An edited version of this article appeared in the Wall Street Journal this week as Boy Scouts Search for a New Path. With Michael Malone’s permission, we have posted the longer version here.
Having passed through the controversy over gay youth and adult members, the Boy Scouts of America now finds itself at a crossroads. The path it chooses may have a profound and enduring impact on our nation’s life.
For a century now, Scouting has been, and remains, the largest youth organization in the United States. There are 2.6 million Cub Scout, Boy Scout, Venturers and Explorers today (and 1 million adult volunteers) out of a total of 115 million Scouts of all types in the BSA’s 105 year history.
But Scouting’s membership numbers have been falling now for nearly 20 years. There are a number of explanations: declining birth rates, more distractions (from video games to other youth organizations), and busier lives for both 21st century kids and their parents. There is no question that during this period Scouting has also suffered, at least among certain populations, from the stigma of its membership policies. But worse than that, internally and in response to these public attacks, the BSA has increasingly withdrawn into a shell, devoting more time to talking to its current membership than to the outside world.
Now, with the recent changes, it sometimes resembles a hermit emerging into the bright sunlight after years in a darkened bunker, blinded by its new freedom and unsure which direction to go. Scouting has both strategies and a new leadership for just this moment; the question is whether it has the will, at the national and local levels, to execute those plans.
One thing is certain: this decline cannot go on forever. As the new Chief Scout Executive, Michael Surbaugh, who assumes his duties this month, told a gathering of the BSA’s top local executives last month, Scouting needs to decide whether it is going to continue as a national organization or become a boutique organization. That is, will Scouting continue its century-long program of reaching out to all American boys (and many girls) with an encyclopedic program of outdoor experiences, career education and leadership training? Or will it narrow its target audience to just those boys and young men interested in traditional Scouting?
This is a monumental decision, because it will not only impact Scouting, but the rest of American life. More is at stake than just how many merit badges Scouts will be able to earn in 2020.
Why? For one thing, there is no other program in this country that covers all of boyhood from age 6 to 21 that also runs the full gamut of training from traditional outdoor skills to STEM to graduate level management and leadership training. The Eagle Scout award, which is only earned after passing more than three hundred requirements in everything from First Aid to Robotics—as well as devising and leading a community service project that is the equivalent of a corporate new product development program—is rightly called “the PhD of Boyhood”. There is simply nothing else for boys its equal in our national life.
As I noted in Wall Street Journal several years ago, the Eagle Scout service project, at more than 150 million hours and counting, is the largest youth service initiative in history. There is likely not a public school, park, trail or charitable institution in this country that has not been positively impacted by an Eagle Scout project. What happens if that disappears, or shrinks away?
Those competing organizations that have sprung up in a negative reaction to the BSA’s new membership rulings may attempt to imitate Scouting, but they cannot duplicate a century of field testing and perfecting the program with more than one hundred million subjects.
At a time when the quality of public education is in question, when both parents are forced to work long hours, and when young men seem increasingly alienated from and unable to compete in the modern economy, this seems exactly the wrong moment for an organization like Scouting to recede from its long-standing national role. For thousands of boys and young men, many of them without fathers, Scouting fills an aching void. It remains the best youth training program ever devised.
There are other, less appreciated, reasons why Scouting needs to stay central in our national life. While researching my new book on the history of the BSA’s Honor Medal for Saving a Life, we did some statistical and demographic analysis on the medal’s 13,000 recipients…and determined to our amazement that there are as many as 5 million Americans living today because they, or one of their parents or grandparents, were saved by a Boy Scout. That’s the population of Los Angeles or Chicago. What if those young men hadn’t been there, hadn’t been properly trained, and hadn’t had the courage to run towards danger?
Scouting likes to talk about how it has helped give to America numerous Medal of Honor recipients, Nobel Laureates, astronauts, and one president of the United States. But the real question is what will Scouting give us if it chooses to retreat into a specialty organization?
And it just may do so. The sad truth is that the BSA is weary and wary. It has been under assault now for so long that few of even its adult members remember when the organization was triumphant. The President and his administration chose not to send a single representative when Scouting held its centennial march down Constitution Avenue in 2010—not far from where President Roosevelt once presided over the first BSA National Jamboree and used it as a symbol of hope during the Great Depression.
We live in our own dispiriting times—and we need Scouting now more than ever. But will America’s civic, corporate and government leaders once again take the program to heart? Will those millions of adult Americans who turned their backs on Scouting once again embrace it? And most of all, will the BSA have the courage to reassert its traditional role in American life?
Let us hope so. We need our own rescue.