic about boys. The founders saw all about them physically unfit boys whose selfishness, mental dullness and immorality made them threats to society and to themselves. They saw themselves, in turn, as “boy savers” who would thereby revitalize American culture. The strategy for this cultural revitalization was to resist the modernization of consciousness in the new century, to restore more “authentic” times and culture (even the medieval code of chivalry, which has its own chapter in the 1911 Handbook for Boys), particularly Native American cultures and pioneer days. The wilderness, they believed (as did that most rugged of American individuals, Teddy Roosevelt), could cleanse boys of the sickness of too much civilization. Back to character, honor, and duty before self.
1960 and Beyond
BSA’s aspirations in 1910 came full circle a half-century later. Its ideology and program made as much sense during the Cold War as they had during the tumult surrounding the new century. Americans experienced a new wave of cultural tension between conformity and individualism, and the consumer economy again pitted impulsive consumer desire against the selflessness required for social coherence in the struggle against communism. The 1960 Jamboree and its theme, “For God and Country”, embodied the mostly white, middle-class, suburban, Cold War movement that Scouting had become at mid-century and nicely captured the Cold War conflation of religion, patriotism, and vigorous masculinity. It harmonized perfectly with the sort of civil religion that made it perfectly sensible in the mid-1950s to put “In God We Trust” on the dollar bill and to insert “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance.
The fifty years since the 1960 Jamboree have been less kind. The turmoil of the countercultural 1960s and 1970s threatened to make the Boy Scouts and conventional morality seem irrelevant to young people. The anti-militarism of the Sixties generation led many to sneer at the boys in Scout uniforms; the left-wing protestors called them “little fascists.” This was utterly unfair: Both a Green Beret and a leader of the antiwar movement could each justifiably see his path as a validation of the patriotism, values and skills he learned in becoming an Eagle Scout. Scouting did not have a singular or predictable politics in those years.
In the 1970s, the BSA was newly sensitive to the perception that Scouting was an exclusively white, utterly middle class and largely suburban organization. The challenge of reaching out to lower class boys and boys of color tested the organization from its earliest days, but in the wake of the Civil Rights movement the BSA undertook an American Bicentennial project, Boypower, to diversify its membership. Unfortunately, that effort came to an abrupt end with the discovery of financial scandal and false membership registrations. Membership continued to fall.
It then plummeted when the BSA chose sides in the culture wars. Perhaps the BSA could have stayed out of the fray, but by the late 1980s and early 1990s it was beginning to act more like a hierarchical church than like a secular youth organization. Churches had always been major sponsors of Scout troops, but by the 1980s churches became the most common sponsors of troops. Among them the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Catholic Church predominated. According to the BSA’s 2009 statistics, the LDS Church sponsors 37,682 units serving 405,676 youth, dwarfing the next two greatest sponsors: the United Methodist Church, with 11,391 units serving 369,733 youth, and the Catholic Church, with 9,022 units serving 286,779 youth. The Boy Scouts has been the official youth program for boys in the LDS church since 1913, and many of the adult volunteers and professional Scouters in the organization are LDS members. Although Mormons are just 2 percent of the population, they constitute 20 percent of Scouts.
In the 1990s, the BSA faced lawsuits around “the three Gs”—God, gays and girls. The organization accommodated the girls, even permitting women to become scoutmasters, but the BSA defended itself against the lawsuits from atheists and from openly gay men who had been excluded from membership. In autumn 1999, Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, dealing with the ousting of an openly gay assistant scoutmaster from the BSA, came before the U.S. Supreme Court. It posed the question of whether the BSA is a quasi-public organization subject to public accommodation and other civil rights laws, or rather a private organization whose First Amendment right to “freedom of assembly” allowed it to bar from membership individuals who do not share its values. Both the LDS and Catholic churches warned the BSA that if the decision affirmed the former definition, then the churches would withdraw their sponsorship of BSA troops and move to create their own, separate youth organizations for boys. That would have been devastating for the BSA, which already faced financial hard times due to declining membership, and so the leadership sided with the views of the two churches. This contradicted the founders’ intent. Seton and Beard, especially, loathed the New York businessmen and bankers who, they agreed, knew nothing about youth work and who seemed far too concerned with centralizing and controlling the movement. And the founders were explicit in wanting the movement to be broad and ecumenical in its membership, to welcome boys from all faiths and races.
