In the seminal scene of the classic movie, “Absence Of Malice,” the chief FBI investigator, played by Wilford Brimley, asks Paul Newman’s character (who’s just wreaked terrible retribution on his false accusers), “Are you really that smart?”
Maybe we should ask ourselves that same question… Are we really that smart? …So smart that we’ve reinvented Scouting to be even better than before?
Here are just a few of the ideas I’ve heard my fellow Scouters put forth, with the firm conviction that they’re smarter than Ol’ B-P…
“Patrol elections take too long and disappoint too many; we, in our infinite wisdom, are going to appoint all leaders from now on. Matter of fact, we’re going to appoint the Senior Patrol Leader, too.”
“Some boys are advancing too quickly; we’d better slow them down so that they can ‘appreciate’ their ranks better and be more mature before we advance them.”
“Let’s give written tests for these rank requirements—it’s more fair that way.”
“If these boys are responsible for electing their leaders, there are some that won’t get elected (never mind why), so the Troop Committee will decide who the leaders will be, so every boy gets a chance.”
“My Den’s parents aren’t working on advancements at home; I’d better start doing advancements in my Den meetings.”
“Take training? Me? I run a (company/division/factory/business), so I already know how to manage.”
“There are 24 boys in second grade, and we don’t want ‘cliques,’ so let’s keep them all together in one Den.”
“Of course it’s OK for parents to call Merit Badge Counselors to arrange a first appointment; calling a stranger is too scary for these boys.”
“Let’s have all Merit Badges earned with adults in the Troop, whom the boys already know, so that they’re not intimidated. While we’re at it, let’s have Merit Badge classes in our Troop meetings, too.”
“Patrols don’t have to be responsible for their own food, equipment or tents; the Troop’s parents will handle that. We don’t want to over-burden these boys with too many responsibilities.”
“Uniforms? Well, maybe just the shirts. We don’t want the boys to feel uncomfortable or awkward.”
“Let’s be sure every boy in the Den advances at the same time—I don’t want anyone to feel left behind.”
“Eagle at the age of (13, 14, whatever)? No way! They don’t understand the significance until they’re older!”
Whenever we get one of these bright ideas about how to “fix” Scouting to “make it better,” we’re forgetting the Baden-Powell was an educator who first tested his theories, then obtained validation of them, then had them evaluated, and then (and not until then) put them into practice. That’s right, by Golly – He didn’t just think ‘em up one day and the very next day we had Scouts!
Check it out: After about a quarter-century in the British military, in which he spent a bunch of years training his company’s scouts in the skills of the wild—map reading, orienteering, tracking and observing, living off the land, leaving no trace, and a passel of other skills—Light General Baden-Powell retired from the Army, but not for long. He soon discovered that a little book he’d written, called AIDS TO SCOUTING, had become a best-seller among British boys. They used it to learn new skills and play their youthful games within their small gangs. Intrigued, B-P set about writing another book: SCOUTING FOR BOYS. At the same time, and mostly because as a boy and young man he had, himself, been a reluctant student at best, he pondered whether there might be a better way to educate youth than in the regimented, sterile, sometimes stultifying environment of the indoor classroom, which used only the lecture method in the belief that knowledge poured in through the ears would thereupon permeate the brain of those sitting dutifully behind neat, orderly rows of desks. He began by using a skill he’d learned on the South African veld: observing. Youth, he observed, are noisy by nature, active and not passive, tactile and kinetic and not robotic or static, and they felt most comfortable in small groups or gangs of six to eight and not in classes of two dozen or more. He found this true no matter their class or caste. He also observed that youth learned more quickly and more deeply when immersed in a “problem” for which they had been given the necessary tools to solve for themselves, rather than having been “taught” the solution. He observed that youth can and want to determine their natural leaders for themselves—they need no help in this. Finally, he observed that youth will more readily respect adults who have “done it” than those who merely “talk about it”—no matter what “it” is.
Next, B-P took a hard look at the environment of youth, observing that there were many opportunities available to them, in the form of sports teams that taught teamwork (or at least following the orders of an adult coach), religious classes (the lecture format again, with written or oral tests), various quasi-military groups (once again oriented toward learning how to follow the orders of an unelected adult leader), and so on, plus “free time” for lethargy or mischief; but there was nothing that infused in youth the interest in or enthusiasm for becoming a self-sufficient, happy, contributing citizen.
From these observations, coupled with the knowledge that youth by the hundreds (soon, thousands) were ravenously reading every new installment of his SCOUTING FOR BOYS series, Baden-Powell devised an entirely new way to educate. Some of the key components of this new method were:
- Small groups of six to a maximum of eight.
- Elected youth leaders of each group.
- Learning-by-doing; more visceral than intellectual.
- Preparation for learning followed by learning situations followed by discussion and review.
- “Teaching” by story-telling; not “lesson plans.”
- Common dress creates senses of both equality and belonging.
- Adults in the background; not the foreground.
Next, B-P tried out his theories in the now-famous Brownsea Island experiment. Yes, he was on to something—that was for certain. So his very next step was to seek out the most highly regarded educators in England, to present them with what he’d learned and also his new scheme (“scheme” is the British word for plan; it has no negative connotation there, as it does in American English), for education, asking for feedback. To a man, these prominent and respected educators were astounded, and encouraging. This was, indeed, a new and powerful way to educate youth, and the essential principles you just read about a moment ago became the backbone for what was shortly to become the greatest youth-education movement the world has ever seen.
Now, nearly a hundred years later, the scheme Baden-Powell first devised continues to work. In fact, it works so well that we often take it for granted. It works so well that it’s transparent; almost invisible. It works so well we start thinking we’re just as smart as or smarter than Ol’ B-P, and so we start “fixing” stuff to “make it even better.”
Well guess what, folks – That’s not our job!
So, before we start changing things around to suit ourselves, we’d better be asking ourselves, “Have we really come up with a better way of doing things, or have we just violated or depleted something that’s fundamental to why Scouting works in the first place?”
In other words, are we really that smart, or have we merely found an easier (for us) way to do things? Are we really being sensitive to the emotional needs of youth, or are we merely being driven by some emotional need (or shortcoming) of our own? Do we really have the Chutzpah to think we can play fast and loose with a program and process that’s worked for a century, in more than a hundred countries, among tens of millions of youth?
I’m talking about the cake here; not the icing. Heck, Pinewood Derbies aren’t a B-P idea and neither are Eagle Palms. But these sorts of things aren’t what’s at stake. What’s at stake are the fundamentals, the foundation, the backbone, the essence of why Scouting works.
So I’m going to make myself a promise, and I hope you will, too. The promise I’m going to make is this: The next time I have the urge to change something about the basic way Scouting works, I’m gonna first ask myself, “Are you really that smart?”
Got a question? Send it to me at AskAndyBSA@yahoo.com – (Please include your Council name and home state)
(June 2006 — Are we really that smart? – Copyright © 2006 Andy McCommish)