Last week’s cover story about the Cub Scouts in the Review motivated me to take my 1959 edition of the Boy Scout Handbook off the shelf.
As I paged through the requirements for the progression of badges from Tenderfoot to Eagle, I decided this 54-year-old book for boys was not an outdated antique but had some substantive answers to a question raised in another book I was reading. In Handmaking America, Bill Ivey dared to ask the question most of us are afraid to confront: What if this so called recovery we are in never does get us back to the material prosperity we enjoyed before the bubble burst?
“What will quality of life look like,” asks Ivey, “if we never recover the cash, jobs, homes, and holidays that marked our just-ended Age of Consumerism?”
Let’s look at the Boy Scout Oath: On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.
Honor: Except for folks in the military, we don’t hear that term mentioned much. Fear of being shamed no longer seems to prevent massive, blatant betrayals of trust. Ivey laments that what he calls our values space is empty, yet we prefer language like “I’m not comfortable with that” to “It’s wrong.” That is, our default reference is to psychology rather than ethics.
Duty to God: We often hear politicians end their speeches with “God bless America,” but most of us, I think, suspect that it’s simply pandering to conservative voters. The Boy Scouts, in my experience, don’t pander. In fact, that is what is getting them in trouble right now regarding moving beyond “don’t ask, don’t tell.” For the Scouts, tolerance is not a boiling down of religious differences to a lowest common denominator. On page 85 of my 1959 handbook I read, “[A scout] is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties and respects the convictions of others in matters of custom and religion.” For now, I’m going to take them at their word and believe that they’ll work it out.
Duty to country: The Boy Scouts are as unapologetic about promoting duty to country as they are about reinforcing duty to God. To become an Eagle Scout, a young man has to earn 21 merit badges, three of which are Citizenship in the Community, Citizenship in the Nation, and Citizenship in the World. Ivey declared that quality of life in a post-consumer world will require a recovery of the notion that we’re in this together and a letting go of the ideal of individual material success. He argues, “Extra time in which to connect with politics, new knowledge, community heritage, religion, and family will lay the foundation for an American lifestyle less slavishly ensnared in consuming and debt.”
Obedience: The Scout Oath requires obedience but not the blind kind seen in extremist groups. “[A Scout] has the courage to face danger in spite of fear and to stand up for the right against the coaxings of friends or the jeers or threats of enemies, and defeat does not down him.”
Helping other people: The Boy Scout Slogan is, “Do a good turn daily.” When I was a scout, we were taught to start the day with our neckerchief slide upside down and turn it right side up only after having done a good deed. Doing good wasn’t applauded. It was expected.
Physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight: Notice that the Scouts include physical, mental and moral fitness in their oath. They see it as a commitment, a promise they make. Ivey complains that society has redefined “bad behavior as a treatable condition.” He complains, “Today, parental insistence that children feel good about themselves — think self-esteem — trumps challenge, discipline, and achievement in both academics and athletics, producing a burgeoning generational narcissism that’s hurting our kids.”
Those of us who love living and working in Forest Park often cite community as an important reason for our attachment to this town. We already, therefore, have a sense of how to prosper in a time when we might not have as much credit to accumulate stuff as we used to. The Boy Scouts never mention getting rich as a sign that a man has been a success in life. What they talk about a lot is character.