When I was growing up, I had a great love of nature, and I loved exploring and being outdoors. Scouting (Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts) was an important part of this process. Although I never made Eagle Scout, scouting taught me many lessons and left me with an enduring interest in camping, outdoor living, and service. Sadly, scouting is nearing extinction in the U.S. as numbers have declined, but today’s generation needs scouting more than ever.
I recently read an article about the decline of scouting in America. In the past three years, participation in scouting organizations nationwide has declined by more than 50 percent, from 1.97 million to about 762,000. People have explained this decline by a number of factors – COVID, lawsuits over sexual abuse, integrating women and homosexuals, and politically motivated training. It is undeniable these had an effect – because of integration of women, the Church of Latter Day Saints ended its century-long association with the Scouts. Yet this decline has been ongoing for years – scouting membership dropped from 6.5 million in 1972 to less than 4.8 million in the mid-1990s. In other words, the more recent controversies associated with scouting only accelerated a long-term decline that started 50 years ago. This would suggest that most of the decline are the results of generational changes in culture. These changes include greater urbanization, reliance on technology, and moral ambivalence. These are the very areas where scouting teaches important lessons.
Most people alive today have lived their entire lives in urban or suburban environments, in which they have every comfort and luxury. They rarely live outside of air conditioning, they ride in cars everywhere they go, and they buy all needs from local stores or on the Internet. The result is a generation that doesn’t know how to survive outside of these luxuries. It’s a sad situation when members of Congress don’t realize that someone has to kill the meat and reap the crops they eat. I’m a big believer in living off the land as much as possible by growing my own vegetables and fruit. I’ve actually had some people question why I can my own vegetables and jelly when it would be cheaper to buy them. It’s still traditional for many people where I live to put up food they can use all winter to supplement store-bought food. Likewise, as a child, I remember making soap and candles, tying knots, building my own furniture, and repairing electronics instead of merely throwing things away. My brother made his own bow and arrows using a kiln he made in our backyard. I’m not endorsing conspiracy theories about technology outages, but I do believe in being prepared. As recently as 2011, tornadoes where I live knocked out power for more than seven days. Scouting not only teaches us skills to be self-reliant, how to hunt or harvest, and how to survive, they build up our endurance to do these activities when the air is off.
Reliance on technology is perhaps one of the biggest changes to our culture. Social media, smart phones, and electronic games have taken the place of exploration and sometimes even all outdoor play. I am no Ted Kaczynski, preaching an anti-technology gospel. Technology provides us many wonderful benefits, and I enjoy them as much as the next person. The problem is letting our other skills and awareness of nature atrophy. From a practical standpoint, the self-reliant or survivalist must know basic outdoor skills, such as land navigation, avoiding poisonous plants and animals, obtaining food from the land, or living outdoors. Many people today have never been camping, fishing, or hunting; some have never been alone in nature before. Yet even if we were to eliminate such practical uses of this kind of training, there are other advantages. I’ve discussed many times the spiritual benefits of nature, from personal enjoyment to experiencing God. Nature holds important lessons for us, such as self-reliance and self-confidence, bravery, peace of mind, love of others, and a sense of proportion. Scouting helps us to explore, survive, and learn to live in harmony with nature rather than being users of it.
While most recent objections to scouting have been on moral grounds, it is this more than anything that this generation needs. I am not specifically referring here to issues with sexuality, abuse, or woke political ideology. While there may have been issues such as these at the national level, most local troops have been impacted very little by recent controversies. When abuse does happen, it is inexcusable, but I believe it is rare. Rather, I am talking about the moral teaching that scouting has longtime provided, such as service, kindness, friendship, self-reliance, and patriotism. The issues are often related – the increasing moral turbidity, vanity, self-centeredness, and hedonism of our culture have gone hand-in-hand with a decline in service, hatred of country, and unkind treatment of others. Yet it is precisely these things that would help the youth of today by teaching them there are things more important than themselves. Scouting provides these lessons by placing children in a structured environment where they learn to serve others, get along, and respect our nation. It is no surprise that many who start in the Scouts end up in the military, which reinforces many of the same values.
It may be that the Scouts will not last another generation. If so, it will be a sad day. At the same time, there are many other outlets to learn the same lessons and skills, such as Royal Rangers, OAK, Mountaineers, Quest, OutdoorIQ, and many others. For those who are not joiners, simply forcing your kids to go outdoors, learn survival skills, and serve others will do well to set them onto a path for a better life. Scouting is essential for a child’s education and is still very much needed today.
© 2021 J.D. Manders