A Meditation on the Rank of Eagle Scout

This is a guest post by Mormontarian, who describes himself as a small-town Midwest transplant, who grew up on the west coast but managed to flee without turning into a pillar of salt. He is a compulsive communicator, though it helps to read his work as though you were all hanging out at a diner, chatting over greasy-spoon steak and eggs on a slow Saturday morning.

My grandfather was an Eagle Scout. His two sons (my father and uncle) are Eagle Scouts. I (and my three brothers) are all Eagle Scouts. One might call this a family tradition.

My son is not an Eagle Scout. This caused my father some concern. In a moment of “family tradition”-motivated panic, he went so far as to offer my son $1000 if he would earn his Eagle. That was when a series of realizations finally crystallized for me.

The rank itself is burdened with superfluous meaning that has been layered on for a long time. But it was clearly very important to my father, and I admit that I was pretty proud of myself when I got mine back in the day. Was I robbing my son by not pushing him to do this? I wasn’t sure.

So I sat down and took a good hard look at Eagle, breaking it down to the fundamental lessons it seems designed to teach. This required setting aside a volume of mystique and tradition. Is Eagle important because you learn first aid? How to pitch a tent? Who your elected representatives are? Those things are fine and good to know, and having a structure in place to learn those things is useful, but are they the fundamental lessons? Are they the things Eagle teaches?

Ultimately, no. In searching for those, I found three concepts that might be described as pearls of great price.

Lesson the First: Delayed Gratification

Earning Eagle is a slow and complicated process. It takes years, and has dozens of requirements across the rank progression, and purposefully so. Each of the last three scouting ranks (Star, Life, and Eagle), has as its first requirement “spend X months in previous rank”. In theory, this is probably in place to keep people from hammering it out in six months and then having no more guided curriculum in the program. But in practice there’s more to it than that.

Forcing the wait means that you can’t do the whole thing during a single period of laser-focused work. Waiting means that your motivation may cool. It means you may fail at some things and need to try them again. You can really evaluate how bad you want it when you must work and wait for it. Forcing that kind of wait means it takes real emotional investment to finish. And learning how to finish what you start (especially when the finish line is way out there) is a critical life skill. Was my son learning that, even though he wasn’t an Eagle?

As it happens, he was. He had a goal: he wanted to be the drum major of his high school marching band. He tried out at the end of his freshman year (a grueling process involving several days of clinic-training and an hours-long interview process designed to break him down emotionally), but wasn’t selected. It was hard for him to not “make it”, and for a little while he considered shrugging and abandoning this ambition. But as the year went on and he continued as a regular band member, he re-acquired motivation. Knowing what the tryout process entailed now, he watched and learned from the drum majors of the time while he did his job and played his part in the trumpet section.

The next year he tried again. He wasn’t selected that time, either, though by the director’s admission he had improved and matured quite a bit and was almost ready. After his junior year he tried out for the last possible time, and made it. My son spent three years working toward this goal, actively seeking to learn the ins and outs of the organization to qualify him for the top spot. If there’s not a lesson in delayed gratification in that, I don’t know what could have taught it to him.

Lesson the Second: Leadership

The big kahuna Eagle requirement is “the project”. This requirement has acquired so much baggage it has to pay extra to fly. What’s the purpose of this project? Is putting a bench in a park, repainting a gazebo, rehabbing a hiking trail, or some other such activity really what this is about? It is certainly good to leave your community better than you found it. But does it take this kind of project to teach that?

No. The point is leadership. Properly executed, the Eagle project is designed to teach a boy how to direct and lead a team. It almost doesn’t matter what they do—the community service angle is simply the most convenient theme to follow. Leading the project is theoretically a culmination of everything a scout has learned to that point in patrol and troop leadership positions. The scout takes those lessons, and puts them into practice to design and complete a service project of some kind.

“Leadership” is a big word, though. It’s very noble and aspirational, but what does it mean? It takes some unpacking of its own. Is leadership just the process of creating a flowchart or outline and explaining it to people? Is there a deeper lesson?

Yes: the deeper lesson is that not everyone’s a leader. The quiet lesson of the Eagle project (and one that a boy is unlikely to fully grasp until years later) is that as a leader you must evaluate the capabilities of the people you’re leading. Not everybody can do everything. Some are amazing, perhaps specializing in something very useful. Some are workmanlike but uncreative, ready to go at a task all day under proper direction. Some will be rivals, constantly second-guessing the leader and seeking ways around their assigned responsibility. Some are simply incompetent, and their contribution consists of being put somewhere they can do the least damage.

An Eagle project, properly executed, puts a spotlight on this natural inequality and forces a boy to look at it—a very tiny lesson in realpolitick (and one the young people of today need now more than ever). A scout properly pursuing an Eagle project must figure out who can perform in which function, and see that the right people are assigned to the right jobs, ensuring the larger task gets done. It is arguably unjust to demand more of some and accept less from others. But it is a reality that cannot be ignored.

And it’s what makes real leadership a little bit lonely. Not everyone can do it. Not everyone can handle the responsibility of making those decisions. And if you can’t take it, that’s a hard thing to face.

Again I asked myself: is my son learning this? Has he had an experience that teaches this tough but critical lesson?

