I Like Scouting, Except for All the Scouty Stuff

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.)


  1. “Have fun without all the ritual”–no problem, just go camping for the weekend with the kids. But to run a program or an institution with some kind of identity you need some minimum set of practices, “rituals,” or whatever you want to call them. You can’t recognize achievement (a key component of any youth group or team) without a structure, leaders, rules, and ceremonies of some type.

    I was no Scout and I’m not that fond of it myself. But the “ritual” side of it is actually pretty low key and (in most Scout groups) pretty informal, even ramshackle. I suppose the informality and low-churchiness of Mormon religious practice makes us hypersensitized to the slightest appearance of ritual elsewhere, even in something as innocuous as Scouting.

  2. “Of course they will be no worse off…”

    Again I ask, then, why all the scouty stuff? Why not do all the camping and hiking and everything, but in the context of the revised Duty to God requirements? To be sure, I was called to the YM’s presidency, so the question is one of where my priorities should be. If I were called to scouts specifically, I’d gladly do my best. (But I think I’d still have a hard time assuming the solemn attitude towards the scout ceremonial stuff.)

  3. Good point, Sam. While I think the new D2G is designed to meet precisely these needs (in a manner similar to/overlapping with Scouts) for 12- to 18-year olds, I don’t know what’s in place for younger boys — and/or whether D2G could expand to fulfil the role you describe.

  4. Grog,

    I think when they saw how your cohort of scouts was turning out they instituted some drastic reforms in our ward’s troop; by the time I got there, the leaders were vetted much more carefully (the creepy itinerant TV repairman with the spray-painted Nova, for example, was out) and all us boys were friggin’ -angels-. I still don’t know how to make a barkie.

  5. Aaron Brown says:

    I also am an Eagle Scout. Got it right before I turned 18. In my ward/troop, they practically put a gun to your head to encourage you to get it.

    Yes, some of the “scouty stuff” is quite odd, but it never bothered me much. The sole exception was probably the bizarre “Order of the Arrow” folks who would invade your campsite at Camporee and kidnap one of your troop members, all the while putting on some strange, Indian-like antics. Pretty freaky stuff, quite frankly. I remember thinking, “Thank goodness I’m not being kidnapped by this Cult and forced to remain silent for prolonged periods, sleep by myself out in the field, and starve for 24 hours.” Other than those Order of the Arrow weirdos, the rest of scouting’s oddities all seemed pretty benign.

    Best Scouting Moment Ever:

    My brother was 12 years old and was standing outside the grocery store selling Scout-a-rama tickets, when he approached a grumpy old man to try to make a sale. The man looked at him contemptuously, snarled, and yelled: “All scouts should have been snuffed at birth!”

    To this day, we still say this to each other in my family, from time to time.

    Aaron B

  6. I generally have felt that Scouting was unnecessary, and maybe anachronistic, in today’s world (both inside and outside the church) (thinking about my saxophone teacher who pointed out that, when his father was a Scout, there was nothing else, but today we have band and soccer and karate and Little League and whatever else kids have today).

    But my wife has a friend–single mother, working full-time, getting her Masters. Her son is 8. She–and, apparently, he–adores Cub Scouts. It gives him an opportunity to find role models that are otherwise lacking–no intent to take away from what his mom does, because she’s incredible.

    So maybe our sons don’t need Scouting–but what if other sons need our sons so that there’s an extant organization that meets _their_ needs? I don’t think Scouts _hurt_ me, so can it become a place where I (my sons, etc.) can help someone else out?

  7. I have great memories of Scouts. I’m not sure what rituals we’re talking about here … what I remember are once-a-month campouts in New York, which were a great retreat from city/suburban life. My poor Scoutmasters could never teach me to tie a knot — if I succeeded once I’d forget how five minutes later. But that didnt’ matter much. Scouting was also a great way to mingle my church friends with my non-church friends. Friends of mine who would never express any interest in the church did enjoy joining our Scout troop, just like the enjoyed attending church dances as well. These kind of extra-curricular LDS sponsored activities are great ways to get people together.

    When 9/11 happened, the first thing I remembered was our Scout “camping trip” where we slept in sleeping bags on the top floor of the World Trade Center (we were going to be on the very top, outside… but I guess it was too cold and windy that night). There weren’t mountains like here in Utah, but waking up to the panaramic view of New York City was truly something to behold.

    I think some folks snickered at me when I wore parts of my scout uniform to public school … but I never was ashamed of it at all.

    So those are my thoughts. I really enjoyed this post and the thoughts/memories it brought up. So thanks.

  8. I think that was his point – can’t he just go have fun with his boys without all the ritual?

  9. Kristine says:

    I think the introduction of the new and improved Duty to God award (or whatever the new YM thing was they rolled out last year) was the first step away from Scouting. I’d be willing to bet that the movement away from Scouting will accelerate after President Monson dies. For one thing, the BSA is likely to have to drop their anti-gay policies eventually, or at least spend an awful lot of time in court defending them, and the Church will, I think, want to distance itself for that reason.

  10. I would be interested to hear from others about their experiences in LDS troops. In our ward, Scoutmaster was often a calling issued to the less-active or non-member husband of an active sister.

