David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Whither the Boy Scouts of America?

Brandon Sun, April 26, 2021 – David McConkey

The 110-year-old Boy Scouts of America declared bankruptcy last year in order to deal with compensating thousands of victims of sexual abuse. This story is of interest for several reasons. There is the Westman connection to the founding of the Boy Scouts. And the fate of organizations like the Scouts speaks to the direction of our society, especially after our experience with the pandemic.

Like millions of boys over the decades, I was a cub scout for a couple of years when I was growing up in Winnipeg. I remember from my scouting days the blend of down-to-earth learning, social interaction, and lofty ideals. Years later, some of the words of the Scout Promise still echo In my mind. Here’s part of it: “I promise that I will do my best; To do my duty to God and the Queen; To help other people at all times . . .”

Although all belong to the global scouting movement, boy scout organizations in each country are separate legal entities. So the scouting program that I attended and that is still active in Canada is different from the Boy Scouts of America under discussion here.

Organizations like the Boy Scouts are lauded for helping build society’s “social capital.” We look to such groups to promote a sense of citizenship and instill strengths of character, like self-reliance, resilience, and learning to get along with others. Unfortunately, like many institutions in our society, we now know of a dark side: the sexual abuse of multitudes of children. So the future outlook is uncertain.

Two visionaries were associated with the beginning of scouting in the early 1900s. One was a retired British general and hero of the Boer War, Robert Baden-Powell. On the battlefield, Baden-Powell employed boys as young as 12 as scouts. After the war, Baden-Powell became interested in preparing boys to be future soldiers. Baden-Powell gave a name and sketched the basis for an enduring global movement in his 1908 book, Scouting for Boys.

Baden-Powell drew many of his ideas from another visionary in the United States who was also organizing programs for boys. He was Ernest Thompson Seton. And Seton had a link to western Manitoba.

Seton was born in England in 1860. He grew up in southern Ontario after his family immigrated to Canada when he was five. For several years in the 1880s, Seton lived with his brother on a farm east of Carberry. Although Seton moved to the U.S., the memory of Westman remained with him. In his autobiography, Seton called this region “the land of my dreams.” 

And it was here in Westman that Seton developed what would become lifelong passions from his experiencing nature, learning about wildlife and meeting Indigenous people.

Seton became famous as an international speaker, giving thousands of public lectures. He was the author and illustrator of many fiction and non-fiction books, among them, “Wild Animals I Have Known.” He wrote thousands of scientific and popular articles. The Manitoba government in 1892 named Seton provincial naturalist, an honour he held until his death in 1946.

In 1910, Seton was a co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America. He became the first Chief Scout and wrote much of the original Boy Scout Handbook. Whereas Baden-Powell’s goal was preparing boys for the military, Seton’s was encouraging living in harmony with nature and with other people.

Seton infused scouting with his notions of nature conservation, wilderness camping and Indigenous lore. Another Seton suggestion was non-competitive participation – badges recognized individual accomplishment.

Seton’s ideas still resonate: social connection, environmental awareness, inspiration from Indigeous cultures. Seton anticipated what could be called today’s practical spirituality – personal fulfillment enriched by losing oneself within the wonder of the natural world.

What’s next for the Boy Scouts of America? Sexual abuse claims now total an astounding 85,000. Payouts could amount to hundreds of millions – if not billions – of dollars. And larger questions remain for organizations like the Scouts. We are shifting more of our lives onto the internet, a trend that accelerated during the pandemic. And although some personal connection is lost, being online is safer than “IRL” – in real life.

Among the larger societal questions concern the involvement of children in constructive activities while protecting them from potential abuse. What is the best balance between having our social lives online and IRL? How can we nurture individuals as well as build our collective social capital?

In the post-pandemic world, many organizations will struggle to find their place. In the case of the Boy Scouts of America, many of their founding ideals have their origins in western Manitoba. The challenge for the Boy Scouts will be to carry those ideals into the future.

* * * *
See also: 

Book Helps Put Seton’s Westman Roots on Display

Reflecting on Big Questions

Appreciate Everyday Goodness All Around Us

How Do You Be a Good Person?

Actually, Atheism is All You Need to Thrive . . . If You Do It Well

Book Explores One Year of Living Spiritually



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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