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Boy Scouts Search for a New Path

posted Nov 17, 2015, 9:05 AM by Thomas Smith

Boy Scouts Search for a New Path

Now is not the time for the Boy Scouts of America to recede from its long-standing national role.

ENLARGE Photo: George Frey/Getty Images By Michael S. Malone Nov. 16, 2015 7:25 p.m. 

ET 30 COMMENTS Having passed through the controversy over its acceptance of gay members in 2013 and gay leaders this year, the Boy Scouts of America now finds itself at a crossroads. The path it chooses may have a profound and enduring impact on American culture. 

For a century now, the BSA has been, and remains, the largest youth organization in the United States. There are 2.6 million Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Venturers and Explorers today (and one million adult volunteers) out of a total of 115 million Scouts of all types in the BSA’s 105 year history. 

But scouting has been losing membership for more than 20 years. There are a number of explanations: declining birthrates, more distractions, from videogames to other youth organizations, and busier lives for today’s kids and their parents. Yet there is no question that scouting has also suffered from the recent controversies over its policies. 

Largely in response to these controversies, the BSA has increasingly withdrawn into a shell, devoting more time to talking to its current membership than to the outside world. This is the wrong way to save the Boy Scouts. As the BSA’s new chief scout executive, Michael Surbaugh, has made clear, the organization must decide whether it will continue its centurylong program of reaching out to all American boys (and many girls) with an encyclopedic program of outdoor experiences, career education and leadership training, or narrow its target audience to those with an interest in camping and hunting. 

More is at stake than how many merit badges scouts will be able to earn in 2020. There is no other program in this country that covers all of boyhood from age 6 to 21 that also runs the full gamut of training from traditional outdoor skills such as wilderness survival to engineering, mathematics, geocaching and computer software design.

The path to the Eagle Scout award, which can have more than 300 requirements in everything from first aid to robotics to community service, is rightly called “the Ph.D. of Boyhood.” As I wrote in anop-ed for this newspaper in 2012, the Eagle Scout service project, at more than 150 million hours and counting, is the largest youth service initiative in history. There is likely not a public school, park, trail or charitable institution in this country that hasn’t been positively affected by an Eagle Scout project.

What happens if that fades away? And what of the estimated three million Americans alive today because they, their parents, or their grandparents had their lives saved by a Scout?

At a time when the quality of public education is in question, when both parents often work full time, when childhood obesity is a public-health concern, this is exactly the wrong time for an organization like the Boy Scouts to recede from its long-standing national role. For thousands of boys and young men, many of them without fathers, scouting fills an aching void. It remains the best youth-training program ever devised.

America needs scouting now more than ever. To quote the Scout Oath, we need youth who are “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” Let’s hope the BSA has the courage to reassert its traditional role in American life.

Mr. Malone is the author of “Running Toward Danger” (WindRush Publishers, 2015), a history of the BSA’s honor medal for lifesaving.