Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Value of the Eagle Scout Rank

My family's strong scouting tradition is only two generations deep. My Dad grew up in Germany where scouting had been officially supplanted by the Hitler Youth. As far as I am aware, none of my Mom's brothers were involved in scouting in their youth. But my parents strongly supported our scouting activities and encouraged our advancement in the program.

My oldest brother set a great example for his four younger brothers, each of whom followed him to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. How could we not? By the time my baby brother came along he had a lot of pressure on him to earn the rank. Three of my four sons are Eagle Scouts and #4 is well on his way to reaching that goal. Most of their male cousins have earned the rank as well.

Writer Michael S. Malone discusses the value of the Eagle Scout rank in this Wall Street Journal article, which was published yesterday, the centennial of the date that the first Eagle Scout rank was achieved by Arthur Eldred, a 17-year-old scout from Long Island. Malone notes that the award, which has been called "the Ph.D. of Boyhood," is currently earned by only 4% of young men that join Boy Scouts. (Malone has recently published a book on the subject titled Four Percent.)

Malone says that Eagle Scouts are "very different from the classic 13-year-old Boy Scout in short pants." After distinguishing themselves as youth, many go on to distinguish themselves as adults. The list of publicly known Eagle Scouts is impressive. It includes military heroes, politicians, astronauts, academicians, business leaders, journalists, athletes, entertainers, explorers, activists, judges, religious leaders, and those that have achieved well in many other walks of life. Hundreds of thousands of others have quietly served their communities and lived moral lives.

The list of Eagle Scouts also contains a few infamous characters that failed to live up to the high ideals of scouting, including several murderers. Still, Eagle Scouts tend to be much more civically involved and far less likely to commit crime than men that were Boy Scouts but did not earn the Eagle Scout rank or men that never joined scouting.

"Eagle Scouting's biggest contribution to American life" writes Malone, is "the service project, the "dissertation" of the boyhood Ph.D." Since this requirement was instituted in the mid-1960s Eagle service projects have been responsible for a "jaw-dropping total of more than 100 million hours of service" that have "touched every community in America in an important way."

I have helped with and reviewed many Eagle projects over the years. Most have been small scale projects. A few have been pretty ambitious. A common project is to collect items for non-profit organizations: books for a library at a shelter, blankets for disaster victims, school kits for kids in third world countries, etc. Work on municipal parks is another regular theme.

My three Eagle Scout sons had very diverse projects. Each project has tallied some 220 to 270 volunteer hours. One son photographed and created a database of grave markers at a local cemetery. Another built a serious official horseshoe pitching court at a church camp. Another developed a recruitment video for Bugles Across America.

While service is a key ingredient to the Eagle project, the requirement emphasizes demonstrating leadership in planning and carrying out the project. Frankly, I felt that I did poorly in that aspect of my own project. I had difficulty getting others to come and help with renovations on a city park playground (that no longer exists).

The scouting program is carried out in a distinctive way in the area where I live, where most BSA units are sponsored by the LDS Church. (See my 10/19/2007 post titled Mediocre LDS Scouting.) The Church strongly emphasizes the importance of becoming an Eagle Scout. According to this site, about 6% of LDS scouts earn the rank, a rate that is about 150% of the national average.

In my opinion the typical Eagle project carried out by an LDS scout is significantly less ambitious than the typical project completed by a scout from a unit with a different sponsor. It is not uncommon for an Eagle project in my area to provide fewer than 40 service hours. Maybe this is simply due to the fact that the typical LDS Eagle Scout earns the rank at a younger age than the national average. A 13-year-old Eagle candidate is likely to have less experience and capacity than a 17-year-old.

Some have suggested that these factors mean that an Eagle Scout rank earned by an LDS scout is of less value than one earned by a non-LDS scout. I certainly wouldn't go that far. I think that this could only be judged after a lifetime to see how well these men have lived up to their scouting pledges. From the data available, it would seem that LDS Eagle Scouts compare well on a lifetime basis.

All achievements in life include a mixture capacity, individual will, opportunity, and luck. I happened to land in a troop that had a strong scouting program and I had parents that supported and encouraged my achievement in the program. Others weren't as fortunate. I know a number of top notch adult scouting volunteers that didn't achieve the Eagle rank because they lacked some of the advantages I had.

But I also know many men that as youth had greater opportunities and talent than me, but that simply didn't do what it took to achieve the Eagle rank. Some got to the next lower rank and then stalled out. A friend says that he simply made decisions that resulted in him being a Life Scout for the rest of his life.

Malone notes that while the BSA as a whole has suffered from some negative stereotypes and controversies, "the image of Eagle Scouts has only risen over the decades in American life and culture." Still, a handful of Eagle Scouts (the BSA says fewer than 100, while Scouting for All claims about 1000) have renounced their Eagle awards in protest to the BSA's policy excluding from membership individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals.

The BSA has explained that it "believes that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the obligations in the Scout Oath and Scout Law to be morally straight and clean in thought, word, and deed." Activists and media organizations that oppose this belief are determined to punish the BSA until it adopts their philosophy on the matter.

Still, it is doubtful that changing the policy would mollify opponents, since some have made it clear that they find many other BSA policies and practices repugnant. It would also seem that backing down on what has been codified as a moral imperative would only damage the integrity of the organization.

While detractors believe that Eagle Scouts represent what is wrong with America, many young men will continue to aspire to the high ideals of the rank. A few of these will do what it takes to stand proudly as the medal representing their achievement is pinned to their chest.

I have a dream of having a photo portrait made of me and my four sons, all Eagle Scouts and all wearing scout uniforms. We're more than two years away from that point. Son #4 could achieve the Eagle rank in a year or so. But the photo session will have to wait until his two oldest brothers return from serving as missionaries for their church a couple of years from now.

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