Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Evils That Merit Badge Worksheets Have Wrought

Is it OK to say that I am relieved that my sons are pretty much done with earning Boy Scout merit badges? I started teaching merit badge classes as a teen working at Scout camp and I have been a merit badge counselor for decades. But I'm glad that I no longer have to be a parent helping a son navigate Boy Scout advancement. (Our younger sons are now in the Varsity and Venturing programs.)

I have a love/hate relationship with the Boy Scout advancement program, especially as it is generally applied in LDS Scouting units. In this February 2013 post I discussed some criticisms of LDS Scouting that I heard from Dave Rich, a lifelong passionate Scouter who was President of the BSA's Western Region Area 2 at the time of his death. In my post I wrote:
Dave had specific criticisms for the way the scouting program works in Utah. He noted that we have become very good at getting youth to advance. Youth progress through scouting requirements, ranks, and merit badges at a much faster clip in Utah than anywhere else in the world. Many are very proud of this fact.
The problem, Dave noted, is that scouting is not primarily about ranks and awards; it is about getting youth to learn and internalize the scouting method. Scouting is about helping youth become scouts—infusing the moral and character aims taught by scouting into the essence of their very being. Scouts can achieve ranks and awards without ever internalizing these ideals if the adult volunteers fail to firmly keep these ideals the main focus of the program.
Merit badges and rank advancements have become check boxes to be checked off on the road to getting great Mormon stats. (i.e. The quotable figures people use culturally to show how good of a Mormon they are.) The badge has become the goal when it should simply be a symbol of achieving the goal. One of the symptoms of this defect is the now ubiquitous merit badge worksheet, available from a variety non-official sources.

I remember welcoming these worksheets when they first made their appearance. As a scoutmaster I thought they were a fantastic way for my boys to keep track of requirements and take notes. But over time the worksheets have become the primary way boys in my area pass off merit badges. This has always struck me as wrong.

One of my sons grapples with Aspergers, major depressive disorder, and some related mental/behavioral issues. Although he's quite intelligent and has good handwriting for his age, writing assignments have been difficult for him. I was very frustrated when he was working on one of the Citizenship merit badges with a very experienced man who is a friend of mine. My son was completely capable of discussing a matter with the counselor, as per the requirement. But the counselor insisted that my son write an essay on the merit badge worksheet instead. We ultimately found a different counselor.

I have watched boy after boy for years now complete and pass off merit badges by simply regurgitating in writing on a worksheet words spewed in lecture by merit badge instructors. Many merit badge counselors literally think that the only way to pass off a merit badge is for the boy to fill in everything on a merit badge worksheet. This even happens at Scout camps. The upshot is that many boys are receiving merit badges without learning what the requirements were designed to teach.

The BSA has recently clarified that it discourages (doesn't prohibit) the use of merit badge worksheets. This Scouting Magazine Blog post echoes many of the concerns I have just noted. The post quotes from official BSA policies to explain that merit badge worksheets are only to be used as aids. They "are permitted only for fulfilling requirements where something is to be done in writing."

Merit badge counselors that think that the worksheets are necessary need to read the statements from the BSA that say:
  • "Merit badge counselors may refuse to accept worksheets but they are not allowed to require their use."
  • "Scouts must never be required to use worksheets. The decision to use them belongs to the Scout."
  • "Worksheets must not be accepted in fulfillment of requirements that call for “showing,” “demonstrating,” “discussing,” or whatever else the written word does not fully accomplish."
  • "Worksheets are a shortcut. They present on paper what should be arrived at through thought and interaction — through asking questions and trial and error. They often tend to create or support an atmosphere of “get the merit badge finished as efficiently and quickly as possible,” when the objective should be a significant learning experience that builds character, citizenship, and physical or mental fitness."
Moreover, the BSA Guide to Advancement clearly states (p. 2) that "No council, committee, district, unit, or individual has the authority to add to, or subtract from, advancement requirements." Thus, no merit badge counselor may diminish, enhance, or alter any requirement. This includes requiring boys to use worksheets.

So go ahead and let the boys use merit badge worksheets to aid them with the requirements, if they wish. But as a counselor you should never need to look at a boy's worksheet unless it contains something that is required to be written. Your merit badge candidates don't need to complete a worksheet; they need to have a constructive adventure.

Scout leaders and parents need to be careful not to streamline the merit badge process too much. It is quite apparent that people in my area think we are doing these boys a great service by providing stake merit badge classes. Maybe not.

A high school in my town offers low-cost merit badge seminars in the summer. Boys can easily gain four merit badges by sitting in a classroom for a few hours before lunchtime each day for a week. I have seen moms giddy about their little boy completing a dozen merit badges over a three-week period. Great, but how much leadership and character did the boy build during that time?

Frankly, many of the merit badge programs at our Boy Scout camps aren't much better. We turn marvelous natural outdoor laboratories into surrogates for four walls of a school room, oblivious to the powerful development experiences that could take place in that space.

A few years ago I was upset when some boys returned to our campsite bragging to their fellows that they had just completed a merit badge in 45 minutes. What do you think they learned from that experience? Too many Scout leaders and parents judge the value of a week at Scout camp by the number of merit badges earned rather than the quality of the character built during that week.

Efficiency can be a good thing. But we have taken it way too far when it comes to Boy Scout advancement. Many boys today can't tell you squat about what they did to earn — or what they learned from — half of the merit badges on their sash. Our check box approach to merit badges is robbing boys of the opportunities inherent in the Scouting program to internalize the characteristics they repeat in the words of Scout Oath and Law.

What would happen if boys had to struggle more to complete merit badges?
  • Boys would likely earn fewer merit badges. But is that a bad thing? They would learn something significant from each badge they did earn. And they would become greater in the process. Isn't that what we want? It's not the cloth badge that is important; it's what the boy becomes while earning that badge that matters.
  • Fewer boys would earn the Eagle Scout rank. This is probably true. But we would be far more certain that the boys that did earn that rank would deserve it. The rank would mean more to everyone.
Perhaps we should revise how we define success in Boy Scouts. It's not the number of badges sewn on uniforms and sashes that matter. It's the character development. A badge can symbolize the related inward character development when earning it is challenging. But badges that are too easy to earn don't mean much.

We need to help boys become Eagle Scouts in their souls, not just get the badge. And even when boys don't earn that rank — because the vast majority won't — we need to recognize the greatness and goodness that they have developed through the program.

No, that's not something that's easy to quote on the Mormon stats. But it's infinitely more valuable.

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