Turning Scouting Into School




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Daniel Carter Beard
Ernest T. Seton
Sir Baden-Powell
Turning Scouting Into School
Wood Badge Notebook

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By Rick Seymour

The YMCA was an early adapter of the new outdoor game for boys called "Scouting," created only 17 years after the YMCA's own invention of "basket ball."

Baden-Powell (B-P) had written Scouting for Boys as a pastime to be played by already-existing youth organizations such as the UK's YMCA and "Boys' Brigade." They could adapt the game freely as they saw fit because B-P originally intended there to be no controlling authority or "headquarters," any more than for, say,  the game of tag.

"The YMCA had been founded on June 6, 1844 in London, England, by George Williams. The original intention of the organization was to put Christian principles into practice. Young men who came to London for work were often living in squalid and unsafe conditions, and the YMCA was dedicated to replacing life on the streets with prayer and bible study. The YMCA idea, which began among evangelicals, was unusual because it crossed the rigid lines that separated all the different churches and social classes in England in those days. The YMCA used a holistic approach to individual and social development encompassing spiritual, intellectual and physical methods. This approach is symbolized by the inverse red triangle used around the world to represent the YMCA mission of building a healthy body, mind, and spirit" (wikipedia.org).

You might recognize this YMCA foundational trinity ("healthy body, healthy mind, healthy spirit") as the three points ("physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight") that the YMCA grafted onto the three points of Baden-Powell's Promise (1. Duty to God & country; 2. To help other people at all times; 3. To obey the Scout Law).

The total of six points required the BSA to condense them down to  "three points" different from Scouting in the rest of the world: 1) duty to God & Country, 2) duty to others, and 3) duty to self).

The YMCA shared with Baden-Powell both the target of meeting social need in the community ("To help other people at all times,") and the very radical (for its time) blurring of the rigid lines that separated social classes (as in B-P's original 1908 wording for the fourth Scout Law: "A Scout is a friend to all, and a brother to every other Scout, no mater to what social class the other belongs").

Where they differed was on "healthy mind" and the "Patrol System."

For Baden-Powell "healthy mind" was mental alertness, represented by the motto for his invention, the South African Constabulary: "Be Prepared."  When asked "be prepared for what?" he jokingly replied "oh, for any old thing!"  He advised that in whatever situation you find yourself, always look around and note, "What can go wrong here?".

In his military reconnaissance book, Aids to Scouting, B-P developed mental preparedness through his army training games, which were fantastically popular with boys years before he adapted a version for boys. These observation games have been eliminated from our requirements, but the BSA once included his signaling, tracking, and the one requirement that my dad remembered 75 years later "describe satisfactorily the contents of one store window out of four observed for one minute each" ("Kim's Game").

In Boy Scouting, more advanced Scoutcraft skills were introduced in "Proficiency Badges," which B-P in turn had borrowed from Ernest Seton. See:


Baden-Powell's Proficiency Badges were all a progression from the basic "hands on" outdoor skills learned in becoming a First Class Scout. They represented B-P's two spiritual approaches to Scouting: skills for Service to Others (such as first aid, etc) which he called "Practical Christianity" (the badge placement for which was on the left side of the Boy Scout uniform); and Scoutcraft skills which he called the "Religion of the Backwoods" (worn on the right side of the uniform). See:

As the name implies, a Scout could only wear the badges for which he was currently "proficient," re-certified on a regular basis by outside experts or agencies. A King's Scout was required to surrender his badge if he did not renew all of his Proficiency Badges on a regular basis (no "Once an Eagle, Always an Eagle")!

Baden-Powell made a very sharp distinction between Scouting's strictly hands-on ("boy-friendly") form of learning which he called "education," and its exact opposite (schoolwork), which he defined as "instruction."

For an example of the benefits of this Scouting "education" as opposed to church school "instruction" in the development of reverence, see:


The YMCA approach to "healthy mind," however, was educational instruction. The YMCA created many colleges and universities, but more relevant to our BSA "Merit Badges" was the YMCA's pioneering concept of night school, which provided academic self-improvement opportunities for youths with full-time employment.

Many boys involved in Scouting in 1910 had already quit school to earn a living, so perhaps B-P's Proficiency Badge system could be replaced with the YMCA's educational model. The central concept of "current Proficiency" was discarded (once you earn a badge in the BSA you are done with it), existing badges became more bookish, the "Aims" of the game were translated into school work (Citizenship Merit Badges, for instance), and a whole new class of "night school" vocational badges were introduced through which a Scout could be introduced to potential occupations.

These are the required "homework" Merit Badges that most red-blooded American Boy Scouts hate, have always hated, and will continue to hate until the end of time.

So the problem facing the YMCA in 1909 was identical to the problem facing the BSA a hundred years later! As you may have heard, the Chief Scout Executive wants to de-emphasize camping and instead extend the soccer alternative to Scoutcraft from Cub Scouts into the Boy Scout program.

But word gets around pretty quickly. Why let adults force you to do things you absolutely dread, if a free market exists that allows groups to play the game the way it is played in the rest of the world?

So how can the BSA turn soccer into school if NONE of the competing soccer associations force boys into classroom work, CEO wannabe school, and job interviews called "boards of review"?

The answer in one word: "Monopoly"!

In 1909 Scouting was very popular, just as soccer is now. Countless unaffiliated Patrols and Troops sprung up all over the United States, plus six (6) budding national Scouting associations including publisher William R. Hearst's "American Boy Scout" (later the "United States Boy Scout"); publisher William D. Boyce's "Boy Scouts of America," the National Highway Protection Association's "Boy Scouts of the United States;" "The Peace Scouts of California;" the "National Scouts of America," formed by a military school in Manlius, NY, and, of course, "The YMCA Scouts".

The YMCA Scouts were well positioned to turn Scouting into school because of their already-existing infrastructure, including "bricks and mortar" centers staffed by trained experts on adult-led "boy work."

However, the YMCA in those days was evangelical Protestant.  It excluded Jews and Catholics, and this would be problematic in establishing a national monopoly of Scouting.

According to legend, William D. Boyce had not even heard of Boy Scouting until his chance encounter with an "Unknown Scout" in the London fog. He had incorporated the Boy Scouts of America in February, 1910., but by April he had already decided it was a mistake.

So on May 3rd, 1910, Edgar M. Robinson (Senior Secretary of the YMCA's "Committee on Boys' Work"), and J. A. Van Dis (Boy's Work Secretary of the State YMCA of Michigan), approached Boyce to suggest their cooperation in building a national monopoly of Scouting in the United States:

"They explained to him the Scouting situation, as it then existed; that various groups and individuals in different parts of the country were aspiring to national leadership, and that some of these were more desirable than others (William Murray, The History of the Boy Scouts of America, BSA, New York, 1937).

"Mr. Boyce told them of the efforts he had made and the money he had spent in trying to promote the Scout Movement and that he had been bitterly disappointed in the results."

Robinson persuaded Boyce to appoint him managing director of the BSA, and the rest, as they say, is history!







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Last modified: October 15, 2016.