Youth: Good Turn

  • Share
  • Read Later

For big names, at least, the Boy Scouts of America deserve some sort of merit badge. Among the 32 million alumni are Cabinet Members Orville Freeman and Stewart Udall, Actors James Stewart and Henry Fonda. Vice President Hubert Humphrey and U.N. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg rose from tenderfoot; so did the latest Gemini spacemen, Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and General William Westmoreland are old Eagle Scouts, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk was once knot-tying champion of the Atlanta Council.

Its formidable roll call notwithstanding, Scouting today suffers from an ill image. The very name—Boy Scout—is practically a synonym for sissy, goody-goody, square. "Be Prepared" has degenerated to a Tom Lehrer double-entendre; the descendants of Lord Baden-Powell are dimly imagined by contemporary cynics to be a rustic army of bug-eyed idealists. Scripture that commanded pious respect when the Boy Scouts were chartered by Congress 50 years ago now seems laughably quaint. "If you notice a Scout badge on a boy's coat lapel," the Boy Scout Handbook still bugles, "give him the Scout salute. He may need your help."

"Skills & Muscle." What needs help is Scouting itself. As the U.S. has urbanized, Scouting has continued to flourish in suburbs and middle-sized towns, and to languish in big-city slums where boys are often most troubled. One recent study showed that one out of three suburban boys belonged to the Scouts, compared with one out of seven boys in metropolitan poverty pockets. Not surprisingly, Scouting has been disproportionately white and middle class. According to another survey, 15% of all Scout-aged boys (8 to 17) came from families with less than $3,000 income; yet less than one out of ten of them were actually Boy Scouts.

While membership has grown 38% in the past ten years (latest total: 4.2 million), Scouting still reaches only 25% of all Scout-aged boys. More discouraging was a survey revealing that among adults, 59% of the nation's poor knew little of the Boy Scouts; often they had never even heard of the organization. Among Negroes, the percentage was 64%. "What we have to do," says National Council (and IBM) President Thomas J. Watson Jr., "is adjust without changing fundamental Scouting aims." To Pittsburgh-bred Joseph A. Brunton Jr., 63, chief Scout executive for six years, this means developing "skills and muscle" necessary for expanding into untapped neighborhoods.

Middle-Class Appeal. Some of that has already begun. In 1963 the national council sent a staff member to Miami to organize Scout groups among Cuban refugees. Today 1,044 young exiles are Boy Scouts. The national council last year dispatched 16 professional organizers, five of them Negroes, to organize new Scout groups in blighted big-city neighborhoods, as well as in three impoverished rural communities.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2