Benjamin René Jordan: “Are you a Boy Scout?” The Youth Historian’s Dilemma

Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment, 1910-1930, by Benjamin René JordanWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Benjamin René Jordan, author of Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment, 1910-1930. In this illuminating look at gender and Scouting in the United States, Jordan examines how in its founding and early rise, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) integrated traditional Victorian manhood with modern, corporate-industrial values and skills. While showing how the BSA Americanized the original British Scouting program, Jordan finds that the organization’s community-based activities signaled a shift in men’s social norms, away from rugged agricultural individualism or martial primitivism and toward productive employment in offices and factories, stressing scientific cooperation and a pragmatic approach to the responsibilities of citizenship.

In a previous post, Jordan approaches the gun control debate from an unexpected angle. In today’s post, Jordan shares the modern and historical dilemmas that drew him to write about the Boy Scouts of America.


“Are you a Boy Scout?” I am frequently asked this question at history conferences or during social conversations after stating that I study early American Boy Scouting. Perhaps it’s my short haircut, or my normative white guy appearance. The question may also stem from an (accurate) perception that many current and former Boy Scouts and adult leaders are enthusiastic readers and amateur producers of histories of the organization and their local councils, troops, and summer camps. Scout history associations, newsletters, websites, networks, and historical memorabilia swap meets facilitate the exchange and consumption of such histories and memories.

Thus, conference audiences and other people I meet are often confused when I report that I was not a Boy Scout. They seem surprised that somebody would study a youth organization like Scouting if that person had not been a member. I suspect other historians who study youth organizations and summer camps get similar queries.

I have both a personal answer and an academic answer to the usual follow-up question I receive, “So, what did lead you to spend the last decade studying and publishing a history of Scouting if you weren’t a member?” Although I never went to a summer camp of any kind as a child, years of counseling as a young adult at a traditional Catholic summer camp as well as working at a rustic behavioral drug and treatment center prompted my initial interest in the history of American and other modern societies using nature milieus to teach character development and civic responsibility to both “normal” and “at-risk” youth—often in very different ways for boys and girls.

My academic answer stems from my graduate history readings, when I noticed how the brief, reoccurring interpretations of early American Boy Scout gender and environmental teachings contrasted with my own analysis of the organization’s early publications and local practices. Which of the two answers I give sometimes depends on who is asking.

Benjamin René Jordan is visiting associate professor of history at Christian Brothers University. His book Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment, 1910-1930 is now available.