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Scouting at 100

Today is the 100th anniversary of Boy Scouting in America. I am an Eagle Scout, a proud alumni of Troop 257 of Camarillo, California. I owe much of who I am today to Mr. Lance Kistler, our Scoutmaster. He was a former Navy demolitions diver who earned a graduate degree in History and then started his own very successful construction company. He was thoughtful, strong, compassionate, intelligent, worked very hard at everything he did, and in many ways he defined manhood for me.

Today, I am a college professor, and work with young men and women just coming into adulthood. I am convinced that the lessons of scouting are as relevant and significant now as they have ever been. The lessons of scouting don’t have anything to do with tying knots or scaling mountains or starting fires. What scouting really teaches is how to be a virtuous man, and it does that by providing two things that boys rarely get, but badly need.

First, scouting provides a rite of passage. It provides a set of tasks to be completed, and a ceremony upon completion where a boy is acknowledged and welcomed into a new stage of life. From that day forward, he is expected to shoulder new responsibilities, and is held to a higher standard for his actions. Some cultures have retained things like the bar mitzvah, but in our culture at large, we don’t really have anything like this. Ask any Eagle Scout what it meant to walk through that Court of Honor, to have every other Eagle Scout in the room, men of all ages, stand up and surround him, and to have them say, “You belong here with us. You’ve accomplished something significant, and should be proud. You also have a new level of obligation to those scouts coming up behind you.” It’s a very powerful thing, to have a rite of passage into manhood.

Second, and I think more important, scouting provides extended periods of time for boys to be in the company of men, while doing masculine things together. Our culture segments people into groups by age, and children spend long periods of time being influenced, primarily, by other children their own age. When children are the primary influence on other children, the result is always only one step above Lord of the Flies.

When they are under the care and influence of adults, it is still much more likely that those adults will be women. Boys need the presence of strong and intelligent women in their lives, and I don’t want to minimize the importance of that. They need to learn things that are best taught by women. But it’s also essential for boys to observe men, to join them in projects, to feel like they belong in this tribe, and hopefully to imitate the virtues that those men demonstrate. Scouting creates a unique environment where boys are invited to try on the trappings of manhood, where a set of virtues are upheld and praised that are different than those offered by their normal peer group.

There is a sense in our culture that as children reach a certain age, adults can no longer influence them. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think parents slowly lose that privilege, but the influence and attention of other adults, especially those who are not parents or teachers, becomes even stronger. And that’s really what’s happening when a group of boys and men walk 15 miles, setup camp, light a fire, cook food together, sharpen axes and clean knives, sit around telling scary stories and crude jokes. Boys are being steeped in the influence of good men, who are not their parents, and who can offer them models of how to be men.

On one of our local weekend backpacking trips into the hills above Malibu, a new kid showed up. He had missed the pre-trip meeting, where we bring packed backpacks and check over gear, so that everyone is prepared. He was a very rotund kid, and was being raised by his single mother. He showed up at the trailhead with his clothes, sleeping bag, and lots of snacks, all packed into two suitcases. If you’re missing the mental picture, suitcases don’t work well when you have to hike six miles uphill before you setup camp.

As soon as he and his mother figured out what was going on, he looked completely defeated; his mother started apologizing to him, telling him that they would have to wait until next time, and they started to move back toward their car to drive home. He was crushed.

One of the boys in our troop realized right away what was happening, walked over and said, “Hey, my name is Robert, me and these other other 3 guys are your patrol. You belong with us.” Without another word, they unpacked his suitcases, pulled out the essentials, and divvied them up into the packs of the other boys in the patrol.

Where else do boys learn about the special obligation of the strong to the weak? Where else do they learn the power of those words, “You belong with us”? Where else do they learn about the power of small groups committed to the same purpose? Where do we teach them to look out for each other, that the failing of one is the failing of all? Where do we teach them to work with others their own age not as rivals or rebels, but as a team, as brothers? Where do we send them to learn about leadership, and how real authority comes from competence and integrity, not just from conferred title or brute strength? What better workshop could there possibly be for teaching boys that the truest test of character is the endurance of failure, and perseverance in the face of defeat, that the thrill of the summit is made sweeter by the miles of sweat that came before?

Happy 100th birthday, Boy Scouts of America. Today, more than ever, I can think of no better environment for helping boys discover the substance, the virtues, obligations, and challenges of becoming men than scouting.

(This post was originally posted as a comment on this post)