Recently, the Scouting magazine blog raised an issue I never had to deal with as a Scout or a Scoutmaster: the value (or lack thereof) of fill-in-the-blank merit-badge worksheets. These worksheets have become all the rage in some corners of Scouting, along with merit-badge fairs, merit-badge classes during troop meetings, and other activities that make it easy to earn merit badges.
Here’s the problem: Scouts should learn something from merit badges other than how to cut corners. They should learn skills related to badge topics, of course, but they should also learn life skills like calling a merit-badge counselor on the phone or redoing work that doesn’t measure up. Moreover, they need to learn that words matter–that if a requirement says “explain” or “discuss,” it’s not enough to simply listen to a counselor talk about the topic.
When we adults deprive them of those experiences, we turn merit badges into cheap awards that kids in T-ball receive–earn is too strong a word–just for showing up. That’s not to say that merit-badge classes never have value; some do a great job of introducing topics and connecting Scouts with highly skilled instructors. The trouble occurs when they cut corners to maximize the number of badges Scouts can earn.
In Scouting for Boys, Robert Baden-Powell worried about Scouts who were more eager to collect badges than to earn them:
There is always the danger of Badge-hunting supplanting Badge-earning. Our aim is to make boys into smiling, sensible, self-effacing, hardworking citizens, instead of showy, self-indulgent boys. The Scoutmaster must be on the alert to check Badge-hunting and to realise which is the Badge-hunter and which is the keen and earnest worker.
Unfortunately, some adults are beating Scouts at their own game, making earning merit badges as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. While this may help with cash flow at the local Scout shop, it does little to help Scouts grow.
Years ago, Phillips Petroleum created a poster celebrating the merit-badge program. Interspersed with badge images were these words:
They are woven of simple cloth and common thread. Yet they have the power to turn struggle into courage. Self-doubt into self-esteem. Indecision into leadership. But we’re proud to support the Boy Scouts of America for their enduring ability to perform the most magical metamorphosis of all. Transforming a boy into a man.
Do those words describe how the advancement program works in your troop?