A couple weeks ago, my father pointed an article out to me in the local paper, the Valley Reporter, where there was a brief announcement about a local Boy Scout receiving his Eagle rank. It was exciting for the both of us, because with myself and my brother finishing up our time in scouting by reaching the rank of Eagle, my father, who held out troop together and fostered a solid group of kids in Troop 100 through, left to focus on other things, and we’ve largely been out of the loop when it comes to scouting for almost a decade now.
Yesterday, The Boy Scouts of America celebrated its centennial. The Scouting movement itself is a couple of years older, founded by Robert Baden-Powell in England, before migrating to the United States in 1910 from where it grew through to the 1970s, when membership hit its peak, before declining to the present day. Over that time, Scouting has become a vastly important organization within the United States, and numerous notable members of the public, such as Neil Armstrong, James Brady, Clive Cussler, Robert Gates, Harry Knowles and Robert McNamara, just to name a very few.
In the recent years, the Boy Scouts of America has declined, in membership and in public perception with a number of scandals and lawsuits over its membership, tainting its reputation. My memories, however, of the organization, despite my own issues with the stances that the organization takes, are some of the most precious to me and my family. Wired Magazine published an article yesterday, asking whether the BSA was still a relevant organization. I believe that it is, and I believe that in this day and age, with more options for children and young adults to occupy their time, the Scouting movement is one that is vital to this nation’s character, despite the issues that it has internally.
Amongst the biggest issue is the group’s stance towards homosexuality and atheism within its ranks, amounting to a sort of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, one that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, and one that certainly impacted my own scouting career at several points, from having Moretown residents slam their doors in my face while selling popcorn to having people question my own morals, assuming that my beliefs matched those held by the organization. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I have never believed that recognition or participation necessarily equated to compliance or recognition. In any case, none of the regulations really applied to our own troop, and we continued to do everything that we had done before.
What I remember the most from my time as a Boy Scout (Of course, any Eagle Scout will tell you that once you have achieved that rank, you are always an Eagle Scout) is the lessons in character, interpersonal relations and the practical skills that I learned while away at Summer Camp at Mt. Norris every year. I was a bit of a troubled kid at points, and Scouting taught me much when it came to dealing with other people my age, and basic elements of problem solving: skills that are not really emphasized in a school setting, which, in my mind, makes this organization all the more important for children in the United States. But even the basic skills that I learned while earning badges are ones that might come in handy someday: First Aid, Emergency Preparedness, Communications, Personal Fitness, Camping, Climbing, Environmental Science, Geology, Orienteering, Reading and more. I firmly believe that my experience in scouting gave me a well rounded education and background that I would not have had otherwise. It has taught me much, and far beyond the basic skills earned in the pursuit of a Merit Badge, but an appreciation for nature and the outdoors, for science and community, all things that I most likely wouldn’t have been exposed to in the classroom or with life in Moretown.
Where it is asked whether Scouting has a future and purpose at this time and place, I have to pause. I would not trade my experiences in Scouting for anything in the world, as it has made me the person that I am today, but I also believe that the organization needs to change, drastically, as societal norms change as well. The things that the organization has been condemned for have good reason to be, but I don’t believe that either issue clouds Scouting as a whole, nor do I believe that it detracts from what I learned. I see comments and hear people say that they would never allow their children to join a bigoted and backwards organization. I believe that in the larger scheme of things, Scouting falls on the lesser of evils list. While Scouting has its issues, ones that I sincerely hope will be fixed in the future, there are other groups out there that deserve more anger directed towards them for their own policies.
The thing to remember with groups such as this is that it’s not the overall policies that matter to the people, it’s how they are carried out. I was sickened to read that a group of Scouts were booed off the stage during the 2000 Democratic National Convention, because of the sheer narrow-minded and elitist, hypocritical stupidity that it represented. The Boy Scouts on the stage may or may not have been firm believers in the overall rules of their organization, and it troubles me in any instance in which people are judged not for their individual beliefs, but for what they are perceived to represent. How many of those democrats honestly pushed for a restriction of prayer in schools or for gay marriage? Beyond that, Scouting is far more than the problems that it faces. To the people who refuse to be involved, especially the ones who say: “I would join, but…”, I would say that they don’t help the problem, because Scouting isn’t the rules that it is governed by, but it is what the people who belong to it make it. My experiences with Scouting was heavily based on the morals and experiences of my scout masters, and everything that they taught, but in the end, it was I who decided how to incorporate that into a relevant experience that I make use of every day.
This past Christmas, I bought my brother a coffee table book on the history of Scouting, and I was delighted to see his face light up when he opened it. For me, and for my brother (I’m reasonably sure), Scouting gave us some of the best experiences and education in our lives. No rules, controversy or slammed doors can ever take that away from me, or tell me that it was all for naught.