The Boy Scouts of America: Then and Now — A Comparison of the 1911 and Modern Handbooks and Merit Badges
by Brett & Kate McKay
in A Man’s Life
“‘Scout’ used to mean the one on watch for the rest. We have widened the word a little. We have made it fit the town as well as the wilderness and suited it to peace time instead of war. We have made the scout an expert in Life-craft as well as Wood-craft, for he is trained in the things of the heart as well as head and hand. Scouting we have made to cover riding, swimming, tramping, trailing, photography, first aid, camping, handicraft, loyalty, obedience, courtesy, thrift, courage, and kindness.
Do these things appeal to you? Do you love the woods?
Do you wish to learn the trees as the forester knows them? And the stars not as an astronomer, but as a traveler?
Do you wish to have all-round, well-developed muscles, not those of a great athlete, but those of a sound body that will not fail you? Would you like to be an expert camper who can always make himself comfortable out of doors, and a swimmer that fears no waters? Do you desire the knowledge to help the wounded quickly, and to make yourself cool and self-reliant in an emergency?
Do you believe in loyalty, courage, and kindness? Would you like to form habits that will surely make your success in life?
Then, whether you be farm boy or shoe clerk, newsboy or millionaire’s son, your place is in our ranks, for these are the thoughts in scouting; it will help you to do better work with your pigs, your shoes, your papers, or your dollars; it will give you new pleasures in life; it will teach you so much of the outdoor world that you wish to know; and this Handbook, the work of many men, each a leader in his field, is their best effort to show you the way.” — Boy Scouts of America Handbook for Boys, 1911
Just a few years ago, the Boy Scouts of America celebrated their centennial anniversary. The BSA was founded in 1910 as a military-inspired organization designed to shore up the values of self-reliance, patriotism, courage, morality, outdoor ruggedness, and all-around manliness the country feared was being lost as it became increasingly urbanized. In its century-long history, the Scouts have remained true to many of their founding principles, while also changing along with American culture. Because the Scouts were designed to be a repository of traditionally manly values, tracing those changes offers an interesting prism through which to see how our views on manliness have shifted as well.
One way to illuminate these changes is by comparing the original BSA handbook, published in 1911, with the modern version – the 12th edition was introduced in 2009. In an incisive book review for the Claremont Institute, Kathleen Arnn conducts this type of side-by-side analysis. She points out that while the modern version contains many of the same skills as the original, “its discussions of these things have been pared down and lack the verve, punch, and adventurous spirit—the manliness—of the original handbook.”
What has been dropped or reduced in the modern handbook is telling. Gone is the section on chivalry, which traced the Boy Scouts’ heritage back through the pioneers and Pilgrims, and to the knights of the Middle Ages. While the 1911 handbook has a lengthy chapter on Patriotism and Citizenship (including a letter from Theodore Roosevelt on “Practical Citizenship”), which outlines the history of the United States, the meaning of the flag, and the purpose of various governmental bodies, the modern handbook has greatly shrunk the discussion of such things in both length and detail. The original is also generously peppered with references to great men in history for young boys to emulate, while the mention of such “heroes” is almost entirely absent from the one published in 2009 (being inspired by history isn’t much in fashion these days).
Perhaps most striking is the different way in which the two guides address the idea of good character. The original didn’t shy away from strong admonitions like, “It is horrible to be a coward. It is weak to yield to fear and heroic to face danger without flinching,” and “The honor of a scout will not permit of anything but the highest and the best and the manliest. The honor of a scout is a sacred thing, and cannot be lightly set aside or trampled on.”
In contrast, the modern version frames its discussion of character in terms of its inoffensive modern equivalent: leadership and personal development. Instead of being couched in the absolute language of moral virtue, doing the right thing becomes a matter or “making the most of yourself” and “getting along with others.” Arnn further articulates the shift:
“Character formation is still a top priority for the BSA, but the latest handbook has largely replaced the traditional language of virtue with the progressive language of leadership, and this is not an improvement. The chapter on Chivalry has been completely removed, and the chapter on Leadership, which is presumably meant to replace it, has little to say about moral virtue beyond the Scout Oath and Law. Instead, it presents the EDGE method of teaching (explain, demonstrate, guide, and enable), describes the difference between short term and long term goals, and lists tips for using the internet to become a leader in your community…
Boy Scouts are still taught to follow their consciences: do the right thing, even though it may be difficult, which is sensible advice as far as it goes. But it does not go far enough. The old handbook treated the subject as if the conscience needed to be formed before it could be followed. Scouts needed to be habituated to the virtues through study and practice, dutifully doing the right thing until it became second nature. This was a stern discipline. Many would not succeed at it; those who did could be proud.”
It’s notable to see what has been added to the modern handbook as well. For example, while the subject of abstaining from alcohol and tobacco is covered in just five sentences in the original, it comes in for a much fuller discussion in the modern version, with details on how to resist peer pressure. And while the 1911 handbook begins with that arresting introduction we put at the start of this piece, the new one opens to a tear-out pamphlet titled: “How to Protect Your Children from Child Abuse.” “It’s as if,” Arnn writes, “the first thought our boys should have is that they are potential victims.”
BSA Merit Badges: Now and Then
These observations are interesting food for thought, and I’m sure debate as well. But the other day, I decided to look at the evolution of the BSA from a different angle: comparing the requirements for merit badges now and then. Such a comparison is a little more fun, and a little less serious than contrasting the differences between the handbooks’ respective philosophical bents. And yet it still reveals a lot in how we’ve changed as a culture and what we expect of young men.
