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Reviews in American History 30.2 (2002) 316-321

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Building Character in The Boy Scouts

Clifford Putney

Jay Mechling. On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. xxv + 323 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $30.00.

In On My Honor, a well-written, insightful, thoroughly researched book about the Boy Scouts, Jay Mechling contends that white Americans are experiencing a "crisis of masculinity" (p. xv). As evidence, he points to their concern about a number of recent developments, including changing models for manhood and rising male student violence at suburban schools. Such developments are especially unwelcome at the Boy Scouts' national headquarters in Irving, Texas. From this redoubt in Middle America (arguably a better stronghold for conservative ideals than the Boy Scouts' former headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey), Boy Scout leaders have issued forth to do battle against juvenile delinquency, atheism, and gay rights. In their fight to uphold what Mechling characterizes as outmoded nineteenth-century values, they have won some important victories, including a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision that enables them to exclude gays from their organization. But Mechling, an American Studies professor at the University of California, Davis, believes that Scouting's leaders ought not to promulgate a narrow, inflexible, exclusively heterosexual definition of masculinity." Instead of responding to the twenty-first-century "crisis of masculinity" in a reactionary manner, Scout leaders, in Mechling's opinion, would greatly benefit young Scouts by "fostering new definitions and practices of what it means to be a man" (pp. 234-5).

What does it mean to be man? That question not only perplexes modern-day Americans; it also perplexed Americans during the Progressive Era, when there arose what historians such as Gail Bederman, Michael Kimmel, and E. Anthony Rotundo are calling a masculinity crisis." 1 That crisis occurred one hundred years ago, but according to Mechling it resembles the current "crisis of masculinity" in many important respects. If the modern era challenges entrenched models of manhood, he writes, then so did the Progressive Era, when politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt, psychologists such as G. Stanley Hall and Social Gospel ministers such as Josiah Strong all [End Page 316] complained loudly that the shift from farm to office work and the "feminization of American culture" (a term coined by Ann Douglas) had greatly enfeebled American men, particularly those of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) lineage. If WASP men did not adopt manlier, more physically rigorous lifestyles, warned "old-stock" Progressive Era reformers, then their hold on political power in America would vanish, and they would be replaced as leaders by muscular Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and elsewhere.

To ensure that WASP men did not grow too soft for social leadership, Theodore Roosevelt urged them to live a "strenuous life," and the YMCA encouraged them to take up basketball and volleyball (sports that "Y" men invented). Strengthening men was important, conceded the Rev. William Forbush, author of the highly influential book The Boy Problem (1901). But he and many others believed that men's work was "as salvage to salvation" in comparison to work with boys. 2 If males could be detached from their mothers' apron strings and made hearty at an early age, then they would not grow up to be wimps and sissies. That at least was the argument put forward by the men who roughly a century ago founded a plethora of boys' organizations, including summer camps, boys' schools such as Groton, religious clubs such as the Knights of King Arthur (Forbush's creation), and paramilitary nature organizations such as the Boy Scouts. Many of these organizations faded away long ago. 3 But the Boy Scouts of America, which was founded in 1910 (two years after the creation of the Boy Scouts in Britain), continues to thrive. Three years ago, the organization announced the registration of its 100 millionth member (p. xviii). And last year, President Bush declared that "the values of Scouting . . . are the values of America."

The centrality of the Boy Scouts in American life for...


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