The term “Scout” or “Boy Scout” will bring many immediate associations to our minds. This is true for the rest of society as well.
I believe what people think of when they think of the term “Scout” is very different from what it was upon Scouting’s genesis. Rediscovering how the founders originally envisaged the term is key to understanding how we can build a modern vision of real Scouting – one with much greater value and excitement than what exists predominately today.
This article starts off with some history, background, and builds up to the main point. If you think this article is worth reading, please take some time to read it all the way through and leave a comment below about what you think!
A Hero Sees a Problem
Nothing captures the public imagination like a desperate siege. Whether it’s a hostage situation, someone trapped by a cave-in, or any group of people stuck in a perilous situation, the public hangs on every word of the news media’s blow-by-blow report. This was just as true 100 years ago as it is today.
Back in 1899, a body of British soldiers were trapped in the little South African town of Mafeking. It was surrounded by a force of local Dutch soldiers nearly five times its size! Telegraph wires sped regular news of the siege back to England where it filled the newspapers and the minds of the British citizens. The whole country cheered on its sons and the young Colonel who led them: Baden-Powell.
When relief finally came, everyone went crazy! Everyone was talking about Baden-Powell and his ingenious stratagems and defenses during the siege. When he eventually got back to England, he found that his popularity had grown rather than diminished. Boys, girls, and teachers had rediscovered his early work on military scouting (“Aids to Scouting”) and were putting some of the exercises into practice.
To understand this popularity, it is helpful to realize that in those days, the culture was still echoing with British colonialism and American expansion. They had a strong effect upon the imagination of youth. Boys loved hearing about the valiant deeds of sea captains, the harrowing encounters of soldiers in the field, and the feats of exploration achieved by pioneers and scouts. Baden-Powell became one of the real-life embodiments of that.
Unfortunately, it seemed boys often only longed to do great things, experience adventure, serve others, and improve themselves. These lofty ideals mostly just stayed in the realm of imagination and aspiration for the nation’s youth. When Baden-Powell toured the country on his return to England, he became painfully aware of how many boys were stuck in the mud where their culture left them. In his blunt way of speaking, here is the way he described what he saw across England:
“thousands of boys and young men, pale, narrow-chested, hunched-up, miserable specimens, smoking endless cigarettes, numbers of them betting.”
What could Baden-Powell do, even with his ‘hero’ status, to change this depressing state of things? He could give pep-talks and inspiring speeches, but he knew the effect of stuff like that only goes so far. What boys needed, Baden-Powell believed, was something that would allow them to be the heroes they looked up to. They needed to be scouts.
Boy Scouts Would Be Real Scouts
Why a ‘scout’ in particular? Because it was perfect! Baden-Powell knew from his own experience that this was the best and most adventurous training in character. But even more important to the movement’s success: it was literally the coolest job imaginable! It’d be hard to find a boy who wouldn’t give almost anything to do the kind of things Baden-Powell had done as a Scout for the British army.
But Baden-Powell wasn’t going to be training a bunch of young army scouts. No, that would really limit Scouting in scope and wasn’t even desirable. He saw that the country needed young men who possessed character and the particular skills of a scout in every field – science, education, engineering, etc.. Then he came up with an idea that looks so simple in hindsight but was really quite revolutionary: Baden-Powell took the glamorous concept of a ‘scout’ and enlarged that concept into something much bigger and more profound.
His Scouts would be real, bona fide scouts – he called them “peace scouts”. Then he would spell out his enlarged concept of a ‘scout’. In most ways, their training would be identical to the young men he trained for war, but the purpose behind the training was bigger. Instead of defending the country against enemies abroad, they would defend the country against enemies within – even more sinister enemies like cowardice, apathy, strife-stirring, selfishness, and etc. Instead of ‘articles of war’, they had a code of honor. Instead of using their highly developed powers of observation to mark a target, Scouts would see accidents before they happened and be the first to come to the rescue if they did.
Scouts would be to their country what army scouts were to their military. They would scope out the bigger picture; be the first to blaze new ground and encourage others to follow; hold a higher standard of character; and be the eyes and ears of an introverted society.
“What is a Boy Scout?” They would ask him. “What does a Boy Scout do?” He would not answer with vague promises of adventure. When he would sell boys on the idea of Scouting, they would be expecting the real deal – and that’s exactly what Baden-Powell intended to provide with his program. After all, no one knew about scouting and what scouts do as much as Baden-Powell. He lived that life; he wrote the book!
The Image of Scouting
So why is all of this history so important? Because it is vital to understand what mental image came to the minds of boys and men when they first were told about Scouting. Take a minute or two and contrast that image with contemporary culture’s collective mental image of Scouting. How far is it removed from the raw heroism of early Scouting? In my experience, there is a huge difference. And if you think about things in that light, it explains a lot.
To start with, it’s not a secret that fewer and fewer boys are becoming interested in Scouting. Many blame this on “not keeping up with the times” or our modern culture making the Scouting method irrelevant. This is way off base. The real reason is that the kind of impression that modern Scouting gives is much strayed from the kind of impression it gave when it was new.
Have Boys Changed?
Maybe it’s because boys have changed? Ridiculous! Fundamentally, boys of 2014 are the same as boys of 1914. We are attracted by the same stuff and seek the same adventure. Take a look at this graphic I made comparing the covers of three of the top new video games on the market with the covers of three typical Boys’ Life magazine covers from around 1920:
Tell me I’m not the only one that thinks this is pretty cool! Boys were attracted to Scouting back in the day for the some of the same reasons that boys are so attracted to the video games of today! It’s a chance to really be those heroes that we look up to. Scouting has the edge, though: while video games only give a limited, virtual kind of gratification, real Scouting gives a real and lasting gratification.
The Big and Defining Idea
So here’s the point: boys fundamentally haven’t changed, so if we want Scouting to be to boys tomorrow what it was to the boys of yesterday, we’ve got to recapture that original vision of what being a Scout meant.
That job starts with us. Scouting doesn’t not belong to the timid! We’re going to go out and do cool stuff. We’re knights in training; we’re soldiers on the field of civilization; we’ve got an important mission that’s literally a matter of life and death.
Herman Melville (the author of “Moby Dick”) said:
“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”
Baden-Powell knew this when he penned “Scouting for Boys”. This mighty book is woven throughout with the themes of adventure, bravery in the face of danger, resilience in the midst of adversity, and the big picture of the tireless mission of the peace Scout.
Do we have a mighty theme?
With this keystone idea as a foundation, let’s systematically go through each of the major principles of Scouting: The Wilderness, The Patrol System, and The Code of Honor. Each of these are directly designed as vital components in the overall vision of Scouting.
In the upcoming posts of this series, I’m going to elaborate on each of these points in a whole lot more detail and share what I’ve learned about practical application. It’s amazing to see how well this framework of Scouting was designed from the bottom up to enable boys to be real scouts: to improve ourselves and the world around us while becoming the heroes we want to emulate and having the adventure we’re born to pursue.
Ask yourself what your vision of Scouting is. Think about the way that vision affects how you apply Scouting. Do you have a mighty theme?
Thank you for reading this article! If you got something from it, please take a minute to share it with Scouts and Scouters you know. More importantly, start talking about the vision of Scouting with those Scouts and Scouters. If you want to make sure you don’t miss the next post in this series, just subscribe by putting your email in the little box in the right sidebar.
In the next post, I’ll be examining the question: “What is the principle of the wilderness in Scouting and what does it mean for my Troop?”
Until then, Scout on!