Why do today’s youth need Scouting? At times, Scouting appears outdated, a vestige of something from simpler times, as we imagine it in Norman Rockwell paintings or the quintessential film “Follow Me, Boys.” At worst, it appears irrelevant to the youth of today’s highly specialized, highly occupied lifestyle.
In some councils, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find volunteer leaders as commitments to careers require more and more time. In another council, the highly-connected, popularity-contest atmosphere of youth may be causing Scouting to lose its cachet with the demographic that previously would have joined enthusiastically. Yet I would argue that if we hope to develop strong, whole, and healthy citizens and adults, then Scouting and its outcomes are more relevant and important today than ever before, for both youth and leaders.
My quote of the summer was one by Abram T. Collier:
“Men go back to the mountains, as they go back to sailing ships at sea, because in the mountains and on the sea they must face up, as did men of another age, to the challenge of nature. Modern man lives in a highly synthetic kind of existence. He specializes in this and that. Rarely does he test all his powers or find himself whole. But in the hills and on the water the character of a man comes out.”
That is why Scouting is more essential today than it ever has been. What generation before us has ever been more highly specialized, or so thoroughly sterilized and cushioned from risk, adventure, and hard work? We often feel that in so doing, we are shielding our youth from injury and failure, when in reality, we are preventing them from reaching their full potential. Never can these youth, or can we as their mentors and leaders, see the full characters we can achieve if we never test ourselves. And in this day and age, Scouting is one of the few places left where we will allow our young to people test themselves, bruise themselves, and struggle. It is a place where it is safe, not only to take risks, but to fail. Our young people need that experience. We as adults need that experience.
This summer, I had the opportunity to work with a young man who visited my camp at Philmont. He came to my staff for assistance as he was feeling a little unwell and did not want to continue his trek, though he was only a few days away from successfully finishing with his crew. He confided in me that he had already completed all of the activities he’d been looking forward to, and did not see a reason to stay longer and subject himself to the next few days of difficult hikes with, in his eyes, little payout. He had already decided which experiences he was comfortable with and how far he was willing to go beyond that, and didn’t want to go any further. He had his comfort zone—what he was “specialized in”—and did not want to leave it. We sat and talked for a long time about why he’d chosen to come to Philmont, and what kind of memories he wanted to have about his experience. I tried to help him see how his choices now would help him to grow and to complete his goals for the future, including working at Philmont himself some day. Ultimately, he chose to continue on his trek.
One of the most rewarding moments of my summer was receiving a letter from his leader a few days later in which he spoke of the confidence that finishing the trek gave to that young man, and the change they had seen in him over those last days. Here was a Scout whose character truly came out as he faced the challenges that Scouting made available to him; after he reached the edge of his “specialization” and chose to push on further. The need for those challenges is not, and never will be, outdated.
So let us encourage our youth to go to those mountains. Get them out of this synthetic experience for a weekend, and let them face up to the challenges of nature. And nowhere may they do so with more protection and more payout than in a Scout troop and the Scouting program. This is not a program for 50 years ago. This is a program for now.