And the answer was found in his tenure as drum major. It wasn’t long after he got the nod that things changed. Suddenly people who had never bothered with him got interested. Girls (and boys, but more girls) who sought to increase their own popularity started trying to append themselves to him. People who had been his friends grew embittered that he had “beaten” them. Not everyone was prepared to recognize him as a leader, and seized on any minor misstep as proof that he shouldn’t have been selected.

He was required to assess these new circumstances. For the first time, the question “what’s this person’s agenda”, became important in his life. My son had to consider and evaluate the motivations of those swirling around him. He had to make hard choices about who was a decent person and would be safe to have in his orbit. Not every decision was the right one, and he learned hard lessons about betrayal in the dramatic ways that public high schools are so unfortunately good at teaching. He had this realpolitick experience, and while he will doubtless carry some regret out of high school (don’t we all?) those lessons will be invaluable in the rest of his life.

Lesson the Third: Meekness

The first two lessons are comparatively easy. This last one, however, is much harder to grasp.

The first two lessons can feel harsh, like they’d make you callous. Or worse, arrogant. After all, these lessons require you to dispassionately rank tasks and people—it would be easy to think you’re better than the rest of the team. But I’ve never met an Eagle scout who was mean. While I’m sure they exist, I’ve never met an Eagle scout who bragged about it. Eagles state the existence of their award, but they don’t tend to strut it (especially as they age). Again, this bears analysis. What is it about this process that tempers the harshness of the first two lessons?

The program, properly executed, doesn’t just teach how to evaluate tasks and then use people to get those tasks done. It also teaches a scout to help his fellows in their own tasks. Part of putting people in places where they’re effective means recognizing that sometimes a task will appear that nobody is able to do alone. So it’s more than just giving people tasks—it’s also being ready and available to help those people perform those tasks. I think LDS units have (generally) been good at this, since they coupled scouting to the priesthood (which is ultimately all about serving and supporting others).

Leadership (the ability to effectively divvy a task up within a team) plus Delayed Gratification (the ability to keep working on a task even when the finish line isn’t visible from the starting point), produces what David A. Bednar has recently declared Meekness: strength under control.

He said: “The Christlike quality of meekness often is misunderstood in our contemporary world. Meekness is strong, not weak; active, not passive; courageous, not timid; restrained, not excessive; modest, not self-aggrandizing; and gracious, not brash. A meek person is not easily provoked, pretentious, or overbearing and readily acknowledges the accomplishments of others.”

And “Meekness is the principal protection from the prideful blindness that often arises from prominence, position, power, wealth, and adulation.”

Eagle, properly earned, teaches that. Did my son learn it from being a drum major?

Yes. As his senior year has gone on, he has won people over. Meekness for him has been the cultivation of a mindset that is always ready to help his bandmates, but never compromises standards of excellence. My son learned how to be merciful and kind, how to be supportive of others without being a doormat, and how to listen when a colleague needed to talk. It was not easy (he came home near tears on more than one occasion, leading to many fatherly talks I wouldn’t trade for anything), but he graduates from high school this week as one of the most beloved and inspiring members of the band. I get compliments aplenty on his demeanor and carriage.

Is he better than his peers? Many of them, yes. He is an elite young man, and inequality is inescapable. But he has learned to recognize his sometime-superiority as something that requires responsibility. And he has learned to recognize times when he is not the best, and with that has come understanding and willingness to accept help to improve. My son has learned meekness.

Here Endeth …

So what’s the point? As we head into the new scout-free future in the Church, I presume I am not the only one thinking such thoughts. And as the new program rolls out, I hope we can all dig to the deeper lessons, and ensure that those are taught. Even if nobody’s wearing a uniform.

3 thoughts on “A Meditation on the Rank of Eagle Scout

  1. I am hopeful that as we learn to rely on the spirit more and let it teach us how to minister better we will do as Pres. Nelson has suggested, “Higer and holier ministering.”

    PS, I love marching band!

  2. My older brother earned his Eagle but I never made it past First Class. There are a lot of reasons for that, including my severe shyness and a family move when I was 14 years old into a ward with a very weak youth program. BSA was good, and I had fun on campouts, but when it came time for me to learn the really important things in life it was not even a factor. I have long felt that the Church could do better than BSA at the real goal of building strong and righteous boys. I am excited for this new chapter!

  3. As a former drum major and an eagle scout, I ask, Why not both? However, as I search my memories, and can find many pleasurable experiences as a scout, I must confess most of them could have been had without any pursuit of the rank of eagle scout. Nevertheless, I am the only eagle scout out of six boys. My mother seeing the inherent defects in both the program and the boys receiving the rank thought it so cheapened that she did not encourage it. My father was not involved. Good scout masters and leaders helped me complete it. I am proud of the fact. My two older boys received theirs when I did, a few days before their 18th birthdays. My youngest son has completed the requirements and has two months to get his application in. I have encouraged him to finish what he started. My experiences as a drum major shaped me in incredible ways, notably, in the realm of non-human things, “music was my first love, and it will be my last”. Thank you for your thoughts. I am sorry to see that scouting has moved so far away from us and what it could have been, but I am not sorry we are now severing ties.

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