Of all the attributes we associate with Scouting, certainly the uniform is the most directly visible, but the advancement program is certainly the most palpable (and visible when the insignia of recognition appear on the uniform).
Scouting is measured by advancement. Starting in Cub Scouts, den leaders use the advancement program as a roadmap for their den programs. They dutifully plan meetings and activities and lead their dens, checking off requirements in their trail books as they go-see-it, learn about God, country, family and self, and eventually earn badges for learning about community, outdoors, mental, physical and technology skills. In Boy Scouts, there’s a similar list of things to do in order to achieve each rank, and Scouts spend their troop meetings and campouts running down the list and getting signoffs for the things they’ve done. Merit badges follow, each with their own list of requirements to be completed and signed off.
Indeed, to the untrained eye (and many Scouts, Scouters and families too), Scouting is all about completing requirements and advancing. Many Scouts have decided that reaching the Eagle rank is their primary goal. Many see Scouting largely as a continuous ladder of advancement. Each rung has requirements to be completed and once the rung is climbed, we look to see what’s on the next one to be done and checked off.
It’s really important that we keep in mind what Scouting is all about – the big picture – and not just run on the advancement treadmill. Remember that advancement is only one of eight methods we use in both Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. But methods for what?
If we look closely at the mission of the Boy Scouts of America, we don’t see anything about earning pins and badges, going on hikes and campouts, or working on community service projects. Instead, the mission is to guide our youth into making ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes. This is done through the values in the Oath and Law, instilling them in our youth and setting the example for them to follow. That example is set through the methods of Scouting, and it is by using these methods that we instill the values.
Once we see where we are heading, we get a clearer understanding of where advancement fits in to the big picture. Through the advancement program, Scouting teaches boys to work together to solve problems. it teaches them skills that they might not otherwise know – navigating with a map and compass is a great example in this day and age of GPS turn-by-turn directions. Through mastering skills for which they have no prior familiarity, the process is put to the test, and boys become proficient not only in the skill, but in working with others to teach and learn. Most of these skills are best learned in the outdoors, away from everyday distractions and in an environment of fellowship and adventure. Along the way, the boys will have some great experiences and – lo and behold – collect another signature in their Scout handbook toward their next rank.
One of your challenges is going to be getting the parents of Scouts, and even other Scout leaders, to think in terms of the big picture. Parents are accustomed to measuring their child’s development in ways like school report cards, sports statistics and win/loss records, or chair positions in band. Advancement provides this measure of progress in Scouting, but it needs to be explained that what’s more important is the intangible progress a boy is making through participation in Scouting. Even a boy who does not advance as quickly as the others is still benefiting by being a Scout in ways that don’t seem clear in the present.
I always like to ask boys about their advancement experience during boards of review. I ask them how they feel about the things they’ve done to earn the rank and what they thought of the skills they demonstrated to get the required sign-offs. I also ask if they realized the purpose behind doing these things, and we talk about some of the experiences they’ve had in pursuit of their rank requirements. The responses are revealing. I’ve had boys with a clear vision of how Scouting is more than checkmarks in a book, and have had others who don’t see the point behind all the busywork. This feedback is valuable because it leads us to understand just how well the patrols are working and what we can do to help the patrols function better.
If your troop program is aimed at “doing requirements” in contrast to doing Scouting, hop off the advancement treadmill! Put the program in perspective, and let it work its magic.