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.

7 Responses to Scouting in a Fractured American Culture

  1. M.Z. says:

    After a year in scouts, I allowed my son to walk away. My girl is still in scouts. There are many, many factors involved. A lot of it is the parental leaders. The pool is small for those able to do it, and they are volunteers after all. Another factor is other activities. There is a lot more for children to do, and of course those activities are also run by adult volunteers. Then there are the not so good reasons like there being more entertainment available at home through electronics.

    I always find the political explanations somewhat entertaining. In neither scouting group was their a vast amount of ideological diversity. For a den we’re talking 8-12 children. Politics and political issues don’t come up all that often and were it ever to come up, whatever instruction the kid had from the parent would generally be respected. Most people when they are off the Internet don’t look for excuses to beat other people over the head.

  2. swabdairy says:

    My sons are currently in scouting. My oldest son is 12 and in Scouts. My 8yr old is in Cubscouts. I am a den leader for the Cubscouts. I have been a leader for 6 years and being that I have a 2 year old will probably end up being a leader for about 15 years. I have found that in Cubscouts the focus is learning morals and some responsibility but also to have alot of fun with friends in your den and Pack but also to foster fun within the family. Parents are a key component to the success of the Scouts. The more you involve the parents the better chance that the boys will remain in Scouts and the better chance that they will get more out of the program.

    My goal has always been to get the boys to have fun at the den meetings, pack meetings and at home with the family. I enjoy seeing the boys mature in there confidence and there relationships with other members of the Pack and especially with there family. For me there is nothing more satisfying then getting the Cubscouts into Boyscouts where they will fully mature and learn life skills that are not taught today in the culture in general.

    Along with the factors you talked about another factor contributing to the loss of members in Scouting is the idea of sacrifice. I think that a culture that loses its connection with Christianity loses the idea of sacrifice. I think sometimes People are a little selfish with there time. They seem to feel that it is there time and they don’t have to share it with anyone. Now this is a small percentage that I am talking about but just wanted to add to the things that are affecting attendace.

    Scouts is one of the greatest organizations for boys to be involved with. Of course that is second to the Church.

  3. Steve T. says:

    “The number of boy scouts has declined 42% since it’s peak in 1978….”

    Umm, there’s an even easier and more straightforward reason for this decline. The Baby Boom. The number of boys born between 1946 and 1964 accounts for the peak number in 1978.

  4. swabdairy says:

    Good point. Maybe simplier is more correct.

  5. The population went through a sudden period of growth with the baby boom, but the population has continued to grow since that time. The absolute number of boys 8-18 is higher now than it was in 1978.

  6. misspam says:

    My husband is the scoutmaster of my son’s troop at our parish church. My son-15 is the oldest scout in the troop and hopefully will complete his Eagle project within the next year and a half. That being said, my son has told me repeatedly that it’s not “cool” to be in Scouts. He likes Scouts but doesn’t want it mentioned to anyone. I embarrassed him once by mentioning he was in Scouts to two girls he liked. In our troop, once the boys make Eagle or turn driving age, they drop out of the troop, leaving the troop pretty leaderless(as the troop is supposed to be self-led. we do have adult volunteers). Being a clean cut Scout is no longer appealing to a lot of teenage boys.

  7. Thomas Matty says:

    My community, which is very politically and socially liberal, solved the ‘gay scout/scoutmaster’ and the ‘god in oath’ problems quite easily. The issue for most in our community was a desire to not participate in discriminatory practices, while still taking place in a highly worthwhile scouting program. So we decided that we would not follow those discriminatory policies. We sent a letter to the national office stating our refusal to discriminate, and we ran out scout troop without said discrimination. Don’t ask/don’t tell, if you wish. Sexual activity of any kind is not appropriate at scouting events, so it didn’t really make a difference. Scouts actually have a very strong and effective program in place to prevent child molestation at scout events. As for the God part, if you don’t believe in God, and it bothers you to say it, then don’t. We had and have a very successful troop that only continues to grow.

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