Boy Scouts 100 years ago vs. now: What's changed?

Boy Scout membership rates have steadily declined in recent years, as the organization struggles to adapt to a changing cultural climate. 

Jason Hoekema/The Brownsville Herald/AP
Troop 11 Boy Scout Adrian DeLeon separates the stripes from the Union of the U.S. Flag with scissors before a flag retiring ceremony on Flag Day, Tuesday, June 14, 2016, in Brownsville, Texas. Worn flags are prepared to be burned by first cutting them into pieces.

Today marks a little-known yet significant occasion for the Boy Scouts of America (BSA): the 100th anniversary of the organization receiving federal recognition from the US government.

On June 15, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a unanimously approved Congressional charter that allowed the group to be recognized under Title 36 as a "patriotic and national" organization. This charter, which came approximately six years after the Scouts were founded in 1910, established the group as America's one "true" scouting organization, providing the BSA with a national platform to recruit and eliminating the need to seek incorporation on a state-by-state basis.

The charter is still in place, but today's BSA has since undergone a century's worth of cultural and political changes, forcing leaders to adapt in an effort to fight steadily declining membership rates. While Scouts certainly still have a strong presence in the United States – there were 2.4 million members in 2014 – that number reflects a 7.4 percent decline since the previous year.

"It's not cool," David C. Scott, who has authored four books on scouting, offers as one simple explanation for the relatively low recruitment numbers. "Boy Scouts aren't perceived as cool, they're perceived as goody-goody," he tells The Christian Science Monitor. "There's the traditional image of the Boy Scout walking a grandmother across the street, and that will probably always be here."

Recruitment challenges lie not only in attracting young people, but in attracting the parents of young boys as well. This can be especially challenging in communities with large minority populations, where very few parents were involved in scouting themselves, who may also be put off by the cost and language and transportation barriers, according to BSA leaders.

That's where Scoutreach, a program that spreads Scouting into low-income neighborhoods, comes in. Through coordination with public schools, local BSA divisions offer after-school scouting programs led by trained teachers. Good behavior is rewarded with "points" that can be traded in for things such as uniforms, backpacks, or camping trips.

"We've had some really great successes," Alana Hylton, urban coordinator for Scoutreach in Boston, told The Boston Globe. The program also provides incentives for parents to get involved, The Globe reports, as their involvement earns points for their children.

But parental engagement, crucial to the BSA's success, is dwindling overall for modern-day Boy Scout troops, says Don Sachs, development director for the Minsi Trails Council in Pennsylvania.

"Parents just don't have the time they used to have. People's lives are too busy," Mr. Sachs told The Atlantic. While the council still gets "amazing good financial support ... from families," it's increasingly difficult "to get parents to devote time."

Parents' relationships to the BSA have been something of a roller coaster over the past 10 years, as the group suffered membership losses first from parents unhappy about policies that excluded gay Scouts and leaders, then from others unhappy with changes made in 2013 and 2015 to include them.

It's a challenge for the Boy Scouts to "continue to survive and adapt to the social standards that they have to deal with in order to maintain membership, without sacrificing their values and morals," says Mr. Scott. 

In 2007, in reaction to the BSA's ban on gay Scouts, father David Atchley of Missouri started the first US chapter of Europe's Baden-Powell Service Association, the scouting model on which the BSA was founded nearly a hundred years earlier.

His troop welcomed gay and female participants, but, as Mr. Atchley told the website Good, his program's true focus was bringing back "traditional scouting." This meant eliminating merit badges for technology-based activities such "programming" and "computer game design," and making a return to the basics of outdoor survival and navigation.

"Scouting is supposed to be focused on two things: outdoor skills and public service," Atchley said. "These seem to have been forgotten over the years."

The question of how to adapt Scouting to a rapidly changing, increasingly technology-dependent world is one that's still being debated among BSA leaders. Some argue that in order to remain relevant, Scouting should cut down on its focus on physical activity and time in the wilderness; others worry that straying too far from traditional activities will diminish the effect of Scouting.

What's important to remember, Scott says, is that the point of Boy Scouts is to give young men goals and to "build character." The merit badges are simply a means for participants to learn the values of the BSA.  

"Scouting should accept a changed culture as a challenge to implement its unique program in the best way, but the program itself is still relevant and should not change," Eagle Scout Enoch Heise writes in his blog, Scouting Rediscovered. "The only way the Scouting Movement will lose its relevance is by ceasing to strive for a higher standard."

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