The Boy Scouts of America: Background information when reading The Hearts of Men

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The Hearts of Men

A Novel

by Nickolas Butler

The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2017, 400 pages
    Dec 26, 2017, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Gary Presley

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Beyond the Book:
The Boy Scouts of America

Print Review

Boy Scouts of America logoThe Boy Scouts of America (BSA) plays a significant role in The Hearts of Men. Coincidentally, the youth organization is in the news as it adapts to current social mores.

The New York Times reported on January 31, 2017: "Reversing its stance of more than a century, the Boy Scouts of America said on Monday that the group would begin accepting members based on the gender listed on their application, paving the way for transgender boys to join the organization."

Lord Baden-PowellSocial structures have evolved since the British Lieutenant-General, Robert Baden-Powell, founded the Scouts in England in 1910. Baden-Powell was a military hero, known for his 1899 successful defense of Mafeking during the Boer War. According to BSA's history of cub scouting, he'd been an outdoorsman from his youth, and early in his military career while stationed in India "he discovered that his men did not know basic first aid or the elementary means of survival in the outdoors. Baden-Powell realized he needed to teach his men many frontier skills, so he wrote a small handbook called Aids to Scouting, which emphasized resourcefulness, adaptability, and the qualities of leadership that frontier conditions demanded."

As much as Baden-Powell's concept appears almost paramilitary, the organization was not intended to be a direct pipeline to enlistment in the military. Its ideal is to "build a better boy," to paraphrase its official definition. That means training in personal fitness, matters of citizenship, and to institute values and character, which in turn is "a key to building a more conscientious, responsible, and productive society."

Like the military, however, the BSA has a ranking system, generally related to accomplishments and experiences. The first is Scout, then Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star, Life, and finally Eagle. Each advancement requires more and better skills shown in areas like camping and outdoor ethics, first aid and nature, fitness and leadership, and citizenship. For a scout to advance to the higher ranks, he must earn a specific number of merit badges. A merit badge requires a scout to pursue a deeper understanding of a subject. There are more than 100 subjects, from Archery to Wilderness Survival to Woodworking. The requirements are comprehensive, meant to make sure the scout has a solid understanding of the subject. For example, the Safety merit badge has six pages of requirements.

Boys can join the BSA at age eleven, sometimes ten under special circumstances (and cub scouts as early as age seven), and as they continue, they can also participate in Explorer Scouting. Explorers concentrate on certain professional goals. For example, there could be an Explorer group associated with a local police department for those youngsters who show interest in a law enforcement career.

Eagle Scouts artAt its height, the BSA once had about 4 million youth participants. Current participation is around 2.4 million. Regardless of numbers, the BSA's core values remain vibrant, and it continues to offer a way into nature, to develop an ethical framework, and provide a guide to citizenship for many youth. BSA achievements can portend success in later life. Gerald Ford, the 38th president, was an Eagle Scout, as was the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong. Oscar winning director Stephen Spielberg earned the Eagle rank, and so did William DeVries, a surgeon who performed the first artificial heart transplant. There are hundreds of other famous Eagle Scouts, including Supreme Court justices, astronauts, politicians, entertainers, and even Mike Rowe, a television personality who prides himself on accomplishing the "dirtiest jobs" possible.

Despite the changes in social attitudes and the shift in population to urban and suburban centers, scouting can give a youth a head start. As the protagonist says in The Hearts of Men, the Eagle scout award is often the first youthful step toward employing the self-discipline and determination that makes for a successful adulthood, for becoming a leader respected by "CEOs and garbage men, mechanics and engineers, doctors and janitors, waiters and chefs. Professors, pastors, priests, and rabbis."

Boy Scouts of America logo
Lord Baden-Powell, courtesy of
Eagle Scouts art, courtesy of scouting

Article by Gary Presley

This article is from the March 8, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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