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Issue 131 – The “Scoutmaster” Fallacy

If you’re a regular reader, you already know about the tyrants and tin gods, renegades and recalcitrants, bullies and belligerents, dictators, martinets, and “world’s oldest Patrol Leaders” masquerading as Scoutmasters. Thank goodness that, for every one of them, there are a thousand or more dedicated Scouting leaders who get it right!

But how did this happen? How did we get so far away from True North? Aside from warped mentalities seeking out this position in order to foment their brand of meanness, is there some sort of cultural error or acquiescence that has abetted this? I think there may be. Read on…

A hundred years ago, while Baden-Powell was formulating how the Boy Scout movement would be structured and organized, and what nomenclature would be used, one of the decisions he needed to make was this: What designation do we use in referring to the adult volunteer who guides and mentors the boys and young men in the troop? Since he considered “Scouting for Boys” largely a system of education, it was a natural and small step for him to borrow from the educational system used in Britain at the time. This would aid in understanding the role of that (male, at the time) adult volunteer. So, to parallel the role of the male teacher, who was commonly referred to as Schoolmaster, the very natural choice was Scoutmaster. Its meaning in the time and country of origin was straightforward: “Scoutmaster” = “Teacher of Scouts.”

When the Boy Scout movement crossed the pond to America, some things remained intact; others changed, including the Scout Oath and Law. But the term, Scoutmaster, remained, even though, in America, there was no educational equivalent: Teachers in America were and still are called teachers; not schoolmasters.

The decision to use “Scoutmaster” instead of a designation appropriate to American culture proved unfortunate because “Scoutmaster” was not instantly translated into “Teacher of Scouts.” Instead, it was translated as “MASTER of Scouts,” and, to Americans, “Master” meant and still means “The One In Charge,” “The Boss,” and so on. The true meaning became lost in both translation and time.

Even Webster’s gets it not quite right: “Scoutmaster n. The adult leader in charge of a troop of Boy Scouts.”

In fact, the United States is the only English-speaking country in which the now-anachronistic “Scoutmaster” remains. The Scout Association in the United Kingdom, and Scouts Australia, both have for many years referred to the position as “Scout Leader.” In Canada, it’s “Scouter” or “Troop Scouter.”

On top of this, two movies very popular in their times reinforced the notion that the adult is “in charge” of the troop and direct leader of the boys in it (in effect, an “adult patrol leader”). The first, in 1953, was “Mister Scoutmaster,” starring Clifton Webb as a “Mr. Belvedere” fussbudget personality type. The second, produced in 1966 and currently enjoying a resurgence, at least among Scouters today, is “Follow Me, Boys!” starring Fred MacMurray, of the later “My Three Sons” TV show fame. In this latter film, somebody did pay attention to accuracy, but the non-initiated will still come away with the impression that the Scoutmaster is the day-to-day leader of a troop of Boy Scouts.

On top of these, we had the popular one-panel comic, “The Little Scouts,” by cartoonist Roland Coe, featuring a rotund (and clueless) “Scoutmaster” and his bunch of “Little Scouts.” This comic thrived in the 1930s and though most of the ‘40s, and although it did much to popularize Boy Scouting, it did little to dissuade folks from the notion that Boy Scouts are led by adults. Speaking of comics, we can’t overlook Charles M. Schulz’s Snoopy, of “Peanuts” fame, who became the “Beagle Scout” leader of Woodstock and his little friends way back in 1974! Again, a depiction of one “large” leader and a bunch of little followers.

Bottom line: Just about everything in American culture that’s referenced Scouting has done son by depicting the Scoutmaster as master of the Scouts. Is it any wonder, then, that we perpetuate this fiction in troop upon troop around the country.

So, what to do…

Let’s begin, first of all, by throwing the rascals out. That’s right: dump ‘em. Got a Scoutmaster that just doesn’t get it? Get rid of him. Oh, you’re worried about hurting his feelings? Just stop and consider how he’s hurting the lives of boys and young men—sometimes permanently. If that doesn’t tell you what needs to be done, no words of mine are likely to help you grow a spine and do what’s right. Worried about who will take his place? Maybe, by your taking action, another parent will realize somebody has a spine, and, on this basis, step up to be counted, too.

Second, let’s from now on put foremost in our minds that “Scoutmaster” doesn’t mean “master” of anything. In fact, if we substitute “servant” for “master” we’ll be a lot closer to the truth of the matter. Even better, let’s substitute “teacher” or “mentor” or “guide”—This is what Scoutmastering is all about. As B-P himself put it, “It’s being an older brother to the boy…find the best in the boy and bring it out.”

Happy Scouting!!


Have a question? Idea? Suggestion? Thought? Something that works? Just write to me at (Please include your COUNCIL or your TOWN & STATE)


(April, 2008 – Copyright © Andy McCommish 2008)


About AskAndy

Andy is a Board Member of the U.S. Scouting Service Project, Inc.

Andy has just received notification by his council Scout Executive that he is to be recognized as a National Distinguished Eagle Scout. He is currently serving as a Unit Commissioner and his council's International Representative. He has previously served in a number of other Scouting roles including Assistant Council Commissioner, Cubmaster, Scoutmaster, Den Leader, and--as a Scout--Patrol Leader, Senior Patrol Leader, and Junior Assistant Scoutmaster. His awards include: Kashafa Iraqi Scouting Service Award, Distinguished Commissioner, Doctor of Commissioner Science, International Scouter Award, District Award of Merit (2), Scoutmaster Award of Merit, Scouter's Key (3), Daniel Carter Beard Masonic Scouter Award, Cliff Dochterman Rotarian Scouter Award, James E. West Fellow (2), Wood Badge & Sea Badge, and Eagle Scout & Explorer Silver Award.

Read Andy's full biography

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