OPINION: by Damian WyldNews Weekly
Where is Baden-Powell's Scouting movement today?
, March 16, 2013
“I was a boy once.” So begins Lieutenant-General Lord Robert Baden-Powell’s introduction to Scouting For Boys (1908).
For Baden-Powell (or B-P, as he is affectionately known to Scouts past and present), the desire to assist boys to become young men was the catalyst for embarking on the great endeavour that became the “Worldwide Brotherhood of Scouts”.
The origins of Scouting are the stuff of legend and Boy’s Own stories. B-P, veteran of the Zulu Wars and hero of the Siege of Mafeking, was invited to inspect a Boys’ Brigade parade. Unimpressed by what he saw, he was challenged to do better. He did.
With its genesis in 1907, Scouting spread rapidly across the British Empire and the world. The Girl Guides followed soon after.
Indeed, Scouting had such a phenomenal growth that, when the First World War broke out, thousands of trained former Scouts enlisted.
Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, who entered Cabinet as Secretary of War, turned down B-P’s offer to return to active service, saying that “he could lay his hand on several competent divisional generals, but could find no one who could carry on the invaluable work of the Boy Scouts”.
B-P’s goal was to create an environment where boys would have the sort of rough-and-tumble fun that they needed in order to develop physically, but also learn something valuable in the process. It was an organisation deeply imbued with love of one’s own country, a sense of service and a Christian ethos.
These themes were reflected in Scouting’s uniforms, its rituals, promises and laws, and also in its general orientation. B-P consciously avoided creating something akin to military cadets on the one hand — or to a mere social or sporting club on the other.
Skilfully weaved into yarns and lessons on every topic from knot-tying to Morse code, were stories from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and tales from B-P’s own extraordinary life.
I have no doubt that much of this tradition remains within the modern Scouting movement. Indeed, for the sake of the younger generations I really hope it does. However, my own personal observations in the 1980s and ’90s have given me a more negative impression: one of a declining organisation which is but a shadow of its former glory.
In relating my personal viewpoint in this article, I must admit that, even as a Scout, I was something of an anachronism. By the time I graduated from my baggy-green Cub hat, Scouts had just ditched their 1980s-era green berets. Aside from the latter being totally unsuited to the Australian sun, they also looked ridiculous.
I was just as jilted, though, to learn that Akubras were the new standard issue. My father, on seeing my obvious disappointment, had a quick word with the lady at the Scout shop. Dusting off something she had retrieved “from out the back”, I was overjoyed to become the owner of South Australia’s last good-as-new, B-P-style “lemon-squeezer”, which I proceeded to wear with pride for the next four years.
Interestingly, while dismissed by many adults as a relic of the past, the hat actually caused a fashion trend in two successive troops of which I was a member, with many boys raiding their fathers’ and grandfathers’ wardrobes, putting paid to the myths that boys consider uniforms “uncool” and won’t join such groups.
Contrast the uniforms of yesterday with those of today. Shorts have been replaced with trousers, the old khaki shirts have given way to blue polo shirts, and hats (at least ceremonially) seem to have been thrown out altogether. Scouting contingents on occasions such as ANZAC Day look nothing short of disgraceful.
Likewise, the promises and laws have been revised and dumbed down. When I was a Scout, sending a wayward ball at the portrait of Her Majesty would see you out for the rest of the game. Today, it is entirely optional to drop the pledge to the Queen from the Scout’s promise altogether.
The Christian underpinnings of Scouting are also under attack. In the early 1990s, the promise was reworded from “do my duty to God” to “do my duty to my God” — a seemingly small change, but one with quite obvious connotations of relativism.
I don’t know whether Cub packs and Scout troops even pray anymore — there’s certainly nothing on my local state website that indicates they do. For us, the command “Hats off for prayer” punctuated the end of each evening and may have been the only religious instruction some boys ever received.
My own experience of Scouting came to a very abrupt halt in 1996. Having been through Cubs and Scouts, and having assisted as a Joey and Cub leader, I had hit compulsory Scout retirement age and was encouraged to join the Venturers. Having none at my local group, I was forwarded to a unit nearby and attending a few meetings.
Coming from evenings of outdoor activities and sports, camps, campfires and badge-earning, the Venturer unit was a terrible letdown. There were no uniforms, no parades and no peer leadership. Meetings consisted of half-hearted basketball matches and group chats about sexually-transmitted diseases.
I would have gone back to Scouts in the blink of an eye, but that not being an option I simply quit. It was a real shame, as I had set myself the goal of one day earning the prestigious Queen’s Scout award and maybe becoming a leader myself to give something back; but it was not the same movement anymore.
I’ve said nothing yet of the co-educational aspect of modern Scouting — and I suspect News Weekly readers could guess my views. Having been a member of both mixed and boys-only (by circumstance, not prescription) troops, I offer the following thoughts.
Aside from the practical considerations of mixed Scouting (e.g., having to take an extra tent, ensure the presence of a female leader, etc.), there are very good reasons to keep Scouting exclusively for boys (to paraphrase B-P’s book).
Despite what trendy sociologists tell us, gender is not a social construct. Boys have unique interests, goals and needs. B-P clearly saw this. Good role models are one such need — and I personally believe Australia’s streets would be much safer, and our unemployment rate lower, if more boys had experienced things like Scouting.
Let’s face it, boys don’t always want to play with girls either — and one wonders whether the introduction of mixed Scouting has played a role in reducing overall Scout numbers commensurate with the decline in altar boys and priestly vocations once girls appeared on the scene.
These reflections came about recently when, at my son’s third birthday party, some of the mothers present were expressing concern about finding a good outlet for their boys. I knew exactly what they meant because I share their concerns.
As if searching for a good school were not challenge enough, I’m now on the lookout for something good to steer my boys towards when they’re old enough. Cadets may be an option, although it starts at an older age, doesn’t include the Christian ethos once prevalent in Scouting, and may not be quite as much fun.
Perhaps the only alternative is to start our own groups. I do not say this to knock the no doubt well-intentioned contemporary Scout leaders; but the organisation does not appear to be what it once was, nor what I believe Australian boys so sorely need now.
And what do they ultimately need? I close with some words from B-P’s final public letter:
“… I have had a most happy life and I want each one of you to have a happy life too. I believe that God put us in this jolly world to be happy and enjoy life. Happiness does not come from being rich, nor merely being successful in your career, nor by self-indulgence. One step towards happiness is to make yourself healthy and strong while you are a boy, so that you can be useful and so you can enjoy life when you are a man.
“Nature study will show you how full of beautiful and wonderful things God has made the world for you to enjoy. Be contented with what you have got and make the best of it. Look on the bright side of things instead of the gloomy one.
“But the real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people. Try and leave this world a little better than you found it and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy in feeling that at any rate you have not wasted your time but have done your best. ‘Be Prepared’ in this way, to live happy and to die happy — stick to your Scout Promise always — even after you have ceased to be a boy — and God help you to do it.”
Amen to that.
Damian Wyld is South Australian state president of the National Civic Council.