Rediscovering the Merit Badge

What were Merit Badges like in 1913?

Today I’d like to present to you a great article I discovered from an 1913 edition of Boys’ Life Magazine. The topic is on Merit Badges, specifically, an introduction to what Merit Badges are all about. What makes this article so valuable is that it gives us an insight as to how Merit Badges were looked upon back at the very beginning of Scouting. It became clear to me upon reading this article that the general attitude with which Merit Badges were approached was much different in 1913 then what I have seen contemporarily. Don’t take my word for it, though! Read the following article and see for yourself:

Boy Scout Merit Badge Tests and How to Pass Them
Screenshot from 2013-03-10 01:09:30by Samuel A. Moffat
Boys’ Life Magazine, January 1913 edition, pg. 16

“The slogan of the Boy Scout is “Be Prepared.” It means that he is ready for service when opportunity comes. Because of the special training and information which a Boy Scout has, everybody expects more of him than of an ordinary boy. This motto is proving an incentive to thousands of First Class scouts to prepare themselves in special scouting activities. Already hundreds of scouts are wearing the merit badges. These are the real scouts who know how to do things. They can be depended upon as the minute men for community service.

To secure a merit badge a scout must pass the examination in the subject before a committee of men appointed by the Local Council, known as the Court of Honor. The members of this committee are selected because of their knowledge of the various Scoutcraft activities. It sometimes occurs, however, that a scout makes an application for an examination in a subject with which the members of this committee are not familiar. When this happens the Court of Honor usually finds some man in the community who is an expert in this subject and invites him to help them in giving the examination.

In most cases, the examination for a merit badge may be made up of a written test and a practical demonstration. The latter part of the examination is by all means the more important, and should be conducted in such a way as to give the committee an opportunity to see that the Scout can actually do these things.

When the Court of Honor is satisfied that the Scout can actually pass the requirements, a report is made out stating that he has successfully met the requirements as set forth in the Official Handbook, and requesting that a merit badge be awarded him. This is forwarded to National Headquarters. Upon its receipt the Court of Honor of the National Council at its first regular monthly meeting, review the report, and if satisfied that the conditions for the award of this badge have been satisfactorily complied with, the application is approved and the badge is forwarded to the Scout Commissioner for presentation.

In towns of villages where a Local Council has not been organized the Scoutmaster of a troop is required to organize a committee similar to the Court of Honor for the purpose of giving these examinations.

A boy who wears a Merit Badge should be able to do the thing the badge stands for. This will enable him to be of real service whenever the opportunity comes. Of course almost any boy can commit to memory in a very short time a lot of facts regarding a given subject so as to be able to repeat these answers in “parrot-like” fashion to the satisfaction of an examining committee, but such a boy would only be a sham Scout – an imitation of the real Scout who can show others the way to do things.

Scouts are boys of actions. The only knowledge they seek is that knowledge of a subject which will make them “doers.” In the interpretation, therefore, of any of the requirements it should be constantly borne in mind that this is the stand of requirements.”

A Merit Badge Should be a Respected symbol!

Scout History62

A couple of things really stood out to me when I read this. First, there was the way the author held in respect the recipient of the Merit Badge. He says of them: “They can be depended upon as the minute men for community service.” This line brings to my mind the image of many inconspicuous guardians mixing with the community, ready to spring to action and perform some valuable service the moment it is needed. I wish I had this same image when thinking of the many Scouts I’ve mixed with in Summer Camps and other events.

The brutally honest fact is that I don’t place too much faith in the skills of most Scouts who wear Merit Badges. It pains me to say it, but it must be said. Why is this? It is because I have seen  for myself many fellow Scouts earn Merit Badges by simply sitting through a few lectures. Many of their skills are not tested; many of their answers are copied verbatim from memory or from an open book. I have done this myself many times in my journey to Eagle.

Putting the ‘Merit’ back into ‘Merit Badge’

Screenshot from 2013-03-15 01:17:41

This calls my attention to the description this article gives of the process of being approved to wear a Merit Badge. It is quite formidable: a closed-book written test and a rigorous demonstration given before a panel of Leaders who are fluent in the topic. If anything would prove that a Scout has earned special merit in a topic, this certainly would! If a similar system were followed today, there would be far fewer merit badges earned over-all, but each would be special and significant.

Lastly, I was particularly impressed by the way the article described the importance of skills over simple knowledge. This is so often overlooked. I can know everything there is to know about music theory, but if I Pioneering Merit Badge Pamphlethave never practiced, I could never play anything beautiful on the piano. It is the same with such subjects as: First Aid, Orienteering, and etc.. It is easy to memorize the steps involved, it is an entirely different matter to have them down so well you can perform them under pressure and stress in an actual situation. Skills are really just applied knowledge, but the practice in application make all the difference in the world.