The most obvious change is that there are many more merit badges available to earn today than there were back in 1911: 131 versus 57. The expansion in badges to such things as Robotics, Game Design (which involves playing and describing what you like about your favorite video games), Skating, Traffic Safety, Citizenship in the World (as opposed to just the nation), and Disability Awareness reflect the changing interests of boys and sensibilities of modern society. At the same time, some of the original badges have disappeared or been incorporated into broader badges as their requisite skill set became more outdated; not too many modern boys need to know how to shoe a horse (Blacksmithing badge) or send a Semaphore code (Signaler badge).
What is most interesting to take stock of are the changes in requirements among the badge themes that have largely remained the same over a century’s time. As one might already suspect, in many cases the requirements for the original badges were more demanding than those of their modern counterparts. But even in the few cases where the present-day badges involve a more difficult requirement (for example, in 1911 Scouts had to swim 100 yards; now they must swim 150), what stands out for all the modern badges is how much longer and more involved the guidelines are today than they used to be. In the 1911 handbook, earning each badge involved the completion of a short list of one-sentence requirements. Modern badge requirements, on the other hand, run to as many as ten paragraph-long sections, the first of which is always a discussion of the need to discuss safety considerations with one’s leader. The gardening badge for example, requires the Scout to discuss with his counselor what hazards he might encounter if he happened to unfortunately plant his tomatoes near a beehive.
Modern badge requirements also diverge from the old in their more abstract, mental nature. While the 1911 badge requirements are all direct actions, often of the physical, hands-on variety, the modern badge requirements emphasize more thinking than doing. The hands-on tasks are now tucked into long lists of requirements that ask the scout to thoroughly Review/Describe/Explain/Illustrate/Demonstrate the underlying principles and context of the badge’s subject matter before trying their hand at it.
To illustrate these differences, below are some side-by-side comparisons of the old badges and their modern equivalents:
Camping is the activity for which the Boy Scouts are best known. In comparing the original camping merit badge to today’s, one can see how the hands-on requirements have been loosened; for example, Scouts formerly had to sleep out for 50 nights, know how to build a fire without matches, and construct a raft. On the flip side, the modern badge has decreased that requirement to 20 nights, and has greatly expanded the more mental requirements — making checklists, creating plans, and describing different camping guidelines and pieces of equipment.
I love the rigor here. “You can’t just invent something. It doesn’t count unless you patent it, kid!”
What’s interesting here is that, as reflected in the change in the badge’s name, the 1911 badge is geared towards preparing the Scout to actually fight the fire and rescue people (as if encouraging boys to rush into a burning building was the most natural thing in the world), while the modern badge focuses on how to prevent and escape fires. It also includes that crucial skill: how to safely light a candle!
The pioneering badge is one of the coolest in my opinion, and the past and present versions still share some similarities. However, one difference is that instead of having to build a bridge or derrick, modern Scouts are asked to build a model of one. The original Scouts were required to build a shack, too. In fairness, a modern Scout may choose to build something like this for the pioneering project he gets to choose himself; however, in practice, what you end up with are a whole lot of monkey bridges. And the requirement for felling a tree ought to be brought back!
The cooking badge is a good example of where the modern hands-on requirements surpass or at least are commensurate with those of the original, while also being greatly augmented by safety concerns and other guidelines (the camping menu, for example, must follow the guidelines of the food pyramid). As a side note, it’s interesting to see how the respective handbooks’ menus have changed; the 1911 edition offers a recipe for frog legs, the 2009 version for tofu stew.
The fishing badge might be the clearest example of the watering down (pun intended!) of requirements in the present day. While Scouts at the turn of the century had to make two different rods themselves and catch ten fish of ten different species with them, the young modern angler must only reel in…one. In fairness, the old angling badge combined rod fishing and fly fishing, while today they are separate badges. Still, to earn the fly fishing badge, you again only have to catch one fish, so that if you caught the requisite number for each badge, you’d still only have caught 1/5 the haul required of the Scouts of yore.
All organizations that have been around for decades change and evolve in order to stay relevant with the current culture. I still think the Boy Scouts are a worthwhile organization in which to enroll one’s son or take part in as a young man. And I don’t think all the changes made to the modern badge requirements are entirely a “bad” thing. Some are sadly inevitable in our highly litigious society, where the BSA is just a bee sting away from a lawsuit. And excelling in modern society does require a higher degree of “soft skills” than it used to; the ability to plan and explain things will greatly help a young man though life as our workplace has become more thought-based and less hands-on.
Yet, I have to say that the spare, stripped-down requirements of the 1911 badges greatly appeal to me. Surely all the modern, preliminary study of the underlying context for a skill is important, but sooner or later you’ve got to get down to actually doing the thing. And the sooner the better in my opinion! There’s something to be said for learning by trial and error. In a world where everything is increasingly abstract, the more the Scouts can be a refuge of hands-on activity – a place where one can actually get their hands dirty with the concrete, tangible things of nature, the better. There’s also something to be said for challenging young men more than we sometimes do. Too often they struggle under the tyranny of low expectations, but they’re eager to rise to the challenge once pushed.
What do you think of the differences between the 1911 BSA handbook and merit badges and the new ones? Do they signal improvement or decay? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!