We’ve Been Doing Merit Badges Wrong


Setting the Stage (Moviemaking)

It was the end of January. My Troop and I were going through the last few hours of an event called “Merit Badge College”. This was an annual event held at a local community college where experts in various fields came and taught different merit badge subjects over the course of a Saturday.

I always had a great time at these all-day events. I still remember some of the classes very well. Computer merit badge class, for instance, was where I first learned how to set up a website built with WordPress. Drafting merit badge class was a lot of fun too. I was introduced to basic CAD-drawing. Radio merit badge was exciting – getting to ask the counselor different questions from his many years of experience with amateur radio.

The Last Straw (Basketry)

However, mixed feelings of frustration and gratitude were directed at one of these merit badge counselors. I was very grateful for the time and effort he spent teaching the class I had attended. I learned a lot, and he was patient in answering any questions that the class had. However, the feelings of frustration came from the fact that every single student who attended his class ended up being awarded the merit badge at the end of the day. This would seem to be a good thing… except for the fact that I had witnessed three of the Scouts brazenly napping during lengthy portions of the counselor’s lectures. Even though they did not pay attention to anything that the counselor said, they were still given the answers verbatim that they needed to write on the merit badge worksheet in order to pass the class.

Why should they, at the end of the day, get the same merit badge I had worked hard for? Why was the counselor so generous to those who had been so disrespectful to him during the class? Even though I noticed this ‘everyone-gets-a-trophy’ attitude a lot during the merit badge classes I sat through over the years, I don’t mean to say this happened universally. There were many great teachers who made us Scouts really earn the badge. The majority of the classes didn’t display the kind of unfair equality that I experienced at this event. But this story is sadly very typical of the kind of attitude that I observed over and over again during summer camps and regional events.

The Root of the Matter (Forestry)

There are many different ideas and even philosophies about what role merit badges should play in a Scout’s education. Some would argue that Scouts shouldn’t simply be familiar with the subject being taught but, in fact, be quick and adept at every requirement before passing. Anything less cheapens what the badges stand for. Others maintain that merit badges have the sole purpose of whetting Scouts’ appetites for learning new and different subjects. Too much emphasis on skill proficiency will only discourage Scouts. Both are very relevant viewpoints.

Regardless of where you’re coming from in your take on merit badges, anyone can see that there is a problem with how merit badges are being treated today. I want to call this problem out right now. It is simply this: the motivation behind taking and teaching merit badges is shifting from skill proficiency and the excitement of discovery to banging out rank advancement. When this becomes the goal, a cavalier attitude toward merit badges takes over and does nothing but hurt Scouts in the long run. I can’t imagine how many have missed out on good opportunities: to be inspired by a new field of interest; to really learn something of a subject that might be genuinely useful to them; to work hard and receive the gratification that comes from earning a symbol of achievement; to safely fail and learn valuable lessons from this failure…

All of these opportunities are missed when we become unhealthily focused on rank advancement. This is a mistake I have made myself many times.

A Bold Proposal (Entrepreneurship)

My experience is only a small sliver of Scouting across the world. It may not be representative of the majority. But everything I have observed so far leads me to believe that it is. What then can we do about it? It is a tough issue, and there is not a simple fix. There is, however, a significant step in the right direction.

After thinking about it deeply, I have come to believe that perhaps the mass instruction method of teaching merit badges is too fraught with the potential for this kind of dilution. As much as I enjoyed the merit badge classes that I took, I am proposing that we stop teaching multiple merit badges to rotating sets of Scouts – not at ‘merit badge college’, not at summer camp, not anywhere.

If we were to only teach merit badges to small groups, one at a time, it would not guarantee good teaching or good standards. But this setup is far less likely to get as unhealthily fixated on rank advancement as teaching en masse. The way that is currently being used in many places is just begging to create merit badge mills.

Besides, that never was the spirit of Scouting from the beginning. Baden-Powell’s methods of education were always with small groups and not large lectures. They were active and personal; hands-on and engaging. Scouting was meant to fill a void left by the educational systems already in place. It still fills this role in a way that is more important today than it was fifty years ago! Let’s not throw this away by imitating the weaknesses of those same systems.

Instead, let’s unite in a revitalization of Scouting aligned with the principles of traditional Scouting. The teaching of merit badges is one place to start. In every way, let’s discourage the tendency to rush through merit badges for the sake of rank advancement. Let’s stop putting Scouts on conveyor belts taking them from one class to the next. Keep the instruction hands-on and personal.

