Reading the requirements for sustainability merit badge got me to thinking about merit badges as tools to achieve the aims of Scouting in general and Eagle required merit badges in particular.
Faithful readers will understand that I like to think about these things and write about possibilities, take it all with a grain of salt. Before diving in I’d also like to reiterate that I am not an official of the BSA, just a Scoutmaster with a blog.
Sustainability merit badge is, in my opinion, a missed opportunity. The requirements have a pretty weak connection to the natural world and no connection to the activities our Scouts do in the life of their patrol and troop. There’s potential to strengthen the aspects of responsible citizenship but the work required is largely academic. I feel introducing it as an alternative Eagle-required merit badge only increases the dissonance of the advancement program with the experiences we promise our Scouts.
Dissonance is inconsistency between actions and beliefs or, in this case, between what is promised and what is delivered.
For example; I have struggled with trying to make environmental science (ES) merit badge relevant for years. Instead of appealing to the powerful drive to explore and discover their surroundings ES is written in a way that encourages counsellors to produce a number of tiresome lectures and Scouts to do a lot of book work. Nothing in ES requirements are directly related to the outdoor activities Scouts do all the time- and this is particularly frustrating when it would be so easy to do. Isn’t ES just begging for some connection to Leave No Trace? As a result most Scouts look at ES as diversion from the fun and excitement of Scouting into something less engaging – they experience a dissonance between what we promised and what we require.
Many Eagle required badges (all three citizenship badges, personal management, family life, communications, and (to a lesser extent) personal fitness and emergency preparedness) lack any connection to adventure or the outdoors, and, in my opinion, are also dissonant pieces of the program. I find this frustrating because it would be so easy to make those connections.
All of the Eagle required badges are great things to learn, they are things we’d like to see our Scouts understand but they are mostly missed opportunities. Each one of the hundred or so Scouts who have earned Eagle during my tenure as a Scoutmaster have looked on many of these badges more as necessary evils than something consistent with why they are Scouts in the first place.
As an easy first step I’d apply these rules of thumb to all Eagle required merit badges (and as many others as could be altered to suit):
1. Significant integration into the patrol method. Each badge should include requirements that are activities conducted by the Scout with and for his patrol (well beyond ‘give a presentation about what you learned’).
2. A number of requirements should be changed so that they are integrated with camping activities in the out-of-doors.
Beyond those changes I’d suggest rethinking the Eagle required list. I’d reduce the number of badges required for Eagle to 20 and the list of specifically required badges to five.
Here’s how I would re-write Eagle requirement 3:
Earn a total of 20 merit badges as follows:
Earn the five required badges in each core group and any two of the alternative badges from each core group for a total of fifteen.
Required in this group: Environmental Science,
Alternatives in this group: Astronomy, Bird Study, Fish and Wildlife Management, Forestry, Geology, Insect Study, Mammal Study, Nature, Oceanography, Plant Science, Reptile and Amphibian Study, Soil and Water Conservation, Weather.
Required in this group: Citizenship in the Community
Alternatives in this group: Citizenship in the Nation, Citizenship in the World, Communication, Family Life, Personal Management.
Required in this group: Camping,
Alternatives in this group: Backpacking, Canoeing, Cooking, Climbing, Fishing, Fly Fishing, Hiking, Kayaking, Orienteering, Pioneering, Whitewater, Wilderness Survival.
Required in this group: Personal Fitness
Alternatives in this group: Athletics, Cycling, Golf, Horsemanship, Rowing, Scuba Diving, Snow Sports, Sports, Swimming, Water Sports.
Required in this group: First Aid
Alternatives in this group: Disabilities Awareness, Emergency Preparedness, Fire Safety, Lifesaving, Public Health, Public Speaking, Safety, Search & Rescue.
Earn five additional merit badges of your choice (including any alternatives from the list above not applied to the core fifteen) for a total of 20 merit badges.
This approach would aim our Scouts at five core badges (I’d revise each of them using the rules of thumb I mentioned above) and then allow them to choose two alternatives in each group according to their interests and local conditions. I think Scouts would be much more invested in badges they get to choose rather than a long list of ones that are specifically required. By grouping these together we maintain focus on five core skills but open the alternatives in an engaging, energizing way.
I would change merit badge pamphlets into merit badge workbooks. There would be plenty of room for making notations, providing definitions and answering questions. I’d be careful not to make the workbooks into written tests or academic worksheets but shape them into a more useful tool for Scouts and counselors alike.
Lastly it is far past the time that merit badge pamphlets were both virtual and actual documents. An alterable pdf version of a merit badge pamphlet that could be used as a virtual workbook or printed out would be so much more welcomed than the present $5.00 @ pamphlets that go out of date. I’d happily pay an annual licensing fee for our troop to have access to a pdf library of merit badge workbooks.
Before you fire off a comment, re-read the post above, take a deep breath, and count to ten.