During the first three decades of the twentieth century, reformers, armed with the latest theories from professional sociologists and social workers, strove to improve the lives and living conditions of Americans. Some of their efforts, such as Prohibiton, failed miserably, and indeed created more problems, such as crime, than the reform efforts solved.
Other efforts, such as teaching English language classes for adult immigrants or providing health and nutrition information to mothers, were successful. The campaigns to clean up the cities, to improve the water supply, and to encourage better medical and dental care made life better for everyone.
One of the problems the reformers attacked was the “boy problem.” This situation could be defined in many ways and each required a different solution. In some instances, the solutions created further problems.
Educators were upset that boys often dropped out of school. In Missouri, mandatory attendance laws were laxly enforced. The laws even allowed teenagers to be out of school if they could demonstrate that they were gainfully employed. Many teens, especially boys, left school as soon as they legally could.
The schools unwittingly contributed to the problem. Most teachers were unmarried women who preferred quiet, docile students and favored female students. Many teen boys felt their personalities and abilities were not appreciated, and responded by shunning school.
In addition, the lack of male teachers left many boys without positive male role models or men who could provide guidance.
Reformers feared that the out of school teens would associate with others who had dropped out of school, linger in pool halls and other unsavory places, and drift into crime. Elements of classism and racism factor into the situation, for the mostly middle class white reformers were particularly fearful of the poor or immigrant or ethnic minority youth.
The question of how to solve the “boy problem” took several forms. Schools tried to keep teen boys in school by establishing sports programs. They expanded vocational education programs so the boys “could learn a trade” and be better employed when they finished school. Both these programs helped keep teen boys in school, but they were not enough.
The typical school day was between six and seven hours. While some teens had after school jobs or responsibilities at home, others did not. The unoccupied young men became the focus of the reformers zeal. The reformers realized that in many communities, few opportunities or places for wholesome recreation existed.
One of the solutions was to create recreation and sports programs for teens. The Y.M.C.A., originally formed with the idea of providing a safe wholesome place for young working men, began to expand its programs to teenagers. In addition to having a gym, the Sedalia Y.M.C.A. had a library and reading room, offered group singing programs that were believed to improve both morale and morals, and held Bible studies for the teens.
Another organization, the Boy Scouts, expanded its work. During the first months of 1928, the Scouts printed a number of columns in the Sedalia Capital. In addition to the regular “Scouting News” column that reported on area Scouts’ activities, these additional columns encouraged Scouting by pointing out how it could solve the “boy problem.”
Next week’s column discusses the Scout’s effort to encourage young men and their parents to become involved in Scouting.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.