Traditional Scouting in a Postmodern World
[N.B. This is a long post; roughly 2k words. However, I feel that it is one of the most important I have ever written. Please look at it when you have time to sit down and read it through. I don't think you will regret the time spent!]
A Time When a Movement is Called to Decide
The world is constantly changing. Ideas grow old; some die and are replaced with new ones. Cultures bend and grow and become something new and unrecognizable. In the midst of this tossing sea of people and ideas, there stands the greatest and largest youth movement in the history of the world. This is Scouting.
Scouting is old now, by cultural standards. Yet it still impacts the lives of many young people in a very strong way. Those of us in the movement continue to witness this first-hand. However, many are starting to ask questions about the Scouting Program's place in the modern world. They are concerned about the old Program's ability to do good in a postmodern culture. With a few exceptions, the Scouting Program we have today is relatively similar to the one that existed at its foundation.
What about technology? Why is there a decline in membership? What about modern entertainment? Why are there less boys interested in the outdoors? What about minorities who seem to have no interest in Scouting? What about the lack of interest in rank advancement? These and many more questions raised by our current culture are very important questions. Enough people are asking them now that a collective decision has to be made in the Scouting Movement. Our predecessors had to make similar decisions in the past. Make no mistake, the way we answer will shape the next generation of Scouting for better or worse.
It is becoming more and more evident that the Scouting Movement is at a point where it needs to decide how to respond to cultural changes.
The Reason It All Started
In order to know what changes might be needed, we need to thoroughly understand what it is that we would be changing from, and why it was set up that way.
You see, Scouting was successful: ridiculously successful! It spread so far and so fast that it was beyond anyone's expectation or imagination. Nothing spreads like that unless it fills a real, widespread need. Scouting addressed a need that world had scratched it's head over for centuries.
Specifically, the intent of its founders was to address certain cultural deficiencies. The youth of Britain were not being properly trained. The industrial revolution made everyone and their brother busy. People wondered where the youth should fit in. Sometimes, they were just put to work as early as possible. Mostly, they were stuck in schools to educate and take care of them while the adults were busy building the outside world.
What happened was predictable in hindsight. Character training was often overlooked. Youth were unsure of their role in society. With parents constantly busy and preoccupied, they would form gangs and get into mischief when not in school. Boys were not being helped or guided by the society around them in their development toward manhood.
A solution (though not a cure!) was discovered almost accidentally in the form of Scouting. True adventure and training in self-reliance can be found in the wilderness. Leadership, responsibility, teamwork, and comradeship can be found in the Patrol System. Morals, self-improvement, a desire to help others, and a real societal value is fostered through service to the community and adherence to the Scout Oath and Law. Scouting inspired boys with a healthy ambition and desire to explore new things and do real good in the world.
Like most movements which are massively successful, Scouting fulfilled a vital and widespread need. The urgency of this need may have ebbed and flowed across different cultural changes, but it is just as present today as it was when Scouting was founded. The Scouting Program, at its essence, provides an environment for boys to grow into strong men. This environment is both outdoor and hands-on adventure and exploration through the Patrol System and guided by the morals of the Scout Oath and Law.
A Time When Things Are Different?
The world of today looks so different than the world of 1910. We have cars and a busy urban life. Close communities have become smaller or disappeared altogether. The generational gap is bigger than it ever has been. We are plugged into media for a large portion of the day. Video Games are huge. Camping is now thought of as a casual activity that college-kids can do on a partying weekend.
Is it really time for Scouting to come up with a better solution for today's youngsters than the traditional Scouting Program? Some argue that we need more focus on sports and technology and less on wilderness and camping. Others suggest we should have more cultural diversity training and less “God and Country”. Some profess the values of the Patrol System, but believe that it just won't work very well with their Troop. In short, many Scouters say great things about traditional Scouting in general, but more and more are starting to believe that it just won't work for their Troop for one reason or another.
For ScoutingRediscovered, I've done a lot of researching and reading about traditional Scouting. The more I've read, though, the more I've realized that some things weren't so different as we might imagine. Take, for instance, this quote from Baden-Powell:
“I asked a Scoutmaster once, in a great city, how he managed his Saturday hikes, whether in the park or in the country? He did not have them at all. Why not? Because his boys did not care about them. They preferred to come into the meeting room on Saturday afternoons!
Of course they preferred it, poor little beggars; they were accustomed to being indoors. But that is what we are out to prevent in the Scouts-our object is to wean them from indoors and to make the outdoors attractive to them.”
