Can adult merit badges coax Americans into better behavior?

You never know when it’ll come up. But when it does, it gives you the beginnings of a migraine.

It’s one of those little moments in life when you ask yourself: “Wow – what are people thinking, if they’re thinking at all?”

Buzzfeed is a website that
aggregates viral media. If you don’t quite know what means, it doesn’t matter. Let’s just say that Buzzfeed isn’t exactly Reuters when it comes to news.

So the other day, Buzzfeed publishes an item titled “The 13 Most Important Photos Of Zac Efron At The Colts Game.”

Consider what that implies:

• that a photo of actor and singer Zac Efron at an Indianapolis Colts game is important;

• that there are so many “important” photos that they had to be ranked in order of importance.

We all have mental lists of things in our lives that we consider meaningful. Is Zac Efron on your list? Mine either.

But here’s a website – boasting more than 130 million unique visitors last month – that is grabbing you by the lapels to inform you that the kid who was in the High School Musical movies watched the Colts pound the Houston Texans. And that’s important.

And that’s the problem.

Millions of Americans can tell you who Zac Efron is. But how many can tell you the names of even two U.S. Supreme Court justices?

Is society churning out enough productive, well-adjusted citizens who are attuned to how their country works? Or is society churning out too many sluggards waiting for the next round of amusing online cat videos?

I was thinking about all that as I was standing out in the rain last weekend. While that doesn’t sound like a smart thing to do, I should tell you that it was during a Scout campout near Waynesboro. My 11-year-old son, a Cub Scout, got his first chance to camp overnight with a great troop of Boy Scouts. He’s learning things in Scouts that build knowledge and character, and he’s having a blast doing it.

When he bridges over into Boy Scouts this coming spring, he wants to start earning merit badges. Getting a merit badge represents completing a field of study in crafts, science, trades, hobbies – 133 categories in all. Each study area is a component in becoming a well-rounded person.

To get the coveted Eagle Scout rank, you have to earn 21 merit badges. It’s no coincidence that three Eagle-required merit badges have to do with cultivating superior citizenship. That’s how important it is to Scouting.

Shouldn’t it be important to all Americans?

So then I started musing over the concept of “adult merit badges” – achievements we can earn for being tuned-in, responsible citizens. And it took me about two seconds of searching on Google to realize that a few thousand people already had beaten me to that idea. But most were spoof merit badges (mixing the perfect martini) and others were confidence-boosters (one badge for optimism was decorated by an embroidered glass half-full).

Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could award meaningful merit badges to one another to encourage the kind of behavior that can improve the way we live?

• Good neighbor badge. A Pew Research Center survey found in 2010 that fewer than half of Americans know their neighbors. If you know the folks who live nearby – and, better yet, if you’re friendly with them – you deserve a badge.

• Voting badge. In a way we have a version of this, with the peach-shaped “I’m a Georgia Voter!” stickers we get at the polls. But not even 58 percent of eligible U.S. voters cast ballots in the 2012 presidential election. It should be closer to 100 percent. Having a merit badge for always voting would be fun, but having a voice in government is much more valuable.

• Hiking badge. I know – the Boy Scouts already have one. But this badge is for all of us. Get moving and keep moving. Sedentary lifestyles contribute to a lot of Americans’ health problems these days. Most of the people who live the longest stay the most physically active. You don’t have to live at the gym – just be vigorously active for a half-hour or so a day.

• Money badge. Save as much as you can. A June survey by the consumer financial services company Bankrate found that three-fourths of those polled didn’t have enough savings to pay their bills for six months. It can be awfully hard to save anything in these shaky times, but if you can, you deserve more than a badge. Maybe a gold medal – which I would encourage you to exchange for cash to add to your savings account.

• Bad habit badge. You won’t get the badge for having one – it’s for breaking one. Try trading a bad habit – smoking or biting your nails – for a good habit – say, hiking or being a good neighbor.

If you wouldn’t do any of these things for a badge, at least try to do it for yourself.

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Rick McKee Editorial Cartoon