Rick Holmes: Can the Boy Scouts find their way?

Rick Holmes

A long time ago, I learned to tie a square knot, organize a fundraising drive, splint a broken arm, fold the American flag and chair a meeting. I hiked 25 miles in a single day through the mountains of New Mexico and I turned a stretch of shoreline on a pond near my house into a beach and picnic area.

I did these things because I was in the Boy Scouts. So I'm happy to toast the BSA's 100th birthday, and a little sad at its current plight.

The Boy Scouts were part of a wave of reformist institutions born in the Progressive Era, inspired by a desire to bring civility to an unruly land. Rotary, the YMCA, the Salvation Army and other organizations encouraged self-improvement and community service. They tackled social problems that grown with urbanization and immigration.

The Boy Scouts, like other youth organizations, stressed strong character, physical fitness and patriotism. Boys in urban neighborhoods needed exposure to nature, so camping became a central mission. Then, as now, America was challenged by great waves of immigrants. Scouting became part of the assimilation process, uniting boys of all nationalities under a pledge that was accepted without controversy: "duty to God and country."

Scouting is something of a secular religion. It has its own symbols and rituals, like flag-raising and awards ceremonies. It has creeds, recited at every meeting to remind members about the things they should aspire to be: "trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent." Scouts hold three fingers together and pledge to "help other people at all times and to keep myself physically strong, mentally alert and morally straight."

That stuff sounds pretty corny in our jaded age, I'll admit. But when was it decided that we shouldn't teach children to be friendly, helpful and trustworthy? Are our kids better off without anyone bothering to teach them how to love the outdoors and keep physically fit?

The push for more rigorous academics has knocked values education out of the schools, along with arts and physical education. Leadership training and community service are available through after-school programs - if the budget hasn't been cut and parents can afford the student activity fee.

But Scouting's lessons are being taught to fewer teens these days. Membership peaked in 1973, the New York Times reports, when there were 4.8 million American scouts. It has fallen 42 percent since then; 16 percent just in the past decade.

There are lots of reasons for this decline. As teens grew more sophisticated, those uniforms became a tough sell. In a more cynical age, so were the values to which the movement loyally clung.

The national organization moved from New Jersey to Texas, where it was pulled into the orbit of the religious right. The BSA got caught up in culture wars, fighting in courts for the right to keep its leadership free of atheists and gay men.

That undermined support in some quarters, but the organization's challenges have been more demographic than political. It never had much luck making Scouting look cool to urban black kids. Its culture, steeped in Norman Rockwell Americana, didn't resonate with Hispanics, the fastest-growing part of the population. Scouting tends to run in families, and minority parents haven't shared the enthusiasm.

Scouting has also had more than its share of child sexual abuse scandals, and has tried to respond. By the time my son was a Scout, leaders weren't allowed to be alone with a single Scout. But the past still haunts the organization. An Oregon jury has just awarded $18.5 million to a man who alleges he was molested as a Scout in the '80s. That case may force the BSA to release the files it kept on thousands of allegations made between 1965 and 1985.

There are still 2.8 million kids in Scouts, kids who have something to do besides texting, Facebook, MTV and video games. They are doing service projects in all our cities and towns. They are sitting around campfires, laughing and telling stories. More than 44,000 of them marked the BSA's centennial last weekend in Virginia.

The organization is determined to start growing again. It is emphasizing technology along with old-fashioned scoutcraft. It has a new "youth protection" program to keep predators out. It is revising its materials and message to better resonate with Hispanic youth. And it is giving serious consideration to letting girls into the ranks.

"Anything 100 years old has earned the right to a little arthritis," Robert Mazzuca, the BSA's chief executive, told the Times. But kids today could benefit from the same things I learned in Scouting many years ago. It would be good if the BSA can come up with better ways to reach them.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at rholmes@cnc.com.