“Scouts are boys of actions. The only knowledge they seek is that knowledge of a subject which will make them ‘doers’.” That quote very eloquently captures the true Spirit of Scouting. Scouts should always, always be active: active in self-improvement, active in service, and active in adventure and discovery.

Times have changed, can we go back?

Screenshot from 2013-03-15 01:26:11

So what do you think? The system described in the article is certainly not well adapted to the current structure of the BSA. How could some of this value be rediscovered in the Merit Badges of today? Does the Merit Badge system need to be rethought with quality over quantity in mind? Or is the best approach what is currently being followed? I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Please contribute to the conversation and leave a comment in the box below!

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8 Comments on "Rediscovering the Merit Badge"

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2 years 7 months ago

As someone who achieved Eagle in a troop that felt scouts should have a high level of mastery of each requirement for each badge, I can tell you I earned 21 merit badges and not one more despite getting Eagle at 16. I don’t remember enjoying any of them and cannot tell you one was my favorite. The process of earning each badge was so far from fun, actually painful, that I virtually laughed out loud years later when I heard a district executive tell a goup of Blue N Gold Dinner parents that most Eagle Scouts follow a career path associated with something they learned pursuing merit badges. That definitely didn’t happen for me.

30+ years later, I feel there are a couple merit badges important enough that any scout wearing them should be an expert. First Aid, Lifesaving, Camping… I would expect a scout to have a very high level of proficiency. But the majority fall into the category of an introduction to the field of study. Farm Mechanics, Aviation, Dentristy… I would not expect a scout to be a master of every aspect for those badges.

2 years 7 months ago

Thank you so much for your comment! Although I don’t know exactly what Scouting was like 30 years ago, I can definitely see what you’re saying. The experience I do have, however, is earning Merit Badges at Summer Camps in 2010/2011. I did not enjoy the experience at all. For the most part, earning a Merit Badge on a subject that fascinated me such as Astronomy or Geology turned into one of the most forgettable parts of the camp. The ‘test’ consisted of filling out a worksheet with answers that I got verbatim from the consoler (who, in turn, got directly from the Merit Badge Pamphlet.)

Perhaps you misunderstand the vision that I have for merit badges. By “more challenging” or “more thorough”, I do not mean boring or not fun. As a matter of fact, if done in the right way, going deeper into the subject matter is a whole lot more fun and engaging. Above all, the learning process should be active. The Scouts should learn by doing and experiencing the Merit Badge. Learning a merit badge should encompass so much more than simply sitting for a lecture.

Of course, no one expects a Scout who earns a merit badge in a subject to be on par with one in that career field. That isn’t the scope of merit badges at all! However, they should definitely have the basic skills thoroughly down which are required by the merit badge. Otherwise, the merit badge isn’t a sign of “merit” at all.

From my experience, many Scouts today do not have any more than an extremely superficial competency with those badges that you yourself consider very important. As for the other ones, I don’t think they should encompass every aspect of the field; they should cover simply the basics. However, those basics should be learned very well, otherwise the Scout is not only cheated of a true experience in the field, but the concept of “Merit” is completely farcical.

In short, I think you have a very valid point, but in my experience, I don’t see the problem that you describe anywhere. On the other hand, I see the opposite problem: that of superficial, boring classes that dispose of both the value and fun of Merit Badges.

I want to Rediscover the Merit Badges that don’t make me feel like I’ve been cheated out of a fun and informative adventure each time I complete one; ones that combine hard work and skill with exciting and fun discoveries.

Glen Hoshizaki
2 years 7 months ago

Yes, I would like a merit badge to denote current competence. However, that’s a tall order that would necessitate significant changes to the program. I doubt that 1913’s program really stood for current competence. I doubt we’re able to make such changes today.

For a merit badge to stand for current competence would require scouts to continually work on the knowledge and skills represented by the badge, long after they’ve earned the badge. It would be good for scouts to learn the lesson that it takes continual and repeated study to keep their knowledge and skills up to date; it would be good for them to learn that they should strive to improve.

2 years 7 months ago

Thank you for the comment, Glen! Comments from people like you who read and think about the posts makes it all worthwhile to me to maintain this blog.

I think it is interesting that you specifically approach the topic from the angle of retaining skills. I think this is a very important point. I look at retaining the skills of a Merit Badge in a similar way to retaining the skills of Rank Requirements.

Some might argue that the main purpose of learning the skills related to Scouting is not actually the skills themselves, but actually the character building of the individual Scout. They might conclude, therefore, that the retention of the skills themselves isn’t important.

While I agree that character building is, to a large extent, the bigger picture; there are several reasons why I disagree that skill retention isn’t important.

