Recently I came across a quote that caught my imagination. It was from Scouting for Boys by Robert Baden-Powell, the British General who founded the scouting movement back in the early 1900's. The quote went something like this: "When a knight comes across a difficult situation like being confronted by a dragon, the knight does not hesitate but charges right in, armed only with his lance. Even though hopelessly overmatched, the Knight invariably triumphs. This is just what a scout should do when confronted with a dangerous situation."
A rather extraordinary approach, I thought, immediately wondering if the three young Americans who confronted a heavily armed terrorist on a French train last month were Boy Scouts. I shouldn't be surprised.
I went to Amazon to see if I could get the book that contained such heroic admonitions. Indeed Scouting For Boys, first published in 1908, is still in print and, I was informed, has sold more than any book other than The Bible. I promptly ordered a copy.
Scouting for Boys contains lots of practical advice about how to form a troop and how to schedule scouting activities like hikes, camp-outs, and such. But it is also, as my previous quote would suggest, a guide to "chivalrous" and loyal conduct.
It almost seems that Baden-Powell might have anticipated that storm clouds were brewing in Europe and realized that England would need resourceful, well-prepared youth. As an example, the book has a section on being observant and Baden-Powell suggests that a scout riding on a train should, by the end of the journey, be able to describe all of the people in the compartment, noting their physical characteristics and mannerisms. I do not believe there was a merit badge for this activity.
Just this week, coincidentally, I came across an article from Stefan Beck entitled 'The Boy Scouts Handbook is the Best YA Book Ever'. "It teaches adventure, independence, and how to navigate by the stars - and, along the way, helps kids become the adults we all wish we could be." The Boy Scout Handbook is, of course, the American version of Scouting for Boys. Beck had gotten a copy of the latest (12th) edition. Like me he had not stuck with scouting when he was a kid, but as an adult his interest was renewed by his father, who had been an Eagle Scout. Eagle Scout is the highest honor in scouting and is one of the few honors on a resume almost as prized as a degree from the Ivy League.
Beck acknowledges that, while the Handbook contains much that is "uncool", it also has much good advice: "Learn to think." "Gather knowledge." "Have initiative." "Respect the rights of others." Clearly many of the ethical aspects of the Baden-Powell book have found a modern translation in the American version.
Scouting in this country has been under something of a cloud in recent years because of its ban on homosexual scout leaders. Just this year Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defense, and now head of the Boy Scouts, set aside this ban. This may open the door for a revival of U.S. scouting.
It certainly seems there is much wisdom in The Boy Scout Handbook that is helpful in a modern age when merit badges and camp-outs seem low on the "cool quotient".
What is the legacy of scouting? Part of it seems to be a good framework for the kind of behavior that we can all applaud. But there is more to it than that. Another quotation from the Handbook is from Stuart P. Walsh, writing of his scouting adventures back in 1923: "We felt that we had been somewhere! We had traveled through forests where no trail existed, we had traversed a great deal of nearly perpendicular scenery, we had seen wonderful sights, and we had come back safe and well."
There may still be some magic in these two books, Scouting for Boys and The Boy Scout Handbook, that I never expected to make my summer reading list.