This email came from a listener/reader. I answered it in Podcast number 4 as well as in this post;
I really enjoy your thoughtful blogs and podcasts, and I’m interested to learn about your views on merit badge days.
Your podcast item about BP’s view on badge-hunters vs. badge earners was timely as we have been recently been having a debate in our troop about merit badge days. One side says that the primary purpose is to raise money for the hosting troop, and not to ensure quality instruction for the boys, and that they are a shortcut to merit badge completion.
Others say that in today’s busy schedules it is too hard to find a merit badge counselor and schedule meetings with them to review progress, and that merit badge days are the only practical way outside of summer camp to complete merit badges. What do you think?
– Scoutmaster Troop 531 Orange, CA
Thanks for reading and listening Mark –
As a former camp director and long-time camp staff member I know that the quality and depth of merit badge counseling is subject to lively debate. Different counselors will display different levels of rigor and thoroughness. An eighteen year old counselor in charge of thirty of his peers counseling Environmental Science probably won’t out-preform a college professor in the same situation. Is a merit badge earned from the eighteen year old counselor worth the same as one earned from the professor?
Training materials for merit badge counselors emphasize both the quality of experience and instruction. Merit badge ‘counselor’ not ‘teacher’, not ‘instructor, but counselor. Baden Powell spoke of ‘getting them all along through the jollity of Scouting.” ‘Jollity’ suggests a challenging, fun experience.
There is a tendency to over emphasize expertise, something hard to parse because scouting offers some very practical and useful skills. At times a Scout’s interest will motivate him to excel or his lack of interest produces a mediocre performance.
At one time I would get awfully frustrated and drive my Scouts to be fully versed experts before passing them on a requirement. I lost sight of the goal: to develop decent, contributing members of society not highly skilled experts. Scouting is a means to an end.
What of the danger of giving merit badges and ranks away ? We avoid this by becoming skilled readers. (I talk a little about this in podcast episode 3) For example; the Scout badge requires Scouts ‘understand and agree to live by’ the Scout Oath and Law. For the longest time I misread that requirement as ‘repeat from memory’. Once I discovered I misread one requirement I started reading them all with greater care and applying them just as they were written.
What is the Scoutmaster’s role in the merit badge program? Signing blue cards and perhaps presenting badges; that’s about it. We don’t review merit badge work. Once the counselor has signed the card the badge is complete. I may ask a few questions about merit badges in the course of a Scoutmaster conference only to see what the Scout experienced, not to assess the quality of his work. Merit badges are not my awards to give or withhold.
District or Council advancement committees approve of counselors, not us. If we become aware of a problem with a Counselor we should refer it to the advancement committee.
Scoutmasters will continue struggling to maintain a reasonable middle ground between giving things away and a preoccupation with the means instead of the end. Scouts don’t want giveaway badges or ranks nor do they want unnecessarily strict schoolmarms. I think that we have room for merit badge days and finding individual counselors. In any case the most important thing is keeping our eye on the goal and not just the interim steps towards it.