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May 21, 2009

Learning For Life

Explorers NYT 3.jpg

by contributor John Lucaites

The scene above could be an image of a drug bust somewhere in Mexico or Colombia, or it could be a rescue scene from an episode of 24 or The Unit. But it’s neither. Instead, it is a photograph of a group of Explorers in California “portraying Border Patrol agents rushing into a room filled with fake poison gas” and “aiming their weapons at a man before realizing he was a wounded hostage.”

Explorers is a coed affiliate of the Boy Scouts run under a program called “Learning for Life.” According to its website, the primary goal of the program is “career exploration … designed to help young people make intelligent decisions regarding their future.”

According to The Times feature, 35,000 Explorers participate in the career program in “law enforcement,” which, among other things, trains 14-21 year olds in how to “confront terrorism, illegal immigration and escalating border violence.” In short, it is something of a paramilitary version of Jr. ROTC which populates many high schools and reduces citizenship and patriotism to the model of military life.

Military and paramilitary organizations are vital and necessary arms of government, to be sure. That said, one has to wonder if such militaristic “Learning for Life” programs offer the most effective model for animating critical thinking and a productive civic life amongst our most impressionable citizens.

At “No Caption Needed,” we have regularly written about cultural practices (here, here, and here, for example) which not only “normalize” and reinforce a war culture but animates a cycle of violence. I was reminded of this process by the picture above, embedded in a NYT slide show offering Explorers “playing at” hunting down suicide bombers, hijackers, snipers, and illegal immigrants with toy guns. Aside from the fact the vast majority of “illegal immigrants” are otherwise law abiding citizens—and in any case, certainly not terrorists— the photographs teeter back and forth between playfulness and dead seriousness.

Explorers NYT 2.jpgExplorers NYT 1.jpg

This ironic tension is a palpable reminder of the fine line between play and serious business, and how the former can seem innocent (and even endearing, as in this image that appeared here at BAGnewsNotes on Tuesday), even as it coaches more severe behaviors.

Notice how the same toy guns that seem harmless in the photo alongside the bus appear threateningly dangerous in the bottom image. Put differently, these photographs visualize the very logic that underwrites the production of a war culture: making warlike behavior seem harmless—and indeed fun—even as it gestures toward a putative, if not ominously mistaken, larger purpose. Learning for life, indeed.

(Adapted from a post at No Caption Needed)

(images: Todd Krainin for The New York Times)

  • Sion Touhig

    ‘Blut und Ehre’

  • Marc

    As long as the instruction in these scout troops is well-supervised and follows the Scout Motto, I see no problem with teaching young people to be protectors and enforcers.
    On my honor I will do my best
    To do my duty to God and my country
    and to obey the Scout Law;
    To help other people at all times;
    To keep myself physically strong,
    mentally awake, and morally straight.
    see Scout Law here:
    The opportunity for children to develop towards excessively militant ideologies certainly exists in organizations like this, but we must not presume that well-supervised training focused towards law enforcement and military service must have negative results. I would be more concerned with violent video games than training that teaches children to differentiate victims from terrorists or educates them regarding the constitutional limits of police power. While the NY Times article seemed somewhat negative about the trend, they didn’t produce any examples where the programs had negative effects or any sort of scandal had resulted.
    Children (largely boys, though I was happy to see girls included too) have always played wargames. There is nothing new here.

  • Jerry

    When I first saw these pictures I was truly stunned! Let’s leave military and police training to those organizations! And let’s leave being a Boy Scout to being a boy growing up in a society that isn’t lead by terror but by being “morally straight”.

  • Lucaites

    Marc: I don’t take this critique of Explorers (or Boy Scouts) lightly. I agree that the organization has positive value (though the “morally straight” clause in the law and the way in which it is interpreted is always a problem for me). And I agree that kids have always played war games (I know I did) …but maybe that’s part of the problem. And when the state gets involved in organizing it (and the Times was quite clear that the FBI, Border Patrol, and Homeland Secuirty … as well as local law enforcement agencies) had a hand in this … well, that’s something else altogether … don’t you think?
    As to harms, this quote from the Times article was a bit troubling:
    “Cathy Noriega, also 16, said she was attracted by the guns. The group uses compressed-air guns — known as airsoft guns, which fire tiny plastic pellets — in the training exercises, and sometimes they shoot real guns on a closed range.
    “I like shooting them,” Cathy said. “I like the sound they make. It gets me excited.””

  • David H Brooks

    This is a really interesting posting. It feels good to see that the boy scouts are trained so wonderfully.

  • jtffomBC

    Insidious, is how I would describe this program.

  • Ruben

    Technically these kids are Explorers, not Boy Scouts. Explorers has been replaced by the Venturing program, and now Explorers are under the Exploring for Life program, which is affiliated with the BSA. Think of them now as “cousins” instead of brothers to the Boy Scouts.
    This is not the only kind of Exploring post. As career prep groups, they are hosted by various agencies. For example, one Exporer post will be hosted by a police dept, another a hospital, another a fire dept, etc. Would anybody gripe that these kids learn the ends and outs of being a fireman? Or EMT work? Why is it that they are looked upon suspiciously for learing about police work? Only a fraction of explorer posts are connected with police depts anyway. Labeling these kids as a SWAT team is hardly accurate.
    The author shows his true colors when he says, “In short, it is something of a paramilitary version of Jr. ROTC which populates many high schools and reduces citizenship and patriotism to the model of military life.” No, military life is not for everybody, but me thinks that these kids have probably learned more about citizenship & patriotism in their short lives than, well, there’s no need to start throwing insults. SOunds like this author finds serving our country to be somehow less patriotic than writing papers.

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