I am a Scouting historian. This is what happens when your time in Scouting equals half the time that the program has been in existence. An unpaid but gratifying position (like most of our positions). My focus has primarily been my local council in which, in a fit of madness, I began a two-year process which ended up with a 500 plus page book. During that process, I went through literally thousands of local and national documents over two years trying to get a feel for the program at different time periods. I conducted countless interviews. And I came away with a very different understanding of the program.
As I did my research, it appeared to me that there were three separate past periods in the past century in which the Boy Scouts were in a time of serious crisis. Times that threatened the very existence of the program. Historians like to think that perhaps we can learn from history. And there are lessons to be learned from crises. I am hoping to do three separate posts:
(1) A look back at past crises
(2) Observations on the current crisis
(3) What lies ahead and lessons from the past
I welcome your thoughts and comments.
Our first crisis unfolded soon after the formation of the BSA. The Boy Scout movement had spread like wildfire initially. Newspaper features captured the excitement of a new movement whose aim was to develop American manhood and virtue. It was a program based upon the highest ideals of the time. Boy Scouting was largely a grassroots movement where civic minded individuals and organizations almost raced to form a troop in communities throughout America. Organizational meetings were held in school gyms and church auditoriums. Local committees often selected an “outstanding” individual to lead this program. Most of the new units did not charter with the New York City national office which was grossly undermanned and ill prepared for the deluge in interest. Instead they launched out on their own in hopes of being a part of this glorious new movement. This interest reached fever pitch when Baden-Powell, who had international superstar fame, made his journey by train across America in early 1912. He drew crowds of hundreds and thousands at his stops and was received as a hero and celebrity.
Yet by 1914, Scouting had almost disappeared in many of the communities in which it was initially organized. Troops ceased to function and many of the early efforts to establish councils collapsed. What happened? It was the lack of organizational support at the national level, a collapse of the early efforts to organize local councils due to a lack of monies and a shortage of training courses and materials for the fledging unit leadership.
A revival occurred after James West established a much stronger national presence and support system. National organizations such as Rotary encouraged their local clubs to provide key leadership and support including funding for camps. The advent of World War One created a surge of patriotism. The positive image of the Boy Scouts increased as they took part in Liberty Loan campaigns, grew Victory Gardens and were very visible in their local communities. As the war ended, Boy Scouting was on solid footing in many areas and the stage was set for rapid growth.
A second crisis emerged during the Great Depression. Across America, councils were unable to successfully fund raise to support a professional. Many professionals worked without pay for weeks. Efforts to raise money were often met with letters to newspapers and even editorials criticizing Scout leadership for fund-raising for “camping programs” when communities could not even feed their families. Several camps were closed or threatened with closure when they were unable to pay the mortgages. Families struggled to send their sons to summer camp at the cost of a dollar a day. Some troops purchased a week of summer camp and rotated different boys each day. Yet, we saw amazing creativity in local troops and councils in maintaining a very visible presence and supporting the youth. Local businesses would offer “jobs” to Scouts such as distributing telephone directories and funds would go toward camp. Fathers, Scouts and friends would travel to camp to help prepare it for the summer and to build new structures using donated materials. Following the end of World War Two, Boy Scouting was posed to enter its Golden Age of rapid growth and tremendous public support.
The third crisis seemed to emerge with little warning. By the mid 70’s, America was in the midst of enormous social change. There was American disillusionment with the Viet Nam war and the military. Boys in uniform conveyed an image that made many parents uncomfortable. Non-conformity was the movement of the day among many youth and Scouting no longer looked “cool”. Scouting had new competition for family time and money including new youth football and soccer programs. And the national leadership, in a well-intentioned effort to make Scouting more relevant and to outreach to underserved youth, made dramatic changes in the program structure Unfortunately, there was little buy-in from many of the current unit leadership. The new Scouting program that featured rodent control in apartments and how to ride a subway moved the program away from an outdoor focus. Scout leaders reacted by quitting in frustration. Several councils saw a nearly fifty percent drop in Boy Scout membership during that period. National reacted by bringing back the legendary Greenbar Bill and a new outdoor focused program and handbook but the damage was done.
Scouting would continue and undergo several changes in the next decades in an effort to maintain its relevancy and to recruit and retain youth. Yet, by the beginning of the 21st century, new threats were emerging. And a “perfect storm” of events was forming that would threaten the very existence of the program.
Post Two – The Perfect Storm will follow.