A reflection on Scouting thanks to an amusing photo choice…

So at work today one of the student workers was amused to learn that I was an Eagle Scout, and so I decided to scrounge up a couple of the photos that I have on Flickr to show that I was, one of which being this one from late high school:

En route to Eagle Scout rank

Admittedly I was at Life rank rather than Eagle, but I was on my way.

Now, in the course of me searching for this photo, as Flickr itself was temporarily being fussy, I found to my slight surprise that this photo had been used to illustrate an LAist article some months back. I have no problem with the photo being used — all my photos are out there under the Creative Commons license and so long as there’s credit and a link back, all’s good, and that was the case here.

That said, the inherent gawkiness of the photo doubtless helped in the choice of using it for the article:

It’s an American institution on the verge of its 100th anniversary, and the Boy Scouts are struggling to survive. Although it’s still the top youth organization in the nation, enrollment has been steadily declining over the past two decades, and in order to stay afloat, they’ve come up with a new strategy: Attract Hispanic kids.

The demographics of the country have changed, and the Boy Scouts are gearing up to adjust accordingly. A Scouting official told the Associated Press (via the Daily News): “We either are going to figure out how to make Scouting the most exciting, dynamic organization for Hispanic kids or we’re going to be out of business,” said Rick Cronk, former national president of the Boy Scouts, and chairman of the World Scout Committee.


But ultimately, one thing the article only hinted at was the pop culture rep the Scouts have garnered as being pretty dorky (see: Napoleon Dynamite, for starters).

Trailblazing in the woods, making a cookstove out of a coffee can, and earning merit badges isn’t much competition against video games, skateboarding, or loafing around with your pint-sized pals. Just picture for a moment the 7-12 year old boys you may encounter on any given day here in Los Angeles, Hispanic or not. Now, picture them swapping their everyday togs one night a week for the Scouting uniform, turning off their cellphones, and learning to curb their sassy mouths. Hmmm. Can it work? Mind you, there are, indeed, rewards to belonging to organizations like the Scouts, and those rewards ideally manifest themselves and help make a child into a better adult, but once you sign your kid up, you’ve got to make sure they like it and become invested.

Thing is, I actually like this blend of snark and sense, especially that last sentence, as it sums it all up — if there is actual interest, if something grows out of the experience that captures the moment, then it will become a self-perpetuating cycle. The structure of Scouting, providing a certain level of reward for steady work done but also challenging those who want to get to the highest level to make a further leap on their own, helps give a certain focus — but as the article notes, it’s not just Scouting alone that can provide that within a general structure of activities with an outdoor focus (as friends and children of friends who have been involved with things like the Camp Fire organization and 4-H and more have shown me over time). It helped too that my dad was also an Eagle Scout (indeed, I travel daily to work along part of a road called Jamboree, named after a massive Scout gathering held nearby when my dad was a Scout, and which he attended) and, towards the end of my time in Scouts, my Scoutmaster as well — and a fine job he did of it as well, providing a last necessary push to get me fired up to earn that highest rank when I admittedly was starting to feel slack about it all.

The history of Scouting itself is an unusual one — a bit like the Olympics in ways, something that was a product of late 19th/early 20th century Europe and its relentless celebration of itself as well as some larger ideals, and which exists now in a world much different from where it began. Lord Baden-Powell, the complex and intriguing man who founded the movement, likely wouldn’t know what to think of it all, and somehow I suspect he would have an arched eyebrow or ten to aim at someone like myself even as I aim a few back at him. But while (for instance) we might have different theological views, I really see nothing wrong in this, from his last message to the Scouts of the world in 1937:

…I have had a most happy life and I want each one of you to have a happy life too. I believe that God put us in this jolly world to be happy and enjoy life. Happiness does not come from being rich, nor merely being successful in your career, nor by self-indulgence. One step towards happiness is to make yourself healthy and strong while you are a boy, so that you can be useful and so you can enjoy life when you are a man. Nature study will show you how full of beautiful and wonderful things God has made the world for you to enjoy. Be contented with what you have got and make the best of it. Look on the bright side of things instead of the gloomy one. But the real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people. Try and leave this world a little better than you found it and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy in feeling that at any rate you have not wasted your time but have done your best. ‘Be Prepared’ in this way, to live happy and to die happy — stick to your Scout Promise always — even after you have ceased to be a boy — and God help you to do it.

Scouting for me is a sea of good memories, friendships and adventures, hiking expeditions and trips, from a multi-day canoe ride down the Colorado River to hikes throughout the Adirondacks in upstate New York, projects ranging from my own Eagle project of helping a school library get its holdings fully barcoded (or close!) to the cleaning up of a long overgrown cemetery in Saratoga Springs. If I never became actively involved in it beyond high school and the attaining of Eagle, it wasn’t because I was ashamed of time there, though certainly I’ve enjoyed surprising people who didn’t realize I was one over the years — must have been the hair, in part. And those famous mottos we always learned — “Do your best,” “Be prepared” — well, is there anything wrong with them? Certainly not.

