Early this week, President Trump delivered a speech at a jamboree of thousands of Boy Scouts in which he attacked political foes, talked about a friend who got rich and bought a yacht, recalled the crowd size at in his inauguration, and spoke about other things that many think had no business in an address to Boy Scouts.
It was the first time in 80 years of American presidents speaking to the National Scout Jamboree that a president or surrogate delved into partisan politics, and there were many in the Scout community who were angry about it. On Thursday, Michael Surbaugh, chief Scout executive, publicly apologized for the speech, writing in this message posted online:
I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree. That was never our intent. The invitation for the sitting U.S. President to visit the National Jamboree is a long-standing tradition that has been extended to the leader of our nation that has had a Jamboree during his term since 1937. It is in no way an endorsement of any person, party or policies. For years, people have called upon us to take a position on political issues, and we have steadfastly remained non-partisan and refused to comment on political matters. We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.
What should the young Scouts make of the speech? Here’s an open letter to the Boy Scouts about how they can think about it from Mica Pollock, a professor of education studies at the University of California at San Diego who is the author of the new book “Schooltalk: Rethinking What We Say About — and To — Students Every Day.”
An anthropologist and design researcher, she is also director of the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence (CREATE) at UCSD. As director of the center, Pollock works with colleagues to network the university’s people, resources and opportunities to the diverse K-12 educators, students and families of the San Diego region, with the particular goal of helping low-income, underrepresented students move toward college and rewarding careers.
Here’s her open letter:
Dear Boy Scouts,
I write to you as a mom and as an educator who thinks about how we talk.
I ask a basic question about everything people say. Does this talk support each and all of us, or not?
I’ve been thinking about Donald Trump’s speech to you at your jamboree, and whether it failed that test. I am reaching out directly to you, because you are part of the future of this country and you deserve an invitation to think critically about his speech.
Inviting a presidential address was normal Boy Scout practice. But we need to think critically about what this president — or any speaker — actually says.
The 12 points of the Scout Law offer great guidance on how to act and talk: We should be “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Since Monday, a lot of people — including Boy Scouts of America leadership — have been weighing his speech against those values. You can do the same.
I think we should also ask the following questions, not only about his speech to you, but also about the kind of talk we’ve experienced for many months:
- Did his words divide? Did his speech pit you against fellow Americans? I’d say he spent much of his speech to you dividing us by political party — red vs. blue — and that he got you cheering against anyone in America who questions him. In other speeches and on Twitter, he often pits Americans against each other. Stay watchful for words that divide us by religion, race, ethnicity, national origin, gender and sexuality.
- Did his words mock and insult? Keep an eye out for how any speaker uses language that puts people down and is cruel. In his speech to you, he called the capital of our nation a “cesspool” and “sewer.” He also mocked a candidate and exposed someone’s career failure. Just this week, the president called a congressman “sleazy” on Twitter. Reference your law and keep asking: Is the language courteous and helpful? Is it actually brave?
- Did his words inflame? Sometimes, people speak to make us angry so we then say cruel things ourselves. In his speech to you, the president got you to boo a former president and instead to chant loyalty to himself. He even got you cheering against people who don’t celebrate Christmas. Keep asking: Was this Boy Scout behavior? Was it courteous or kind?
- Did his words mislead? Always fact-check. Did the speaker say things that were not true and boast about things he has done that have not happened? The President often criticizes journalists and lawyers working hard to collect the facts so we can know them. In his speech to you, he said untrue things about important matters like his role in increasing jobs. He kept saying everyone he didn’t like was “fake.” Was this trustworthy?
Keep asking these critical questions of any speaker. You, your friends and your classmates are the future of our country. How do we respond when we hear words that violate key values?
The big US — the rest of America, your big family — needs you to think critically at this moment about the words you heard at your Jamboree, and all the words you’ll hear going forward.
Be loyal to your core values of service. Insist on helping to make America what it ought to be: a place where we all take care of one another.