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:
“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!
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’
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 have 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?
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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