As it happened, the BSA leadership got the Supreme Court decision it wanted. The Court’s 5–4 decision in June 2000 sided with the BSA, settling the legal question and averting the split with the churches and its financial consequences. It also helped in another way (or at least it was thought to do so). The BSA has faced sexual abuse scandals over many decades and so in the late 1980s instituted a Youth Protection Program, but new cases continued to surface, as they do to this day. Although the BSA insists that it does not conflate homosexuality and pedophilia, its solution to this ongoing problem has been to ban openly gay men and teens in hopes that this would mitigate, if not stop entirely, the problem of sexual predation.
While the BSA won its 2000 court battle, it has been increasingly losing the wider war. Organizations like the United Way and some city governments used the Court decision to justify the withdrawal of special favors granted to the organization such as rent-free or low-rent use of public buildings and spaces. Although it is hard to know for sure why membership rolls have declined 22 percent since 1999, particularly when the size of that birth cohort is growing, anecdotal information suggests that many boys and parents who disagree with BSA’s discrimination against atheists and gays have chosen to boycott the BSA, or at least find it uninviting. It is also the case, however, that a proliferation of alternative youth activities, like soccer and lacrosse leagues, coupled with parents’ inclination to more closely supervise their children’s time, now competes with Scouting in a way that was not the case twenty or thirty years ago.
The Millennial Generation
One can debate whether the BSA’s taking sides in the culture wars was avoidable, or if another choice was ever really possible. In any event, the BSA leadership has narrowed the appeal of scouting at a time when America’s young men need it more than ever. Those of us who rue the choices that have been made have reacted in different ways. As for myself, I have not turned in my Eagle medal and I have not encouraged a boycott of the BSA by family and friends. We have instead picked our troops carefully and encouraged reform from within. Scouting is too valuable and too important an experience in the lives of young people to walk away from the fight to return the BSA to its original values and original mandate. We need to move away from the present mission statement of the BSA, which states that the “mission of the Boy Scouts of America is to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law”, and get back to the language and reality of the 1916 Congressional Charter, which emphasized the training in “patriotism, courage, self-reliance, and kindred virtues”, and said nothing explicitly about morality.
There is still a chance to save Scouting from the present BSA leadership cadres, which continue the counterproductive process of abandoning its traditional mission in favor of a narrower, religion-based social role. But to do that the BSA has to come to terms with the new “moral panic” about boys and what we know about the youth cohort making its way into potential Scouting age.
The moral panic in the first decade of the 21st century is not much different from that of a century earlier. Both have focused on the supposedly waning ability of young people, especially young men, to make good moral choices. Indeed, the increasingly conservative agenda of the BSA in the 1990s coincided with a perceived crisis in American masculinity which closely resembled that of the 1890s on the eve of the founding of the BSA. Both crises were spawned by roughly similar circumstances: mass occupational dislocations, painful economic cycles, large-scale immigration and concern about the increased feminization of American primary education. Some wrote in the 1990s about “the war on boys” during the era of the men’s movement, the Promise Keepers, and the Million Man March, all meant to revitalize masculinity in America.4
The continuing moral panic about boys in trouble includes worry about violence. A string of school shootings, all by boys, and tales of gangs of middle-class boys “wilding” in public spaces led to articles about “toxic” boy cultures. The pervasiveness of violent electronic games and violent song lyrics helped fuel the panic. Adults also have other worries about boys, including their declining academic performance, the absence of adult males in the home, and the sedentary life that has accompanied the prominence of television and computers.
As is true of most moral panics, these worries tell us more about adults’ ideologies and politics than they tell us about real kids. What do we really know about the cohort of young people the BSA wants to attract, hold and mold? Perhaps more important, does the BSA understand this cohort? These boys are part of the Millennial Generation, and it’s not always easy for Baby Boomers or Generation Xers to understand them.
