The Woodcraft Idea
by Ernest Thompson Seton
An eminent educator asked me not long ago to tell him, in a sentence, about the Woodcraft League. I answered:
"It is a man-making scheme with a blue sky background."
"That sounds all right," he said, "but does not explain its methods."
To which I replied: "It is something to do, something to think about, something to enjoy, something to remember, in the woods, realizing all the time that manhood, not scholarship, is the aim of all true education. It works with a continual recognition of the four ways along which one should develop--the body way, the mind way, the spirit way and the service way. It is, first, last and all the time, recreation--recreation for old and young, male and female. It stresses outdoor life, though it has an alternative program for town life and indoor times."
Since its foundation in 1902, half a dozen organizations have followed the Woodcraft, more or less imitating its activities, but wholly differing in immediate aims and results.
Thus, one or more were designed to be feeders for the army by preparing the youth for service, adding the color of adventure to reconcile the rank and file to irksome duties. Another was planned to shed a halo of romance over the ordinary home duties of a girl.
Others--most others, indeed--have encouraged the childish following of trades and professions by giving honors for these, assuming that thereby they are helping a boy to choose his life work.
To these I repeat in reply:
Woodcraft is recreation, preferably out of doors.
Unlike some other organizations, it does not deal with vocation, but with avocation. Thus, laundry work, plumbing, school teaching, banking, real estate or insurance are perfectly honorable callings, but we do not propose to give an honor to the laundress who has ironed 24 collars without singeing one, to the banker who has signed 100 successful bond issues, to the school teacher who has taught 1000 scholars, to the real estate dealer who has sold 100 lots at double profit, to the insurance agent who has taken $100,000 worth of insurance and never landed his company in a loss, or to the plumber who has set 50 toilet seats without a leak. We rather offer to the laundress, the school teacher, the banker, the real estate man, the insurance agent and the plumber, a totally different realm for their thoughts, something into which they enter as a relaxation, something that utilizes their powers of industry and handicraft, but in a wholly different world, a realm of dreams, if you like, an open space where they can forget their laundry work, their plumbing, their banking, etc., and rejoice in the things of the imagination and the beauties of nature.
Let me illustrate in the story of the London shoe clerk. For six days in the week, morning, noon and night, he was engaged in selling shoes. He had no opportunity for recreation excepting on Sundays, when he was too tired to do anything but go, in fair weather, to Battersea Park, and lie upon the grass.
One Sunday morning, a bug came out of the grass and crawled across his hand. He was surprised to see that it was quite beautiful in color--orange with black and white spots.
Next Sunday, he had a similar experience, but this bug was brilliant emerald green. He had never thought of them as beautiful objects, but this gave him the idea. He looked about for other kinds; after several Sundays, he had at least a dozen--quite different and more or less beautiful. Then he began mounting them on pins, and he looked forward joyfully to a weekly renewal of his bug hunt.
Some friend said: "Why don't you go to the library? There are books about these things which tell their names and habits." But, alas, the library was not open on Sundays.
Another friend said: "If I were you, I would go to the museum, and ask for Professor Huxley. He is quite sure to help you."
So the poor, scared little shoe clerk screwed up his courage to call on the famous scientist. Huxley was one of those great men who are always ready to help students and, for the time being, focus all thought on the matter in hand. He received the shoe clerk most kindly, sent to the library for books, helped him to name his specimens, and told him to come again whenever he needed help.
So this shoe clerk found another field, a new world into which he could enter when free from his shop duties. It infused joy into his otherwise sordid life, and he kept right on till he became the best authority on the insects of the London parks.
Huxley, addressing his class, told them of this young fellow and said: "That is what I wish every one of you to do. Follow your calling, your vocation, with all your energies in business hours, but at other times, have some avocation, something that your heart is in, a corner of the realm of the imagination, a big field or a little field, according to your gifts, but one in which you are the best authority, in which you are the king."
So the Woodcraft idea deals not with the shoe clerk in his counter-jumping hours, his vocation, but with his avocation; not with his commercial exploits, but with his Sundays, when he was King of the Bugs of Battersea Park.
The few trades or vocations that are recognized in our official Manual, are part and parcel of outdoor life and camping, or intimately associated with them.
In giving shape to the recreational activities of Woodcraft, the founder has made a lifelong study of human instincts, recognizing in these age-old, inherited habits of the race, a weapon and a force of invincible power, never forgetting that instincts may go wrong and be a menace; also that to thwart or aim at crushing an instinct is courting disaster.
For example, the instinct to play. This dominates all young animals of high type, and gives; indeed, the training they need for their life work:
Or the gang instinct, which is the real religion of all boys between 8 and 18. At that age, they care little what the teacher or the preacher thinks of them, but they do care what their gang thinks. The hardest punishment any boy can receive is expulsion from the gang. "The fellers won't let me play with them" is the cry of a broken heart. And the crime for which it usually is meted out is "peaching," that is, treachery to the gang.
Similar power and possibilities are found in the instinct of initiation, the habit of giving nicknames, the love of personal decoration, the propensity to carve one's name in public places the craze to make collections of stamps, shells, specimens, etc., the compulsion of atmosphere, the power of little ceremonies, the love of romance, the magic of the camp-fire.
All of these and many more are incorporated in our plan.
One keen observer, noting how completely we utilized the life forces, defined Woodcraft as "Lifecraft." Another, struck by its practicability everywhere, said it was "Where you are, with what you have, right now." Another said it was "fun for male and female, old and young," with these three underlying rules:
First, your fun must not be bought with money. Make your fun; Woodcraft shows you how.
Second, your fun must be enjoyed with due decorum. No one must be hurt in body, spirit or pocketbook.
Third, the best fun is that which appeals to the imagination. Physical fun has its place, but its zest is apt to pass with one's youth; joy in the realm of the imagination grows with one's years, and increases with each indulgence in it. At the end of a long life, it means more than at the beginning.
Now that I have laid such emphasis on recreation, let me justify the same by referring to some well-known facts.
According to many authorities, half our boys go wrong, make a failure of life, are more or less of a burden on society, and in a large and unnecessary proportion, become criminals. Some sociologists have put the number higher than half, some lower. But whatever it may be, there is a vast, deplorable wastage.
Why? Are 50 percent of the boys born bad? Certainly not! Modern science tells us that about one in 2,000 is born bad,--that is, a pervert, a moron, one destined to be a nuisance, a pathological case that needs hospital treatment really, not jail.
How, then, is it that we have 50 percent going bad? The answer is simple: wrong methods of upbringing, and especially, wrong methods of amusement.
In order to appreciate the importance of recreation, one must keep in mind:
First, the universality and youth-long persistency of the play instinct;
Second, its measureless potency, for it dominates the child at the formative period of body and character.
The Woodcraft way is an application of these ideas to the development of young manhood and womanhood. For, wrong play has more to do with making boys bad, than wrong preaching. The first false step is nearly always taken under the thoughtless, boisterous desire to have some fun, to blow off superfluous animal energy; and not knowing how else to do it, the boys get into mischief.
The Woodcraft way is the answer to this problem: It does not teach children to work. They learn that soon enough when the right age comes. But it does aim to give to men and women of all trades and professions and in all walks of life an avocation that is wholly apart from their vocation or profession,--something that will be a source of pleasure and recreation as long as they live.
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Last modified: October 15, 2016.