LIKE THE OTHER EAGLE-REQUIRED merit badges, Citizenship in the Nation offers Scouts a short course in a very important topic. Unfortunately, many Scouts have already studied government and politics in school and might not be interested in another slog through the Constitution.
Making the badge come alive — and keeping Scouts awake — can require expertise, passion and a bit of showmanship. For specific tips, Scouting talked with five veteran merit badge counselors: Bill Pzedpelski, Steve Vaughn and Rick Millward hail from the National Capital Area Council, and John Carlson and Kyle Flindt live a continent away in the Chief Seattle Council.
Simplify the Government
A key part of Citizenship in the Nation is understanding how the three branches of government work. To clarify their roles, Pzedpelski uses a description first used by Alexander Hamilton in one of the Federalist Papers. “He described the legislature as being the purse — they control the money; the executive being the sword — they control the action; and the courts having the reason and the judgment to temper the other two,” Pzedpelski says.
Millward, meanwhile, uses an analogy from geometry to explain the system of checks and balances. He first draws a triangle with each point representing one of the three branches of government, noting that the shape is stable but that it doesn’t move very well. As he discusses how checks and balances work, he draws curved arrows between the points of the triangle. “They turn the triangle, which is stable but doesn’t roll very well, into a circle, which rolls much better,” he says.
Carlson believes a key point of confusion lies in the titles people hold in government, which vary among the local, state and national levels even when people have similar roles. (Take president, governor and mayor, for example.) “It all kind of becomes a fog,” he says. “What I tell the Scouts is it’s the same basic model from Washington, D.C., all the way down to the town you live in.”
Perhaps the best way to turn Scouts off of citizenship is to focus on issues that don’t yet affect them. (We’re looking at you, Social Security.) When he’s covering the functions of government, Millward steers the conversation toward things that touch boys’ lives, such as funding for national parks. “If it weren’t for the taxes that are paid by the citizens and by corporations, where would they have to go to camp?” he says. “Try to relate these things to what they actually do, what’s part of their lives.”
One advantage of steering Scouts toward relevant topics is that you can engage them in lively discussions. Where you live can affect what’s relevant. Many of Pzedpelski’s D.C. Scouts are interested in the question of D.C. statehood, while Flindt’s Scouts sometimes discuss the issue of marijuana, which was recently legalized in Washington state.
Since much of American history is ancient history to Scouts, Pzedpelski tries to add context to the speeches Scouts have to read. “The setting — where they did the speech and when they did the speech — is extremely important,” he says. If a Scout is reading John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, he’ll offer a thumbnail explanation of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall.
Vaughn, on the other hand, likes to focus on the speaker as much as the speech. When Scouts read the Gettysburg Address, he’ll point out what it says about Lincoln’s leadership qualities. “He could have easily done an end-zone dance, but he didn’t. What did he do? He talked about a vision of the future uniting people,” Vaughn says.
End With Action
The badge’s last requirement involves the Scout sending a letter to his representative or one of his senators. That shouldn’t be the end of a Scout’s citizenship, of course. Although Scouts are too young to vote, run for office or serve in the military, they can still be good citizens. And Citizenship in the Nation might start them on that road.
It did for Pzedpelski. His merit badge counselor inspired him to study politics at Washington’s Catholic University of America. He now works in the capital and teaches a new generation of Scouts what he considers to be the most important merit badge. “This is the badge that puts the ‘America’ in the Boy Scouts of America,” he says.
FIND MORE LEADER GUIDES TO A MULTITUDE OF MERIT BADGES AT SCOUTINGMAGAZINE.ORG/MERITBADGECLINIC.