The Boy Scouts of America, while last year celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding, reviewed and commissioned much research into how the organization is accomplishing its core mission of promoting good character traits and prosocial behaviors — as well as reaching out to a new generation of kids. Scout leaders hope that the studies will offer guidance to program leaders for the organization's next 100 years.
If Scouting is to maintain influence in the next era, it must reverse its declining membership. Participation peaked in 1973 with 4.8 million scouts and has since plunged 42 percent, to 2.8 million.
According to a 2010 Gallup Poll, fewer men in their 20s and 30s report having been in the Boy Scouts than older men, suggesting that younger generations are not joining in the same numbers as previous generations. Some 45 percent of men 50 and older report having been Scouts compared with 27 percent of men aged 18 to 24.
While scant hard data exists to explain the dwindling membership, many critics think they know why the numbers are down.
Those alarmed by younger generations increasingly out of touch with the environment and rampant "Nature Deficit Disorder" point to what seems like the Scouts diminishing ability to teach outdoors skills. While the top three merit badges remain First Aid, Swimming and Camping, the just-introduced Robotics Merit Badge and Video Game Design Merit Badge (planned for introduction in 2014) don't help the Scouts' outdoorsy image.
Some criticize the organization as hopelessly old-fashioned and exclusionary because it bars atheists, girls under 13 and gays. Nonsense, reply traditionalists, who say stick with what works, and find ways to share the time-honored Scout experience with today's changing demographics.
Even the venerable Boy Scout Handbook (first published in 1911) has come under fire. University of Maryland sociology graduate student Kathleen Denny compared and contrasted the handbooks for the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and found that girls were encouraged to use critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills while the boys were steered toward rote learning and following orders.
In a recent article in the journal Gender and Society, Denny points to studies of citizenship as an example of the differences in approach of the two handbooks. Girl Scouts are asked to interview community members and make a list of citizenship responsibilities whereas Boy Scouts need only read and repeat what is required of a good citizen.
"The girls' handbook conveys messages about approaching activities with autonomous and critical thinking, whereas the boys' handbook facilitates intellectual passivity through a reliance on organizational scripts," Denny surmises. (The Girl Scouts also take no line on atheism or sexuality.)
The Boy Scouts, through its Research & Evaluation Team, has produced major studies of its own. Predictably some of the studies, such as "Values of Americans," simply confirm that the Scouts deliver positive outcomes when it comes to teaching kids traditional values. The studies show that Scouting is especially beneficial for those who stick with the program for five or more years.
Other major national studies show the Scouts trying and not always succeeding in "Reaching America's Next Multicultural Generation" and "Reaching Generation X and Millennial Parents."
Scout leaders point out that the same 2010 Gallup Poll that charted declining membership also showed that Boy Scouts go on to achieve higher levels of education and make more money. Twenty-two percent of men who have been Boy Scouts graduate from college compared to 16 percent of non-Scouts; 19 percent of men who have been Boy Scouts achieve a postgraduate education, compared with 13 percent of non-Scouts. Men who have been Boy Scouts also report higher annual incomes.
While the relationship between being a Boy Scout and education/income is clear, the cause is not, social scientists are quick to point out. Certainly it's possible that Scouting promotes educational/economic achievement, but it's also possible that boys who join Scouts come from more prosperous families that value education.
The rap on all this research about Scouts is that little of it has been published in peer-reviewed journals and thus lacks empirical answers to the most important questions: Does Scouting matter? Do Eagle Scouts achieve greater success than other Scouts? Does the impact of Scouting vary from different eras?
These are questions never scientifically studied — until now, say researchers with Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion who received a two-year, $992,000 grant from the John M. Templeton Foundation for a series of studies examining the impact of Scouting.
Scout leadership is particularly looking forward to results of a Baylor University study of men earning the rank of Eagle Scout. "While we have anecdotal evidence suggesting that being an Eagle Scout positively influences life outcomes," explains Pat Welker, research director for the Scouts, "we have no recent empirical studies to show the effects that earning Eagle rank has on men's lives."
The research team intends "to expand our scientific understanding of positive youth development by examining the alleged success of Scouting, and especially with those achieving the rank of Eagle Scout."
Whatever the organization's shortcomings, Scouting has a long history of embracing research as a way to improve its effectiveness. As E.D. Partridge, former national director of research for the Boy Scouts of America, puts it: "In the long run, an intelligent program of research will increase the value of an institution and perpetuate it in a changing social scheme."
Partridge's prescient remarks appeared in a Journal of Educational Sociology article, "Research Projects Being Carried on By the Boy Scouts of America" — published in December 1936.