Scouting in the 21st century

Progress by Boys Scouts of America does not erase past pitfalls
January 1, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
Scott Fairbanks, left, and Jason D. Martin in the early 1980s after a successful — but very dirty — camping trip. Fairbanks died shortly before the pandemic at the age of 47. He shared Martin's opinion that being a scout made him who he was.
Scott Fairbanks, left, and Jason D. Martin in the early 1980s after a successful — but very dirty — camping trip. Fairbanks died shortly before the pandemic at the age of 47. He shared Martin's opinion that being a scout made him who he was. (Photo courtesy of Jason D. Martin)

CDN Contributor

I am an Eagle Scout.

This hasn’t always been something that I’ve been proud to say. There have been far too many controversies around the Boy Scouts of America.

Indeed, when my son was old enough to become a Scout, I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted him to do. I was concerned about what the organization meant and what it stood for in the 21st century. 

As an outdoor professional, I questioned whether my son needed an organization like the Boy Scouts. We could certainly teach him everything he needs to know about outdoor recreation. And I questioned whether he would have to deal with what I had to deal with. When I was in Boy Scouts in the 1980s, a lot of problematic things happened — things that haunt me to this day.

About halfway through my scouting career, our scoutmaster stepped down after being accused of soliciting sex from an older boy in our troop. When it happened, I didn’t really believe it. How could this person do something like that?

But with age comes wisdom. In retrospect, it’s easy to look back on the scoutmaster’s actions and to recognize grooming behavior.

Our scoutmaster wasn’t the only one. The organization had a sexual abuse problem for decades.

The Boy Scouts of America recently settled a lawsuit for approximately $2.5 billion with 82,000 adults who were sexually abused. Local scout councils throughout the country, which are separately incorporated not-for-profits, were not a part of the lawsuit and most have continued on unaffected while simultaneously ramping up their youth protection efforts to protect kids from sexual predators.

photo  Jason D. Martin's son enjoys archery at Fire Mountain Scout Camp near Mount Vernon. (Photo by Jason D. Martin)  

In addition to this, scouting has had issues with diversity and inclusion which compounded negative perceptions. Historically, the scouts didn’t allow girls, gay or trans people, or atheists to participate, though they have softened on most of these things.

Gay youth were accepted in 2014, gay adult leaders in 2015, trans boys in 2017, and in 2019, after rebranding, the scouts began to allow girls into the organization.

However, there is still an uneasy relationship with atheists, particularly those that are “out-and-proud.” The Boy Scout Bylaws include a declaration of religious principle that indicates a belief that “no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to a God.”

So with all of this baggage under the surface, the question remains: What is the value of scouting in the 2020s?

There are two primary values. First is the exposure to the outdoors and the benefits provided by such.

As our culture becomes more urbanized and kids spend more time on screens and less time outside, scouting provides an outlet — a place where they can engage with one another in an outdoor environment. Furthermore, it can provide children and adolescents access to things like hiking or camping who don’t have access to those types of “high adventure” experiences.

Researchers have found direct correlations in youth between a decrease in exposure to nature and an increase in mental health disorders. Exposure to nature can promote self-awareness, improve self-esteem, improve cognitive function and decrease attention deficit disorder.

The second value is in leadership training. It was this value that convinced me I should allow my son to participate in scouts.

Though many schools provide extracurricular activities that are run — at least in part — by youth, it could be argued that scouting stands apart from school activities since one of the core tenants is that it is youth-led.

As a mountain guide, I can teach my son how to camp, hike, climb and ski, but I cannot teach him how to manage other people. The structure of a scout troop places adolescents directly in charge of one another. They run meetings, they plan trips and they make mistakes. More importantly, they learn from those mistakes and grow as leaders.

photo  Jason D. Martin's son sits in an improvised camp structure at scout camp. (Photo by Jason D. Martin)  

The 1980s were a tough time to be a Boy Scout, and the organization as a whole has a tough history. But I am who I am today because of what I learned as a scout. I hope that one day my son will say something similar.

As a progressive outdoor professional, I still have criticisms of the Boy Scouts. The pain that the organization’s policies created over the years — particularly with those that were abused — cannot be ignored.

We also cannot ignore the positive values that scouting can provide. Nor can we ignore the progress that the organization has made in youth protection and opening up to more diverse communities.

Could the scouts do better? Of course, they could.

But as I see my son grow within his troop and I see the organization evolve as a whole, I’m pleased to find that I’m once again proud to be an Eagle Scout.

Jason Martin's outdoors column appears monthly. Email: jason@alpineinstitute.com. Twitter: @OutdoorPolitics. 

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