My Two Cents: Does the BSA offer too many merit badges?

Whenever a new merit badge comes out, a handful of well-meaning volunteers usually ask that question.

“If you’re adding Welding merit badge,” they write, “which one will you take away?”

For me, though, the beauty of the BSA’s merit badge program lies in its diverse selection. Too many choices? No such thing.

Walk into any bookstore, and consider the thousands of books on display. The store knows that no two readers are alike.

No two boys are the same, either. And the Boy Scouts of America understands that.

Yin and Yang

The BSA must balance two forces: The diverse interests of a boy and the desire to ensure that anyone who earns Eagle is “Prepared. For Life.”

To complete the Eagle Scout Award, a boy must earn 21 merit badges, including 12 from a required list. Those required merit badges guarantee that every Eagle Scout has the essential skills to guide him through life. Scouts learn first aid, communications, camping, citizenship, and skills that will make them better husbands, fathers, employees, students, and leaders.

Beyond that, a Scout must earn at least nine “elective” merit badges. The possibilities are vast, and these days, the number of options expands by a rate of two or three new merit badges every year.

That’s a good thing.

Freedom of Choice

Think of the Scouts in your troop. Are some super-athletic? At home on the water? Computer-savvy? Bookworms? Collectors? Fishermen? Tree-huggers? Animal lovers? Writers? Artists? Photographers? Future scientists? Amateur inventors?

I think you see my point.

Think of the merit badge program as a low-risk, high-reward test drive of some of the most popular careers and hobbies in the United States.

Before you spend $20,000 a year sending your son to college to study landscape architecture, spend $4.49 to buy him the pamphlet for Landscape Architecture merit badge. If he loves it, great. But if not, it’s on to the next merit badge with no harm done.

Lowering that college loan bill isn’t the sole motivator, though.

Trying out a wide range of merit badges opens doors to new challenges.

In one week at summer camp, a boy can learn to shoot a rifle, create a woodcarving, and practice saving a person from drowning. And he’ll leave with three merit badges to show his folks when he gets home. Show me another program where that’s possible.

More Is More

Really, though, the key argument is this: Too many available merit badges beats too few.

Just because nobody in your troop will earn Plumbing merit badge this year, for example, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. And even if just a handful of Scouts earn Plumbing in your entire council, the merit badge has done its job for the Scouts who do earn it by giving them hands-on experience in a real-world career.

I’m wowed when I hear about the handful of Scouts who earn every single merit badge, but they’re the exception. By design, the BSA doesn’t expect every Scout to earn every merit badge. Heck, the BSA doesn’t expect Scouts to earn even a quarter of the available merit badges — just like a bookstore doesn’t expect you’ll buy every book.

As it should be, the BSA is most concerned with casting a wide net. Nobody is harmed when a new merit badge is introduced. Everybody wins.

But if one is removed, some Scouts miss out.

As the number of available merit badges grows, the selection becomes even greater. That’s why I applaud Janice Downey and the Innovation Team for their constant push to survey Scouts and add new merit badges based on the boys’ interests. Speaking of, remember to keep up with all the updates on my New Merit Badge calendar.

When it comes to deciding how many merit badges the BSA should offer, more is always more.

What do you think?

Do you agree with me? Does the BSA have too many merit badges or not enough? If you could add one new merit badge tomorrow that you’re sure Scouts would love, what would it be? Let’s continue the discussion in the comments section.


Photo by Flickr user Zen