April 1st, 2015


Credentials without experience

In addition to the usual ascending awards in Venturing (Discovery – Pathfinder – Summit, replacing Bronze – Gold – Silver), we have several important, and much-desired, proficiency awards: the Ranger; the Quartermaster; the Trust; the Quest. The problem with the old advancement system was that the side awards, especially the Ranger, were more attractive than the ordinary cursus honorum. And I don’t think the new advancement system makes the main path any more attractive.

Comes now yet more side awards. BSA has created the National Outdoor Awards, which allow youth to be recognized in the fields of Camping, Hiking, Riding, Aquatics, Adventure, and Conservation. Which is great, although it now requires us to keep track of everybody’s nights camping, miles hiking or riding, hours in/on the water or doing conservation, and numbers of adventures. (Oh, joy – more record-keeping.) And I’ve just been informed that there is a Venturing Shooting Sports Award, which can be earned by mastering five of the seven target disciplines.

These side awards are not unique to Venturing; in fact, most of them originated in Boy Scouting. And Scouting has more of them of all sorts. “Supernova” achievements in STEM fields come to mind. And don’t even get me started on Cub Scouts; they earn so much bling in the form of pins and medals and belt loops, I’m surprised their uniforms don’t tear from the weight of the metal they’re wearing.

But wait: wasn’t the Eagle supposed to be the gold standard for advancement? From listening to people urge boys on toward the Eagle, you’d suppose so. But I’m seeing a lot of kids earn tons of merit badges and still miss out on getting their Eagle; meanwhile, I see kids nailing the Eagle who haven’t been anywhere or done anything much. And don’t even get me started on Eagle Scouts who can’t tie a taut line hitch; many boys no longer learn skills to be used the rest of their lives, they just do stuff they see no use for once in order to pass a requirement, then leave it behind.

In fact, I’d say that the thing that bothers me most about BSA advancement these days is the tendency to turn advancement work into the most boring form of school, with lots of papers to fill out and time spent in a chair sweating out details. Summer camp has become school-in-the-woods: boys spend their time going to classes instead of playing games or watching animals or enjoying their campsite. Everything is scheduled up to the hilt; there is little room for spontaneity, and therefore little chance of a serendipitous discovery. We teach not only the outdoorsy and arts-and-crafts badges, but stuff like Welding and Citizenship in the Nation. So what’s special about camp anymore?

Baden-Powell’s original vision of Scout advancement was based upon experience. We go have an adventure in good company. This spurs personal growth. Along the way, the things we do and the things we learn from doing them are recognized in the form of badges and ranks. In other words, the badge symbolizes the experience; EARNING THE BADGE IS NOT THE EXPERIENCE.

This doesn’t mean I despise advancement. The two Venturing Crews I have led have always led our Council in Venturing advancement; for that matter, my old Crew led the whole Section in advancement – it’s only now that some Councils have caught up to their record. But first and foremost, our Crew program is based upon collecting experiences, not badges. We do a Superactivity every year. We do frequent service projects. As a unit chartered to a church, we do all we do as a form of youth ministry. We become proficient in real skills that we really use in adventures that make people say, “you really did that?” We give youth the chance to plan and lead big adventures, where things are not all handed to you. We’re the real deal, and we do things that others only fantasize about.

I turn to our sister Troop, then, and I see kids sweating out merit badges on paper forms. One kid wanted to do Hiking Merit Badge with me. “I’ve already started on it,” he said. He meant that he had downloaded a worksheet and was starting to fill out requirements. I was flabbergasted. The main activity of Hiking MB is hiking. You want to learn the habits of good hiking, you’ve got to go HIKE. Along the way, my job as counselor is to teach you or draw out of you the things you need to learn to go hiking, or ought to learn from hiking. But we learn those things on the trail, not in the classroom. What a pathetic thing it would be to be told by a kid, “I’ve done all the requirements except the hikes.”

Side awards proliferate because the pursuit of the Eagle is no longer much fun. We have made it into a paper chase, a grinding out of meaningless requirements. It boggles me. And I remember some old slogans from my childhood, that I would hear the Scouters repeat to each other:
Three quarters of “Scouting” is “outing”


Scouting can be spelled in three letters: F – U – N.
Badges and medals are signs, but a sign is only meaningful when it signifies something else. What is the meaning of credentials divorced from experience? It's time to get back to B-P's principle of Scouting as "an adventure in good company." The bling will take care of itself.