On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth

On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth – Book Review

David Macleod

On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth. By Jay Mechling (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. xxvi plus 323 pp. $30.00).

Although “not a history of the Boy Scouts” (p. xix), On My Honor deftly incorporates much policy history. The result should interest not merely historians of gender, youth, and the recent culture wars but also a wider historical audience. On My Honor demonstrates how history can serve as more than superficial background in interdisciplinary writing while remaining a secondary discipline. And the book illustrates some of history’s strengths (and weaknesses) in policy debates.

Jay Mechling argues that the real experience of Boy Scouting–in contrast to the rigid prescriptions of the Boy Scouts of America’s national office–helps boys develop into a mature masculinity fully compatible with progressive ideals of gender and citizenship. His primary evidence (and the framework for the book) is a composite, ethnographic narrative of two weeks at summer camp with a California troop.

Drawing on field notes accumulated from 1976 through 1999, Mechling details daily routines, the flexible yet morally grounded leadership style of a gifted Scoutmaster, and the often ribald creativity of camp games and songs. Tales of exuberant gross outs by young adolescents serve as touchstones of authenticity and starting points from which Mechling’s persona, self-deprecating as the academic who cannot resist analysis, takes interpretive excursions using anthropology, folklore studies, psychology, and history. In addition, separate essays trace the BSA’s policy problems in recent decades with “the three G’s–Gad, gays, and girls” (p. xviii). Social historians might turn first to these splendid essays.

As a case study, the book gains rich detail at some cost in representativeness. It lavishes attention upon songs, rituals, and games specific to this troop, such as auctions in which senior Scouts try to scam patrols into bidding on fake items and a tug of war over a “poison pit” (p. 84) filled with urine and watermelon rinds that the author interprets as a vagina containing menstrual blood. A more basic point, from which readers may be distracted by this interpretive flamboyance, is that the narrative represents Boy Scouting at its best: This is a long-established troop camping independently with a Scoutmaster who demands responsibility and yet provides space where boys can (within limits) “fuck up” and learn from the experience. Troops vary, as Mechling freely emphasizes. Many Scouts attend more rigidly organized camps run by district councils or never reach camp. And camp is a world apart. Ideally, one might follow the boys back to family, school, and weekly meetings. Mechling might also expand his compari son between Scouting and competitive sports as rival twentieth-century venues for teaching masculinity.

The author’s interpretive choices entail other costs and benefits. Gender eclipses class and race. Mechling follows Nancy Chodorow and William Pollack in positing that demands for early rejection of their mothers burden boys with more fragile identities than girls, and he is a fairly hard-shelled Freudian, At the same rime, Mechling offers a nuanced description of cultural reproduction in practice. Tilting the balance in that direction and away from the psychodrama of individual development would strengthen the book’s links to history.

What then of history and policy? Mechling advocates that troops be free to accept religious unbelievers and welcome both straights and gays but defends a single-sex organization where boys can, undistracted, learn a nurturant, tolerant masculinity. He argues that the BSA’s national policies on patriotism, religion, and sexuality were originally at least tacitly tolerant but grew restrictive in response to Cold War pressures and conservative reaction against the Sixties. Thus restriction is a relatively recent imposition, and greater openness would shift American Boy Scouting back toward its roots. The BSA instituted religious awards in 1948 and, aided by Norman Rockwell, came to embody the conflation of religion and patriotism that added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. “The national office,” Mechling asserts, “has never shaken off the symbolic demography of the 1950s” (p. 46). With its move to Irving, Texas in 1979, ESA headquarters had “chosen sides in the culture wars”; compromise with atheists wou ld imperil the unity of “religion, masculinity, and citizenship” (p.47). Despite the silence of Boy Scout literature on matters of sexuality (beyond early warnings against masturbation), similar intransigence shaped the BSA’s legal fight since 1980 to bar homosexuals.

In search of better precedents, Mechling praises Scouting’s earliest texts and leaders for responding more flexibly to the masculinity crisis of their era. In the process, Mechling rather overstates the influence of Ernest Thompson Seton, the BSA’s first Chief Scout (1910-1915) and downplays that of Robert BadenPowell, the British general who formulated the Boy Scout program, including its noncompetirive badge system.’ Arguably more important than Seton in shaping the BSA’s early course was an undogmatic, muscular Christianity transmitted through the YMCA.2 Heterodox in religion, ecologically minded, critical of American jingoism, and open to androgyny, Seton admirably foreshadowed much of late twentieth-century progressive opinion, but the BSA expelled him in 1915 for noncitizenship. Mechling highlights parallels between Seton’s progressive pedagogy and that of the troop he observed, but whether these are more than parallels is debatable. The basic argument that Boy Scouting drew fewer and less restrictive b oundaries (except in race!) before the Cold War and culture wars is, however, solidly grounded.

Whether this historical argument will matter is another question. Recognition that “under God” was added late to the Pledge of Allegiance has not deterred politicians from responding to an adverse court ruling by ostentatiously and unanimously proclaiming the full text. As a plea for tolerant, inclusive Boy Scouting, On My Honor’s most compelling arguments rely upon the author’s moral convictions and his affectionate, warts-and-all portrait of a modern troop in camp.


(1.) SeeDavid 1. Macleod, Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870-1920 (Madison, 1983), 130-145.

(2.) Mechling recognizes but does not emphasize this influence. See ibid.; Clifford Putney, Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, Mass., 2001); and John Donald Gustav-Wrathall, Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA (Chicago, 1998).

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