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No. 2620:
Reading Baden-Powell

Today, the invention of the Boy Scouts. The Honors College at the University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people, whose ingenuity created them. 

Like a lot of people involved in Scouting, I've been reflecting on the past 100 years. It's the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America, founded in 1910 under the influence of an Englishman, Robert Baden-Powell. I've been reading some of his first scouting books, and they present a curious assortment of boyish fun, practical advice, and rampant British imperialism.

Baden-PowellBaden-Powell was a career military officer. He'd joined the British Army in 1876, and retired at the rank of Lieutenant General in 1910. During his career, he'd honed his skills in reconnaissance work and intelligence gathering. He'd written about military scouting long before he ever thought of writing manuals for boys. In fact, he'd published nine books by 1907, on everything from cavalry instruction to pigsticking. 

His Scouting for Boys from 1908 is frankly imperialist. "You belong to the Great British Empire, one of the greatest empires that has ever existed in the world," he boldly states. Scouting is a military occupation; but, he insists, there are also peace scouts, who display the same capabilities of cleverness, pluck, self-sufficiency and courage. The History of the Empire has been made by adventurers and explorers, the scouts of the nation. He's fond of referencing Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake, Captain Cooke and David Livingstone; but he has an especial fondness for Captain John Smith. His book includes a play for Scouts about Smith and Pocahontas. It ends with the Indians swearing their loyalty to the English King and singing Rule Britannia. 

Scouting for Boys is indeed a manual covering lots of practical skills and games, but it constantly exhorts the boys to "Play up! Play up! And play the game!" of defending the Union Jack. Boys should aspire to being of service to their King and Country. They should develop the requisite toughness to serve anywhere within the vast domains of the Empire. 

Yet, the real danger that haunts Baden-Powell's writings is not native revolts or foreign enemies; it's the moral and physical failures of the English themselves. The true perils Boy Scouting combats are smoking; alcohol; ignorance of hygiene, self-defense, or emergency medicine; and blas' indifference instead of active citizenship. In sum, Scouting addresses the vices of an industrial and overspecialized society. It's not really about saving the Empire from barbarians. It's about saving boys from the ills of modern life.

Scouting for Boys

So the heroes of Baden-Powell's books are often the colonial frontiersmen and the natives themselves, whose ingenuity and physical prowess he greatly admires. Boy Scouts are taught tracking, woodcraft, Zulu songs and Ashanti proverbs, all in an effort to reinvent masculinity in the face of its industrial deformation.

And that's what keeps Scouting relevant to this day, long after the sun has set on the British Empire. It instills the thrill of physical and practical challenges; it keeps up the call of the wild in a world where experience is increasingly virtual and passive. Baden-Powell's innovation was to return us to a timeless truth: "A boy is not a sitting-down animal." 

I'm Richard Armstrong, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Scouting For Boys manuel cover

Notes and References: 

Baden-Powell, Robert. Scouting for Boys (London: Horace Cox, 1908). Republished as The Official Handbook for Boys, (BN Publishing, 2007).

The phrase 'Play up! Play up! And play the game!' is a quotation from Sir Henry Newbolt's poem Vitai Lampada, about a schoolboy cricketer who goes on to fight for the Empire in Africa. 

Richard H. Armstrong is currently Assistant Cubmaster for Cub Scout Pack 266, West University, Texas. 

The Baden-Powell photograph is from Wikipedia commons. The other images are from Scouting for Boys.