Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Scouting and Culture Wars

Editor's note: I found this guest column by our friend and Scouting historian, Nelson Block, published in the Waco Tribune. It is definitely worth reading in its entirety.

Nelson Block, guest column: Scouting and 'culture wars'

Monday, March 17, 2008

HOUSTON — Rick Perry’s new book, On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For, is portrayed as a tribute. Actually, it’s the latest attack on a great American institution.

Perry praises the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) as a paragon of “traditional American values” then co-opts scouting to vilify those he and like-minded politicians and talk-show hosts consider political enemies.

This group invented the “culture war” and casts liberals as the religion-bashing, authority-hating, character-deficient bad guys in it who would create a world “where moral relativism reigns and individualism runs amok.”

If the governor understood scouting’s history, he would know it uses many concepts championed by liberal and progressive leaders among its founders.

Scouting and several other movements evolved to alleviate poor social, public health and educational conditions created by the Industrial Revolution in England and America, as young people left their rural homes for cities with low-paying factory jobs and dissolute pursuits far from moderating family relationships.

Victorian and Edwardian reformers responded by helping people improve their lives, promoting the idea that hard work brings rewards, among other principles. Although Perry suggests that industriousness and faith are not liberal values, Scouting’s liberal and progressive founders embraced them.

In 1902, liberal American naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton established the Woodcraft Movement, based on camping and American Indian life, to enrich modern leisure time.

He incorporated educational principles described by liberal educator John Dewey, who advocated children working together in social situations where the child would “emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group.” BSA later named Seton its first chief Scout.

In 1908, British general R.S.S. Baden-Powell published the book that popularized the Boy Scouts, Scouting for Boys. He incorporated concepts then considered liberal perfected during his army years: encouraging noncommissioned officers to exercise leadership, personally training soldiers in military scouting and providing them with wholesome entertainment.

The principle was the same for both soldiers and Scouts — make the individual responsible for a task, then give him the freedom to accomplish it.

When Scouting came to America, liberals and progressives immediately supported it, including Theodore Roosevelt and James E. West, BSA’s first chief Scout executive. West began his progressive activism as a teenager in a Washington, D.C., orphanage, fighting for the children to have a library and attend public school.

These leaders used liberal social principles to build the Boy Scouts. Unfortunately, Perry uses Scouting to build support for his particular social principles.

For example, Perry considers public prayer an important part of religion, and by extension, Scouting. However, Baden-Powell held that beyond a personal belief in God, religion was about helping people. When people asked if he prayed, he was tempted to reply, “Not often: I am far too busy giving thanks.”

Yes, the Boy Scouts’ values are worth fighting for, but Perry picks a fight with his fellow Americans and misrepresents this institution by claiming it is at odds with liberalism.

Liberalism then and now recognizes that people realize their greatest potential in exercising personal freedom, and that such freedom comes with responsibility to the society that supports it.

Nelson R. Block, a Houston Boy Scout leader for almost 30 years , co-chaired the Johns Hopkins University program “Scouting: A Centennial History Symposium.”

Here is the link to the Waco Tribune.


Michael said...

I have this book and have my own issues with it. While you can't fault the sincerity of the author, he does have some factual errors on scouting and its history and basis.

That said, Nelson Block is also mistaken in some of what he says. Glaring to me is his apparent view that 'liberal' is a term that applies to people with the same view today as in the turn of the century. Not so. In the past, 'liberal' applied to people who believed in free markets and limited governement. Today such people are called 'classical liberals' or 'liberatarians' to separate them from those who have co-opted the term 'liberal' and should more properly be called 'socialists'.

Ron Edmonds said...

I have been thinking about the term "liberal" myself lately. I attended a private high school graduation ceremony during which the word "liberal" was used as a synonym for "evil" a number of times.

In this area of red state-blue state and the like, such labels often deteriorate to name calling. People often attach perjorative connotations to labels associated with people with whom they do not agree.

As a child, I was taught that "socialists" were one step away from "Communists." Communism was definitely a synonym for evil.

I will always remember visting a Republican campaign headquarters as a young man of thirteen in 1968. A band was playing "This Land is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie. They were practically shouted down for playing the work of a socialist. I thought those people were pretty messed up then - and Is till do today.

Michael said...

Both the terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' have changed over the years. Further, those terms have been used broadly for groups of people who sometimes disagree with others with those labels. Thus you get people who modify these terms as being a "this kind" of liberal or a "that kind" of convervative.

Because of these changing terms, I get very caution when someone uses these labels for people 2-3 generations ago, because it may not be appropriate.