Still, especially following what I felt was the extremely unfortunate decision by the Boy Scouts of America to stand firm on forbidding non-heterosexual members to serve openly as leaders, it was easy to let Scouting go while still drawing on the experiences in new contexts. To learn that membership’s been eroding over the years isn’t, sadly, too surprising — friends whose children were involved in Camp Fire told me once that they felt Scouting’s gender division and attitudes like I’ve just noted weren’t sending the best messages to their kids, an understandable sentiment — and the LAist piece’s take on the sheer amount of distractions and other possibilities available for children now as compared to when I was young are well-observed (and even then things like Atari were eating up a lot of my time!).

But again, it comes back to interest, encouragement and motivation, ultimately on the part of the kid in question even more so than the parents. And it has to be said that I found Cronk’s comments about trying to attract ‘Hispanic kids’ a bit weird since I remember a number of Scouts of both Mexican and Asian backgrounds in my troops and dens over the years — we were all just kids having a great time. It’s not about the stereotypes but the active working against them. In the few comments that followed the piece — I admit I was expecting someone to ask after the photo! — I noted this one at the end, which I thought was well argued (if a touch ungrammatical around the edges):

On the cool issue–i spent the last few years following a Boy Scout troop from Harlem for a documentary. A lot of the scouts i’ve met over the years–and especially those i’ve encountered in New York City and Harlem–didn’t really fit the white-bred-conservative-dork-stereotypes that a lot of my highly educated urban elite friends seem to point to when they categorically dismiss the value of Scouting. You may not believe it but if you bothered to meet some of them you’ll find plenty of Scouts are actually quite cool–not a vapid, detached, indifferent, glassy-eyed Abercrombie & Fitch catalog cool (to borrow an image from Scout chronicler Peter Applebome). But many of the Scouts here in New York City exude a smart, practical, observant, engaged, understated and confident cool. Kind of like and Obama cool–who, by the way, will be the next honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America.

A fine choice for that role, if you ask me. I think Scouting can and will adjust to the times, much as America itself is right now. If it can do that, then indeed, long may it thrive.


7 Responses to “A reflection on Scouting thanks to an amusing photo choice…”

  1. A reflection on Scouting thanks to an amusing photo choice… | Atari Alumni Says:

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  2. Eve Says:

    So what’s your take on the bad press and the like? The kicking out of atheists and homosexuals? The being run by the Mormons and the religious right? The using of tax dollars…. etc…

    Penn and Teller did a great episode of Bullshit! about it. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0805441/

  3. Herr Zrbo Says:

    I was involved in Scouting almost all of my youth and had a similar experience as you Ned. I have many good memories and made many good friends there who I’m still in contact with. I even ended up working professionally for the Scouts until a few years ago. On the whole “no-gays” thing – as a professional it was explained to us that they don’t want Scouting to be used as a battleground for gay rights. They’re afraid that the LGBT community wants to use Scouting as a stepping stone to acceptance in other institutions. Also, they never explicity said this, but a large part of their consituency are members of the LDS church as well as other more conservative religions, so I’m sure they don’t want to lose them. I left the job there a few years ago because I found that I just couldn’t agree with their policies (among other reasons).

    • Ned Raggett Says:

      Hmm, unfortunate but not surprising to hear all that. At least they were honest about it internally if not openly — that said, if they get outflanked by the slow rise of legalized gay marriage, pretty much they’re left hanging on to no excuse.

  4. Austin Says:

    I was a scout as well…

    …until about the sixth grade, when I ditched it for the school band.

    As such, I never made it past the Webelos stage of scouting.

    But, being involved in it basically from grades 1-6, I had many good times in the organization and made many friends. These weren’t the people I saw simply one night a week; these were people that were involved in my everyday life.

    I never went as far as you did, Ned. And to be quite honest, I never had the intentions —even at such a young age— to go that far. It was more about community and, to dumb it down, hanging out, than anything else.

    And, in that respect, it provided more than enough for a kid who never really knew his father and always felt like a bit of an outsider because of that.

    Good stuff.


    • Ned Raggett Says:

      Nice memory there, Austin — I think I always had the goal to go all the way, though admittedly as mentioned needed prompting at the end. Enjoyed it, though, and certainly don’t regret it. But mentioning that sense of community and togetherness is key, for the reasons you state — being very fortunate with my family situation, I felt less need to search for that, since I had it, but I enjoyed the extra levels I got through Scouting.

      I’m actually surprised I’ve gotten this far without mentioning the young kid in Up, who is a Scout or Scout-equivalent from a divorced family. I like how they played with that theme.

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