Here’s what adults who work with boys face in 2010. Writing in their 2000 book Millennials Rising, Neil Howe and William Strauss called the Millennials “the next great generation” and characterized them as a generation raised feeling “special” and sheltered, if over-scheduled. Millennials feel enormous pressure to succeed, and so tend to be more cooperative and defer more to authority than did the two previous generations. They seem far more attached to their parents; “helicopter parents” often “hover” near them and try to micromanage their children’s lives, but the tension between dependence and independence for this generation is particularly complicated.
Those who study the Millennials see some trends that should be of special interest to those working with youth.5 This is the most ethnically diverse generation in American history. Many are of mixed race, and to some extent they are puzzled that older Americans still seem fixated on race. They are far more relaxed about and accepting of a range of sexual behavior than are their elders and reject any organization that, like the BSA, discriminates against homosexuals. Most Millennials are comfortable having gay friends, which accords with polling that in 2009 showed some 66 percent of Americans under thirty favored same-sex marriage. They are also typified as an “always connected” generation, used to constructing and performing versions of themselves via electronic media. When asked what makes their generation unique, Millennials most mentioned their use of technology. Whereas “work ethic” shows up high in the lists of unique generational values reported by GenXers, Boomers and earlier generations, it doesn’t make much of an appearance on the Millennials’ list.
Some adults are alarmed to read that the Millennials are “the least overtly religious generation in modern times.” This confirms the findings of the ongoing longitudinal National Study of Youth and Religion based at the University of North Carolina, reported on its website and in the book Soul Searching (2005). The book’s authors, Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton, characterize “the new Civil Religion” in young people as a “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”, which guides their moral reasoning and which has as a major goal their feeling good about themselves. They write that for Millennial teens moral authority has become “increasingly privatized, subjectivized, customized, and therapeutically psychologized around the controlling authority of individual selves, and not religious communities, traditions, and institutions.”
Assuming for a moment that these observations are at least mostly valid, the dilemma facing the BSA as it strives to stop the narrowing of its membership is clear. The cohort of youth from which the BSA is drawing is more liberal in its social views than earlier generations, less traditionally religious than its elders, and lives in a commercial and technological environment where they are the center of cultural attention. The BSA can either abandon its attempts to recruit broadly from the cohort, choosing instead to serve the more socially and religiously conservative segments of the Millennial Generation, or it can return to its traditional mission and resist becoming the youth program of just a few churches.
Some within the BSA recognize this cultural moment and are attempting to shift the course of the organization in the right direction. The new Chief Scout Executive, Robert J. Mazzuca, who was appointed in September 2007, is reportedly trying to return the organization to its nonpartisan, nonsectarian mission. If so, he’ll have a bumpy ride, as the influence of the religious sponsors and the volunteer leadership they provide the organization will resist such changes. There was some booing in the audience as the thousands gathered at the 2010 National Jamboree watched a pre-recorded video greeting from President Obama. A false rumor that President Obama has refused to sign the certificates for new Eagle Scouts continues to circulate on the Internet and is repeated by some conservative commentators and bloggers. At the same time that the BSA is undertaking a special project to recruit Hispanic boys and volunteers, many conservative politicians are targeting Hispanics in rhetoric aimed against illegal immigration. If the BSA is seen as politically aligned with conservative politics, then the efforts to recruit Hispanic boys will fail miserably. Partisanship can only shrink the membership further.
The good feelings about the Centennial celebration of the founding of the BSA will last through the fall with more camporees and Centennial year events, but in the new year the BSA must return to the problems of a youth organization buffeted by declining membership, financial trouble, sex scandals, and stubborn attempts to keep the organization on a socially and religiously conservative path. The choices facing the BSA leadership reflect the hard choices Americans are making about the direction of the country. I hope they choose well.
2Thomas C. Cochran, The Inner Revolution (Harper & Row, 1964).
3Warren Susman, Culture as History (Pantheon, 1985).
4This is not to say that concern about American masculinity arises only every century. Its appearance is more frequent than that; note, for example, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s widely read November 1958 Esquire essay, “The Crisis of American Masculinity.”
5See the Pew Research Center’s February 2010 report, Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next.