How can you encourage this in your own group and district? What are some ways we can start changing this way of thinking about rank advancement? Leave a comment below and let me know!

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Gerard G. Case
I have sat on many Eagle Boards of Review where the candidate has only earned merit badges at merit badge fairs and summer camps, and has never truly participated in the one-on-one mentor-mentee relationship that the merit badge program was intended to foster. I feel that this robs the youth of a truly unique experience, and gives us a scout who is ill-prepared to actually use the skills intended by completing the merit badge. It is a result of the “rush to complete the Eagle” movement fostered by helicopter parents who now are very aware of the value of the… Read more »
Robert Lester
This is a GREAT article and I could not possibly agree more. I am approved to instruct on 27 MBs, but my biggest group has been 4 Scouts. Any bigger than that and the cats are too hard to corral when they get off-track. I’ve had SEVERAL Scouts come up and ask me to work on their Citizenships; they generally like to do all 3 at once. They’ve also said that they have “everything” done and will occasionally just had me the workbook and a blue card. Once I’ve explained that the workbook is just a guide and something to… Read more »
I agree with your viewpoint. I think the requirement to work under a recognized “merit badge counselor” has promoted the adoption of the rotating merit badge university approach. As a girl scout, we could get together on weekends, choose a badge that looked interesting and work on the requirements. We had to present our “products” to the troop leader to prove that we had done the activities, but much of it was self-directed learning. While there are some things that boys shouldn’t undertake without adult supervision (welding, for example) there are plenty of the activities that could easily be mastered… Read more »
The core problem is that for a large number of Scouters and parents, Scouting is NOT about helping young people learn how to make more of their lives, or what it means to live morally, or how to create a strong foundation of earned self-respect on which to build their lives. For far too many these days, Scouting is about getting as many boys as possible to wear the Eagle rank. The past few years, at our District camp-o-rees, we have had entire troops (with high-ranking Scouts present) fail to start fires (with or without matches), not know how to… Read more »
Hear! Hear! That is mainly our experience. Our Troop does not get opportunities like Merit Badge Midways or Merit Badge Colleges. It just doesn’t happen near us. We are mostly self sufficient drawing from many parents and adults connected to our Troop. Often a MBC will announce a workshop held at his/her home or at the park and the Scouts sign up and attend. Sometimes a Scout needs a particular MB and will arrange with the MBC to meet, then invite any others to join in. The small groups work well, it is mostly Scout driven and not a classroom-test… Read more »
Good article. There were no merit badge college back in my scouting days – Late 70’s. The attraction of the merit badge college is getting a whole bunch of merit badges in one day. I have observed at summer camp where Camping merit badge is mostly lecture to the scouts. Seeing how bored the scouts were, I grabbed my MSR Reactor stove and held a “which stove is the fastest for boiling water” contest with the counselor’s backpack stove. It made for a more exciting merit badge class discussing different types of stoves, advantages/disadvatages, etc. Too many merit badge classes… Read more »
Frank Maynard
Enoch, As you likely know, Clarke (scoutmastercg.com) and I have been writing about merit badge classes as “Scout school”. But we are both old guys who have been involved at the adult level for many years. It’s interesting to hear about it from a Scout’s perspective and that Scouts have similar impressions. Sometimes, Scouts – or, more likely, their parents – need to quantify their (or their children’s) involvement in things. How many goals scored, RBIs hit or TD passes completed. Another sticker for the helmet or pin on the jacket. Similarly, another merit badge for the sash. I hauled… Read more »
Joe Edge
I do not believe in the idea of giving a person a trophy for just showing up. I joined the Marines the day before Sadam Hussain invaded Kuwait. Our forces built up in the middle east. Me? I was in training when it ended, just as quick as it began. Yet, we all, as service members received the national defense medal. I appreciate what the medal stands for and why we got it. But as things settled down in the middle east, they did not stop the order for awarding the medal. Many got the medal even though they did… Read more »

Great article, and right on target. I’ve observed these events with ever-lessening enthusiam. One such event “guaranteed” five MBs to all particiants who paid a somewhat hefty fee for the day. My own boy came away disappointed and noted that he was signed off on requirements not even discussed, and wanted to know what to do about it. As his SM too, I helped him actually go out and DO what all the skipped requirements said. Would hope that all Real Scouts would seek to do the same.