ON MY HONOR: Boys Scouts and the Making of American Youth.

ON MY HONOR: Boys Scouts and the Making of American Youth.

James Bowman

By Jay Mechling. Univ. of Chicago Press. 323 pp. $30

Read Time:
2m 42sec

ON MY HONOR: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth.

By Jay Mechling. Univ. of Chicago Press. 323 pp. $30

At the start of On My Honor, Mechling promises to steer a middle course between the right, which sees the Boy Scouts as the solution to America’s "character" problem, and the left, which sees them as part of the problem. He calls both of these views skewed, but it is soon clear that he deems the right-wing view considerably more skewed. A former Eagle Scout who is now a professor of American studies at the University of California, Davis, Mechling asserts his bona fides by citing his "progressive male guilt" over the "militarism," "sexism," "homophobia," and "disrespect for real Indians" of his own scouting days. Little has changed, he reports: The similarities between scout camp of the late 1950s and scout camp of the late 1990s are "too many to celebrate a victory of ‘progressive’ masculinity over Cold War masculinity."

A curious idea, this distinction between "progressive" and "Cold War" masculinity. What he means by the latter is a harder, more macho masculinity, which he discredits as (among other things) a mere contingency of the Cold War. He himself advocates a softer, more tender masculinity, and even tries to claim some of its social-science theorists, including William Pollack and Nancy Chodorow, as latter-day versions of the two men whose ideas were basic to the founding of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), G. Stanley Hall and Ernest Thompson Seton. Mechling discerns a "strong resemblance" between the masculinity theories of the 1890s and those of the 1990s— evidence, in his view, that the two decades "responded in similar ways to a perceived crisis in masculinity."

But didn’t the alleged crisis of the 1890s lead to the cultivation of a distinctive and traditional version of masculinity, while the theorists a century later seek to break it down? That objection disappears once we understand those old-timers and their marked "sexual ambiguities." In Mechling’s view, "the founders of the BSA were ‘role models’ for an androgynous masculinity not dissimilar from the new masculinities that emerged in response to parallel social and economic pressures on masculinity in the 1990s."

The villains of the book are today’s professional Scouts and bureaucrats at BSA headquarters who vigorously oppose the admission of atheists, girls, and homosexuals. These men seek to foster "a narrow, inflexible, exclusively heterosexual definition of masculinity" because of their own "powerful anxiety about masculinity." The particular troop of California scouts that Mechling has chosen for his study is meant to show us, by contrast, how progressive scouts can be.

Progressive and yet pragmatic. When the scoutmaster decides against holding a joint campfire with nearby Girl Scouts, Mechling approves. "You know how the boys act around girls," the scoutmaster tells him. "They show off, get silly, get really out of control." How, I wonder, would that basic fact of life be altered by the utopian masculinity that Mechling proposes?

—James Bowman


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