Prior to the Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA) official founding through incorporation as a corporate entity in 1910, there were numerous Boy-Scout-Like organizations throughout the United States. Many were modeled after the British Scout program (as was the Girl Scout USA effort). William Boyce, a Chicago publisher, brought formality and funding to the American boy scout effort, which would consolidate, through organizational and legal tactics, the other boy scout efforts. Due to Boyce, the BSA became the preeminent scouting organization in the United States, which dominance continues to this day.
Eventually, as BSA grew, it organized itself into three scouting age-appropriate divisions: 1) Cub Scouts, 2) Boy Scouts, and 3) Venture Scouts (formerly Explorer Scouts). Boy Scouts is the signature program and in 2004 the minimum age to join was set at 10 years old (the upper limit has always been 18).
Earning merit badges and ranks by the accumulation of skills is the focus of the Boy Scout program. Initially, merit badges were preceded by “skills”. The twelve skills were: camping, citizenship, communication, community living, conservation, cooking, environment, family living, first aid, hiking, physical fitness, and swimming. Mastery of these skills was represented by a metal belt loop. I still have all twelve of mine, which serve as fun mementos.
However, the “skills” were absorbed into the merit badge program in 1989. Certain merit badges are required to move up in the higher ranks of the Boy Scouts. The ranks are, from lowest to highest: Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star, Life and Eagle. Originally, the focus in the first three ranks was not on the accumulation of merit badges, but of skills. The Boy Scouts have adopted that philosophy yet again, believing that the accumulation of merit badges at these earlier ranks distracts from truly learning the relevant skills.
The BSA is a vibrant organization that has realized many successes in helping boys transition into young, responsible, men. However, the organization isn’t without its critics. The BSA has come under fire for its open hostility towards homosexuals and for its unabashedly faith-injected philosophy. The BSA has been upfront about their prejudices, stating in public that gay males and atheists cannot join. Nevertheless, the BSA appears to have weathered each storm.
While it may not be the right organization for everyone, many young men have found a place in the Boy Scouts and are thankful for the opportunities that have resulted. As a Life Scout who is, at best, agnostic and who supports gay rights, I find the BSA’s philosophy and open hostility towards others who are different to be abhorrent. Still, I can’t say that I did not receive great benefits from my six-year experience in the organization. There is no doubt that the controversy over the scouts will continue, but that the organization will soldier on and many, many boys will benefit as a result.