    Frequently, these were guys who were big on the hunting/fishing thing, but whose leadership generally lacked enthusiasm, and whose interest in the “scoutier” aspects of scouting was minimal. Hazing was common on campouts (and, in retrospect, some pretty dangerous stuff–think unsupervised 13 year-olds and lots of fire), and I was first offered tobacco, alcohol, and pornography at scouting activities.

    Anybody else have similar experiences?

  11. I wouldn’t overlook the ritualistic side of scouting or of belonging to any other organization. We mock those rites (like wearing weird clothes at graduation), but they are all over our society and help us identify with similar-minded groups. I think scouts are a little weird in concept (not as weird as Cubs, IMHO), but having worn that kerchief identifies you with that group and those ideals. Otherwise, you’d just be a bunch of campers, wouldn’t you?

  12. In my ward growing up, the ones usually called into scouting (at least according to my childish perceptions) were the very strong, stalwart members of the ward. Only the best for the youth, right?!?

    And they were really into the ceremony of it all, as well as the outdoors parts. They were all very enthusiastic.

    Hazing only occurred on a few campouts that I took as a scout in Utah. In Dallas, where I spent most of my scouting days, the campouts were free of such nonsense. The boys and the leaders tolerated no such unchristian behavior.

    I loved scouting.

    And Jeremy, of course you can spend time with your boys and teach them good principles without scouting. Why even ask? The very question is silly. “Will my boys be worse off if, when they’re of that age . . .?” indeed…

    Of course they will be no worse off. But you probably already know that. Which leads me to wonder why you would even ask the question in the first place.

  13. Insert tongue-cluck and head shake here.

  14. Jeremy,
    True about Duty to God–the thing is (and this is why my previous post was sort of disengenuous) my friend is not LDS, and her son doesn’t attend an LDS Pack.

    In our community, some auxiliary for younger boys could serve the same purpose as the D2G, but I don’t see it being as inviting to non-LDS. And I’m not suggesting that and LDS troop is inviting to non-LDS (my short term as an assistant-assistant Scoutmaster featured one neighborhood kid–from a wealthy family and two parents–who wasn’t LDS, and thus doesn’t meet the needs I previously mentioned, although he was shy, and Scouts kind of helped him meet other kids).

    So is there a way we can make our troops more inviting to others (or even should we)? It just kind of seems like a way our sons could meet the outside world–not to proselyte, but to meet.

    (Actually, flip side too: my sisters always hated YW activities, and wished they could join with the YM. Is there any corresponding need/program [to Scouts, not D2G] for the young women?)

  15. Jeremy, I’m not familiar enough with the details of the new and improved Duty to God program to offer informed comments. I keep confusing it with the “More Busy Work for Young Latter-day Saints” program.

  16. Lyle,

    I must say I missed your overassured sense of discernment while I was away from the bloggernacle. Please, I’m not trying to be “on the vanguard” or anything, I’m just wondering if, given the limited time I have to spend with the boys, whether I should focus my efforts more on the straightforward values and goals of the Duty to God award, at the expense of Scouting. I support scouts in my role in YM, but feel that I my own efforts as a member of the YM presidency should be more focused on Duty to God, especially since many parents and kids seem unfamiliar with the new program and/or neglect it while obsessing over getting their Eagle.


    I’m not all that freaked out about the ritual part of scouts, it just seems unecessary–would you say the Duty to God program lacks the “structure, leaders, rules, and ceremonies” a young boy needs?

  17. my brother just earned his eagle in february but my parents did not force him to earn it merely emphasized the fact that it would be nice if he earned it.

    they however have encouraged him a lot to earn his duty to God and feel that it is something very important for him to earn. they are avid scouters in every aspect of it but I dont think its fair to say that scouting should be endorsed so highly and not the D2G they are both programs endorsed by the church and both should be taken seriously as a step in helping the young men of the church become the men of the church.

  18. Scouting isn’t perfect, but nothing is. Some aspects of the routine (such as civic ritual) are a bit dated, but they have a program and it works. Just go have some fun with your boys.

  19. Scouting may have to drop its anti-gay policies, but I doubt that the courts will be the impetus for their doing so. The Dale case was decided as a free speech case–the gist of which was that the application of the New Jersey law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violated the scout’s right of expressive association. A group need not be organized soley for the purpose of disseminating a particular message to receive the court’s protection, but merely engage in “expressive activity that could be impaired”. In my mind, the world would be a much more scary place if the court had held otherwise [insert Orwellian scenario here]. I realize that the cozy relationship that has traditionally existed between parts of the government and the scouts make this a more ambiguous case than it would otherwise be with a “purely private” organization, but I think the court still got it right (by a vote of 5-4).

    Full-disclosue: I am an Eagle Scout myself, a fact that never ceases to amaze and impress my wife. She was raised in a non-Mormon household in Florida and just last week we discussed how big a deal it was when a few boys in her school became Eagles. In the church we tend to discount the influence that some people put on a person’s involvement in scouting (probably due to the fact that we are so familiar with the program), but I would be surprised if the leadership’s committment to the program lessened after President Monson’s death.

  20. So, as Kristine points out: one can either choose to support the Scouting organization, as the Church has asked us to do, or…figure it’s dead anyways, give up & just focus on being the vanguard.

  21. That’s what I thought scouts was… The new D2G is hardly extraneous busy work–certainly not moreso than scouts.