The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is the largest youth organization in the United States, with nearly three million active participants in its programs. The organization was founded in 1910 by Chicago publisher W.D. Boyce, who based its structure on that of the British organization founded several years before by Lord Baden-Powell. The aim of scouting is to teach positive values and life skills to boys and young men with a focus primarily on outdoor activities like camping and hiking.
Boy scouting is divided into three major programs. The youngest scouts, aged seven to ten years old, become Cub Scouts, organized into “packs” and “dens.” The Boy Scout division, organized into “troops” led by “scoutmasters,” covers boys aged 11 to 17. The Venturing program is geared toward young men (and also women) between the ages of 14 and 21, and includes the Sea Scouts program, which specializes in nautical activities. An important part of the scouting experience is a system of recognition levels and awards, highly structured by age groups. The greatest honor is to achieve the position of “Eagle Scout,” an award so prestigious that it carries lifetime distinction in American society. Nearly 2000 different “merit badges” have been promulgated by the organization for its members, awarded for achievements in areas as diverse as archery, plumbing, soil and water conservation, woodwork, traffic safety, pottery and canoeing. Scouts of all levels frequently wear their pins and awards on their uniforms, which are elaborate. They practice a distinctive form of salute and handshake (using the left hand).
Many prominent American men in business, the professions and government have backgrounds as scouts. The American space program is a case in point. According to the BSA, “of the 312 pilots and scientists selected as astronauts since 1959, 180 were Scouts or have been active in Scouting…Of the 12 men to physically walk on the moon’s surface, 11 were involved in Scouting.” The first human to set foot on the moon, Neil A. Armstrong, was an Eagle Scout.
The scout oath or promise is “On my honor I will do my best, To do my duty to God and my country, and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”
The scout law is “A Scout is …trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”
The Scout Motto is “Be Prepared.” The Scout Slogan is “Do a Good Turn Daily.”
The National Scout Council, located in Irving Texas, is the non-profit private corporation that oversees all scout activities. The organization publishes the magazine Scouting, aimed at its volunteer adult leaders, and Boys Life, for the scouts themselves (which itself has both Boy Scout and Cub Scout editions). Because of its size, the organization is subdivided into regions, themselves divided into areas, which are further sub-divided into local councils. Various celebrations, meetings, events and “jamborees” take place at most of these levels throughout the year.
The Boy Scouts of America is a private organization, and as such has maintained certain exclusionary policies throughout its existence, some of which generate considerable controversy today. The organization has repeatedly interpreted the scout oath and motto, obligatory for all scouts, to be incompatible with homosexuality and with atheism and agnosticism. Scouts are expected to be respectful of religion as an integral part of daily life; many individual religious organizations administer a religious emblems program within scouting. The organization has been legally challenged on all these issues, and on its continued exclusion of girls from membership. Court rulings have routinely resulted in victory for the organization in its insistence on setting its own membership standards. The organization has, however, been forced to move away from governmental sponsorship of scouting units (on military bases for example). Current litigation, complex in nature, is putting into question the favorable status scouting has always enjoyed in using governmental lands and facilities for activities, meetings and events.