People talk as if all of the issues we have today are brand new. They really aren't! The love of the wilderness is just one example. In my post series on the importance of the wilderness in Scouting, I came to the conclusion that the love of the wilderness is an acquired taste. While some boys will automatically fall in love with the outdoors, others have to be shown the wonders of the wilderness in time. They will see that, through skill and effort, camping without the comforts of civilization doesn't have to be a torturous affair!
Now, I'm not saying that this isn't harder today than it was in 1910. We are more accustomed to comfort and not having to do things for ourselves. This makes the task of instilling a love of the wilderness in Scouts more difficult. The thing is, though, that fundamentally boys haven't changed. Boys today still love the challenge and adventure of surviving the backwoods. This love is just waring with the love of ease and comfort that we so effortlessly have today. I have seen this with my own eyes many times.
This was a long example, but please bear with me and the point I am trying to make. What I am finding over and over again is that the problems we think are unique to today's society are really just variations or magnifications of the same old problems that Scouting's founders saw in their own society. While culture may have changed, fundamentally boys have not changed. The definition of what it means to be a man has not changed either.
How Should We Respond?
When the farsighted men of 1910 saw a society where boys were not getting character training, where boys were stagnating indoors or causing trouble for lack of adventure, where boys were given little to no respect by society, then they created Scouting. They created the good old program of traditional Scouting with all it's adventure, service, exploration, and camaraderie.
What about us? What do we do when we look around a see a society where boys are not getting good character training, where boys are glued to a TV or video game for lack of real adventure, where boys are considered incapable by society of doing anything without someone holding their hand? Do we give up because a postmodern society turns up the heat? Do we label the old program as failed because we have forgotten how to effectively implement it?
Many other Scouters around the nation will back me when I say that I have seen the good ol' traditional Scouting Program change the lives of young men of all different types and backgrounds. It isn't about numbers or budgets; it's about what works. I can tell you assuredly that the traditional Scouting Program does indeed work! Over and over I have read, throughout the history of Scouting, of great men of character who gave all they had to serve others and make this world a better place. If you want men like that, then follow the path they left for us.
Now don't get me wrong, this way of thinking isn't some misguided call to go back to the original BSA 1911 handbook and follow it word-for-word. I have that handbook in front of me as I write this, and one of the requirements for First Class Scout is this:
“Advanced first aid: Know … how to help in case of runaway horse …”
This is quite humorous from the standpoint of today's culture! Things such as this should obviously be updated to our current society. How about something like: “what to do in case of a downed power line”?
Care is needed when changing things, though. Little details which are updated do not change the Scouting Program. However, we must never feel like we need to change for the sake of change. Although culture may make it harder to implement, the Scouting Program is not broken. It still does great things today! No one should pressure us to change what we are doing!
Our new modern culture brings its own special challenges. Scouting should accept a changed culture as a challenge to implement it's unique program in the best way, but the program itself is still relevant and should not change. Scouting should not accommodate it's program to the weaknesses of the culture. The Scouting movement was meant to help raise a culture to a higher level. Scouts should continue to do this no matter what the challenges or oppositions are.
The only way the Scouting Movement will lose its relevance is by ceasing to strive for a higher standard. The aspects of the Scouting Program: the Patrol System, the Wilderness, the Service, the Morals, and the Adventure; are all things which will always have a innate attraction to boys. And they are all things which will help guide boys into a strong manhood. The culture may even try to diminish these things and seek to sell boys against them. But even if the job is harder and the movement grows smaller because of this, if Scouts stick to the real Program then the Scouting Movement will always be relevant and strongly impact the lives of many young men for the better.
The Scouting Movement is like a fruit tree. When it was first planted, it had the perfect soil, the perfect weather, and plenty of water. Consequently, it shot up like a rocket and started producing fruit like crazy! However, time brought changes. The soil became drier, and the weather became more harsh. The tree still produces excellent fruit, but the tree is weather-beaten and there is less fruit then before.
What should the care-takers of the tree do? Should they cut it down and plant a new one in it's place? Absolutely not! The old one is strong and has deep roots; to cut it down would be to lose so much! It should be cared for and protected, so that it may weather the storm.
Forgive me if the analogy above sounded corny, but that is how I see the Scout Movement as it exists today. Scouting organizations are very important, culture is very important; but when it comes down to it, they are just a part of the weather. It is you, the ones who work directly with the Scouts, who are the care-takers of this movement, and it is you who will decide whether the old tree of the traditional Scouting program lives or dies.
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