What’s an Active Scout? – Ask Andy

When a rank requirement says ‘active’ what does it mean? How do we determine what constitutes an active scout?

You’ll find the Ask Andy column at USSCOUTS.org.  Andy has been answering questions about Scouting for ten years on line and a lot more years prior to that. Andy has radically changed my mind about the way I approach several things in Scouting.

He patiently answers some of the same questions over and over again;” how many square knots can I sew on my shirt and in what order?” kind of questions. Andy is also direct and sometimes a little curmudgeonly and is not afraid to tell people how wrong they are (some of them are really very wrong indeed).

Andy is focused on the success of individual Scouts. He assiduously follows policy because the rules and regulations are also focused on the success of Scouts. Here’s a recent exchange that answers some very thorny questions with (at least what I consider) the unassailable logic of the program.

In this exchange Andy explains the logic behind the widely misunderstood and mishandled definition of  what constitutes an active Scout. It’s ground I have covered several times over the past few years but I don’t think it can be overemphasized:

Hello Andy,
Our troop is having a discussion on encouraging more of our older Scouts to attend more outings. The requirement for Star, Life and Eagle says that the Scout has to be active in his troop for a four- or six-month period, depending on the rank.

We read that to mean that they need to be actively participating in meetings and outings; however one of our committee members found a definition of “active” on the USSCOUTS website. In the reading of that definition, there is nothing that says a Scout has to attend a meeting at all!

So long as the Scoutmaster lets the Scout know about meetings and talks with him four times in the course of a year, the Scout can complete all of his requirements for, say, Star Scout and yet not show up at another meeting for six months, or a year or more, and still earn his next rank the very day he returns!

How can that be correct? How can a Scout be “active” while never showing up? Could that possibly be the same for a boy earning Eagle? Has Scouting been watered down so much that a Scout can still be considered active even though he never shows up for anything? (Dave Zeller)

Yes, I understand that the BSA’s definition of “active” appears to be a conundrum. To solve it, we first need to understand that, as written, those statements are correct, not by accident, and subject neither to “interpretation” nor to a troop deciding to apply any sort of numerical or percentage rubric.

The second thing we need to remind ourselves of is that Scouting is purposefully the most flexible and accommodating of all youth-oriented groups, movements, or associations; compared to, let’s say, sports teams, or orchestras and bands, often for which total attendance at practices or rehearsals is fundamental to remaining on the team or ensemble.

The reason underlying Scouting’s different philosophy about this is simple and transparent: Scouting is a volunteer movement and the primary volunteers are the youth themselves. Our objective here is not to police their attendance but to praise it and to offer programs that are so stimulating that young people want to attend and do so, but not because they “must,” as in other organizations.

Finally, no Scout actually “advances” by doing “nothing.” Even if he’s missing meetings or outings and may appear “invisible,” we need to open our eyes further and see that he’s still working on the necessary merit badges with multiple Counselors across a variety of Scouting-related subjects and activities; he’s carving out specific amounts time per rank to service projects; he’s functioning successfully in a position of responsibility; and he’s devoting significant time and energy to planning and leading the carrying out of his service project for Eagle rank. These factors make any statement to the effect that “the Scout’s doing nothing” considerably off the mark, relative to the world of the Scout himself.

So, although “active” often becomes a misinformed troop’s “ambush” for Scouts aspiring to Eagle rank, please resist the temptation to blind-side him in his final push to the top of the advancement mountain. It’s steep and challenging enough without the troop’s adult volunteers adding some further aspect on which the BSA national advancement standards are purposefully silent.

Thank you for the response and the information and while our troop will certainly follow the guidelines, I fundamentally disagree on this aspect. The outdoor code and experience, in my opinion, is so interwoven into Scouting that I find it hard to believe that the organization feels that a boy is a shining example of the highest rank that they can achieve in Scouting without attending one outdoor activity after the time that they become a First Class Scout.

Certainly we hope to make our outings attractive to him and will encourage him to attend, to put into practice the skills we seem to deem so important and to give him the opportunity to show his leadership skills in a setting that might be more unpredictable than in a sheltered planned meeting.

It just shocks me to think that the Scouting organization would not put more importance on the need to experience these things as well. Has it always been like this or is this a more recent change? I know that when I inform my dad of this (he was a Scout) he’ll be in shock and disbelief as well.

I do understand your feelings, and I offer the following for you to consider… “Shining example” can often be hyperbole, and potentially misleading. If a mountaineer ascends K2, the Matterhorn, or even Everest, that person isn’t considered “a shining example of mountaineering.” What’s considered is that this person accomplished a significant task that most have not. In other words, the person met the requirements of the task. Eagle Scouts do the same: They become such when they complete all the requirements… not when they’re coronated or anointed.

If a Scout has had “no outdoor activities” since First Class, how did he earn Camping merit badge, which requires 20 days and nights of camping? How did he emcee a campfire, learn to swim and/or hike with strength, or learn about our environment, the rudiments of First Aid, how our towns, country, and the world are governed? Nuff sed.

Moreover, outdoor activities are the “bait” Scouting uses to entice boys to join and stay with the program. Outdoor activities are a tool for teaching good citizenship, character development, and physical and mental strength. Nothing less, but certainly nothing more. Scouting is not in the business of creating consummate outdoorsmen, contrary to considerable mistaken belief. Remember that the outdoor program is one of eight methods of Scouting; advancement being another one of the eight.

Your father may or may not be “shocked” but I can assure you that your great-grandfather wouldn’t be. This aspect is likely no different from in his day and is actually more stringent than it was when Eagle (originally called a “merit badge”) was first created in 1911. At the outset, the ranks beyond First Class—Life, Star, and Eagle—required only the earning of additional merit badges; nothing more. Later, additional requirements came into play, and still later, tenure-in-rank was added. So no, Scouting’s advancement program hasn’t been “watered down” (or “dumbed down” either, for that matter).

The above are facts; not my opinion, and they derive from the BSA; not me. My personal opinion is that while Eagle is a significant milestone in a young man’s life and often considered a rite of passage, the unfortunate albeit perhaps unintended consequence of elaborate Eagle-only courts of honor is that we treat the rank as tantamount to the Medal of Honor, when it’s not. It’s an earned rank than any Scout with moxie and sticktoitiveness can accomplish and, should not be treated as anything more or less than what it is.

Finally, let’s remember that Scouting, while steeped in tradition, is none the less evolutionary… This is how such big concepts as the Order of the Arrow, Cub Scouting, Sea Scouts, Air Explorers, and, more recently, Venturing came to be, and also how the ranks of Scouting have seen their requirements transition as each new generation straps on his uniform. Heck, by the time I’d made First Class, I’d learned to send and receive Morse Code, tracked an animal for a quarter-mile, opened and maintained a savings account, learned to read trail signs and followed them for a half-mile, stalked another Scout for a half-mile without being spotted, could find True North in the day and the night without a compass, and where are those requirements today?

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