Monday, February 11, 2013

Scouting: "We're Doing It Wrong"

Dave Rich was a talented and accomplished man who served as the volunteer president of our Boy Scout council a few years ago and subsequently volunteered at higher levels in the scouting organization. An amazingly energetic man, he dedicated his life to helping and serving others until overtaken by disease. In his later years he insatiably consumed  and analyzed volumes of books and resources about all things related to youth and devised methods for helping youth become happy and productive members of society.

Although he was a highly decorated and staunch supporter of the Boy Scouts, Dave was also a thoughtful critic of the organization. He held bachelor, master, and doctorate degrees, but he felt that the BSA had moved too far into the brainy end of things, particularly when it came to scouting advancement requirements.

On more than one occasion I watched and listened as Dave discussed a raft of books and research showing that many of the problems modern youth experience can be successfully addressed by getting youth in contact with real nature more often. He noted that our scout council boasted nine camp facilities set in some of the most marvelous outdoor settings in the country. Residents of our council also have ready access to millions of acres of back country trails and expanses, some of which are accessible minutes from our homes.

All of these resources provide ample opportunity to frequently get youth out into nature. Yet Dave said he was dismayed by how we used these resources. We take boys to wonderful rustic scout camps and set them down in classroom settings to teach them merit badges that could just as easily be taught in an urban building. The boys lose out on the benefit of actually interacting with nature and discovering how it really works.

Too many of the requirements for the merit badges required for the Eagle Scout rank have nothing to do with outdoors or adventure—the elements most missing for many modern youth—and everything to do with more of the same classroom and homework regimens that already consume much of their time with generally lackluster results. Even the adventure and outdoors based requirements are often administered in a left brain fashion, unfortunately drawing attention away from the surrounding natural world.

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.

On one occasion after discussing poor application of nature in working with youth and failure to adequately teach the scouting method, Dave bluntly said, "What I am saying is that we're doing it wrong." We have everything we need to do it right, but we are too often focused on the wrong things. Internalization of scouting ideals can occur as a result of pursuing advancement, but Dave felt that it works better the other way around—when advancement is simply a symptom of the pursuit of scouting ideals.

To implement Dave Rich's vision of how scouting should work, some changes would need to occur at the national level. Some merit badges would need to be restructured and the badges required for the Eagle rank would need to be changed up. Unfortunately I don't really see this happening. Each requirement in each merit badge has a constituency that supports that requirement. The left brain designers of these requirements aren't about to lie down and let the woodsy folks ride roughshod over their beloved designs.

Local leaders can do much to get youth into nature more and to re-emphasize the scouting method. It is true, however, that they will face pressure from parents to do more advancement, because that is what Utah culture dictates. It's what parents see the kids of their friends and relatives doing. LDS Scouting in Utah following Cub Scouts is like a blitz through ages 11, 12, and 13 to get as much advancement as possible, followed by a rite of passage to age 14 when the boy never again dons a scout uniform or even thinks of himself as a member of the BSA.

All of this marshals against more outdoors oriented implementation of the scouting method. Frankly, it's a lot easier to plop the youth down in a church building classroom for an hour on a Wednesday night or to let them toss a basketball around than it is to take them on a hike to a rocky vista or a quiet pond, or to do what it takes to let them actually lead their units

It takes a lot of work and dedication to put adventure and real youth leadership into a unit's scouting program. I tried to do this during the years that I served as scoutmaster. Although I often fell short I did feel like I saw some successes. Some of those successes only showed up with the passage of time.

A few years ago I saw a man in his early 30s that looked familiar. When he turned and smiled at me I recognized him as one of my senior patrol leaders from my first year as scoutmaster. I didn't remember him as a particularly good scout or senior patrol leader. But he came over, gave me hug and thanked me for teaching him scouting principles that he said had deeply impacted his life.

We can do scouting right, and in doing so, we can help youth develop high moral character as well as a proper appreciation for nature. But for most scouting units in Utah, that means making important changes, many of which would require an even higher degree of dedication than the average scout leader now demonstrates. When Dave Rich passed away we lost one of the few champions for making these kinds of positive changes.

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