It probably wasn’t a good time for me to encounter this review, in the most recent Atlantic Monthly, of Oxford University Press’s recent reissue of the original Boy Scout Handbook from 1911. While Baden-Powell’s original ink drawings are charming, and many of his instructions and observations have a distinctive timelessness, certain aspects of the original book are quite alarming. Baden-Powell, for example, disgusted with the indiscipline and general “softness” of British boys, reportedly spoke admiringly of the youth-indoctrination programs sponsored by the governments of Japan, Italy, and Germany in the 1930s. (He died too early to early to witness the whole of WWII and/or retract his endorsement.) And how about this disturbing aside in the section on beekeeping: “[Beehives] are quite a model community, for they respect their queen and kill their unemployed.” Pink Floyd’s brick in “The Wall” even apparently derived from one of the Scout Handbook’s distasteful metaphors about social order: “Some bricks may be high up and others low down in the wall; but all must make the best of it and play in their place for the good of the whole.”
Of course, we’ve come a long way since 1911, and aside from the occasional John Bircher who might end up scoutmaster, I don’t think the uglier parts of Baden-Powell’s character live on in scouting, while many of the more valorous elements of his legacy live on. Still, the article stirred up certain misgivings I’ve been having about scouting lately.
I was never much of a scout. I liked going to camp, and a few merit badges left an impression on me. I have trouble remembering the details of CPR, for example, but for some reason I recall exactly what to do if I happen upon an abdominal wound victim with slightly protruded entrails; also, I feel I watch Olympic archery with a bit more appreciation and insight than most people. And, for what it’s worth, I still occasionally accessorize with kerchiefs. Beyond that, though, there wasn’t enough interest to nudge me past the rank of Star Scout. Besides, my parents involved me early on in activities more befitting a child of my pastey constitution and small stature: I took piano, participated in band, and played a Winthrop Paroo in the local college’s production of Music Man that made little Ronny Howard look like a friggin’ amateur.
(Reading over the previous paragraph, I feel compelled at this point to assert my staunch record of heterosexuality. Former drama geek, to be sure, but I was kidding about the kerchiefs, for hellsakes!)
So, anyway, fast forward 18 years, and here I am in the Young Men’s organization, having a great time working with a great set of kids, but finding it difficult to maintain my (and foster their) enthusiasm for certain aspects of the Scouting program. Attending a court of honor recently, for the first time since my own lackluster scouting days, I found the clumsy ceremoniousness even harder to take seriously (and also a bit unsettling, as it seemed to demand of me a solemnity toward ritual that I normally reserve for priesthood and temple ordinances).
What’s more, the valuable life skills that scouting seeks to teach kids seem to be covered quite comprehensively in the church’s new Duty to God program, for which I have a great deal of enthusiasm. It includes lots of scout-ish stuff–camping, wilderness survival, first aid, etc.–but integrates it more fully with personal, family, and spiritual matters. And it presents all of these as straightforward values and goals with real, inherent, and immediate value, uncluttered by all the patches and pomp. It frustrates me that some parents lose countless nights of sleep over whether or not their kid will get his Eagle, when they often don’t even know about the revised Duty to God program. To be sure, the Duty to God pamphlets stress that the program is to be pursued in tandem with Scouts, but it seems to me that it renders the most important aspects of scouting redundant. (And there’s ubiquitous speculation that the new program was designed in part to be able to replace Scouts as the official Young Men’s program if necessary, had recent lawsuits forced the scouting program to change its policies towards homosexuality). Also, I find the Duty to God program more appealing in that it falls into obvious parallel with the Young Womanhood Recognition program.
Is there something to the ceremoniality and ritual of scouts that I just don’t appreciate? Are there crucial things boys will miss out on if they pursue the Duty to God award but neglect scouting? Will my own three little boys be worse off if, when they’re of that age, they do all the Scouty things (hiking, camping, rendering service, setting goals, developing skills) without all the Scouty accoutrements?
(I tell you this much: no boy a mine gonna’ wear no friggin’ kerchief.)