For one, the skills themselves have great intrinsic value. Knowing how to save a life, tie a good knot, swim, be physically fit, and etc. are very valuable things to learn. The same is true with Merit Badges to a lesser extent.

For two, I think that the process of retaining and getting better at a skill is very important in character development. I think you hinted at that in your last sentence. Merit Badges (and rank requirements, for that matter) are too much looked as a checklist: get it done, then forget. Scouts shouldn’t look at the skills they learn in such an insignificant manner. Could it be that we are cheapening the Scouts’ appreciation of the Merit Badge skills instead of increasing it?

There are many ways I think retaining Merit Badge and Rank requirements can be made fun, but I’ll hope to go deeper into that in anther post. Thanks again for your comment!

Juan José
7 months 17 days ago

Very interesting, but let’s see what BP said refered to merit badges (efficiency o proficiency badges, as are known in the UK)
The quotes are from the magazine “The Scouter” (compiled in a interesting book titled “BP’s Outlook”)

Efficiency Badges
WE have recently approved of a number of badges of efficiency, which it is hoped will serve as encouragement to Scouts to qualify themselves as useful men, whether at home or in a colony.
While these were under consideration there reached us a complaint that in certain centres the difficulty of passing the tests for any badges was becoming so great that what had been an attractive measure for the boys was now fast becoming another ” examination bugbear.”
This, I am afraid, is due to faults in the application of the idea
These badges are merely intended as an encouragement to a boy to take up a hobby or
occupation and to make some sort of progress in it: they are a sign to an outsider that he has done so; they are not intended to signify that he is a master in the craft which he is tested in.
Therefore, the examiners should not aim at too high a standard, especially in the first badge.
Some are inclined to insist that their Scouts should be first-rate before they can get a
badge. That is very right, in theory; you get a few boys pretty proficient in this way but our object is to get all the boys interested, and every boy started on one or two hobbies, so that he may eventually find that which suits him the best and which may offer him a career for life.
The Scoutmaster who uses discretion in putting his boys at an easy fence or two to begin with will find them jumping with confidence and keenness, whereas if he gives them an upstanding stone wall to begin with, it makes them shy of leaping at all.
At the same time we do not recommend the other extreme, of which there is also the
danger, namely, that of almost giving away the badges on very slight knowledge of the
subjects. It is a matter where examiners should use their sense and discretion, keeping the main aim in view.
April, 1910.

7 months 17 days ago

Thanks for the comment, José!

Some good thoughts as usual from B-P. He summed it up nicely in the last sentence: “It is a matter where examiners should use their sense and discretion, keeping the main aim in view.”

It is my experience from the Scout Troops in my area that one extreme is practiced most of the time. Namely, as BP put it: “almost giving away the badges on very slight knowledge of the subjects”.

Of course, in his day, most Scout Troops were going in the other extreme. Perhaps many still do in some places. However, I haven’t seen them.

Thank you for reading and commenting! I appreciate your thoughts.

Juan José
7 months 17 days ago

And here you have another one, some years after…

Standardisation of Badges
IN view of a very elaborate curriculum that was recently drawn up by one authority for
standardising the tests for badges, I was obliged to criticise it in this sense:
“I hope that the compilers are not losing sight of the aim and spirit of the Movement by
making it into a training school of efficiency through curricula, marks, and standards.
“Our aim is merely to help the boys, especially the least scholarly ones, to become
personally enthused in subjects that appeal to them individually, and that will be helpful to them.
“We do this through the fun and jollity of Scouting; by progressive stages they can then
be led on, naturally and unconsciously, to develop for themselves their knowledge.
“But if once we make it into a formal scheme of serious instruction for efficiency, we
miss the whole point and value of the Scout training, and we trench on the work of the
schools without the trained experts for carrying it out.
“We have to remember that the Scoutmasters are voluntary play leaders in the game of
Scouting, and not qualified school teachers, and that to give them a hard-and-fast syllabus is to check their ardour and their originality in dealing with their boys according to local conditions.
“I could quite imagine it frightening away many Scoutmasters of the right sort.
“The syllabus as suggested seems to go a good deal beyond what is prescribed as our
dose in Scouting for Boys; and if the proportions of the ingredients given in a prescription are not adhered to you cannot well blame the doctor if the medicine doesn’t work.
“Our standard for badge earning — as I have frequently said — is not the attainment of a
certain level of quality of work (as in the school), but the AMOUNT OF EFFORT
EXERCISED BY THE INDIVIDUAL CANDIDATE. This brings the most hopeless case on to a footing of equal possibility with his more brilliant or better-off brother.
“We want to get them ALL along through cheery self-development from within and not
through the imposition of formal instruction from without.”

November, 1921.