‘The Boy Scout Handbook’ Is The Best Y.A. 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.
When I turned 30 and my dad turned 60, on the same day, we celebrated by meeting up in Yosemite National Park, where he had climbed Half Dome in the 1970s. The sun-faded “Climber’s Map of Yosemite Valley” that he had produced in college, as a major in geography and cartography, enjoyed pride of place in our home throughout my childhood, and I’d heard many tales of the Valley, but somehow we had never made the trip to his personal axis mundi before. I was unprepared for the grandeur of the place that John Muir called an “immense hall or temple lighted from above.” I was equally unprepared for the regret that the trip provoked.
On the way to Yosemite I’d scoured a junk shop in Eureka, California, for birthday gifts. There wasn’t much to choose from among the fire-hazard blenders and winter coats that smelled like whatever creatures had wintered in their pockets. A hunt for vintage Playboy yielded back issues of the less titillating Old Bottle Magazine. I almost gave up, but then I found the patches: pup tents and birch-bark canoes, looking-glass lakes and enchanted-looking forests, leaping deer and loping coyotes. Stitched in blazing primary colors were the words TROOP, JAMBOREE, and CAMPOREE, and, of course, that famous injunction to BE PREPARED.
My dad was an Eagle Scout in his youth, and I knew he’d like a fistful of old patches and merit badges. On the gift-giving score, I’d struck gold. But the find was also a stinging reminder that Tiger Cubs, the rung below Cub Scouts, was the first organized activity I’d ever quit. The first, but not the last. Quitting was something I took to like a moth to a Coleman lantern: swimming, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, skiing, tennis, guitar, boxing, art—you name it. You could fill a Scout sash with my demerit badges. I’d even quit climbing, after one semester of dicking around in an indoor rock gym. When my dad and I strolled through Yosemite’s legendary Camp Four, I wasn’t just ashamed to have been a quitter; I was also bummed out because scaling a sheer rock face looked so damn fun.
If the first thing you quit is the very one designed to teach self-discipline, perseverance, and what the child development types are now calling “grit,” you shouldn’t be surprised when things go downhill from there. You should, however, take time to investigate what it is you missed out on, because chances are it can still do you a power of good. It was with this hope in mind that I purchased the 12th and most recent edition of The Boy Scout Handbook (2012), determined to get, if nothing else, a sense of what I didn’t know, of just how badly prepared I’d been all these years.
In this project I had something of a guide. One of the finest and most galvanic essays I’ve ever read is the literary critic Paul Fussell’s “The Boy Scout Handbook,” which proceeds from the proposition that “[i]t’s amazing how many interesting books humanistic criticism manages not to notice. Staring fixedly at its handful of teachable masterpieces, it seems content not to recognize that a vigorous literary-moral life constantly takes place just below (sometimes above) its vision… The culture of the Boy Scouts deserves this sort of look-in, especially since the right sort of people don’t know much about it.” That was true in 1982, when Fussell published The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations. It certainly is today.
The Boy Scouts of America have been in the news lately, for two reasons. One is that the organization recently ended—owing in part to pressure from its current president, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—its ban on gay leaders. That ban had long been a major reason for our cultural elite’s animus toward Scouting, but Fussell identified several others in his essay:
[Liberal intellectuals] have often gazed uneasily at the Boy Scout movement. After all, a general, the scourge of the Boers, invented it; Kipling admired it; the Hitlerjugend (and the Soviet Pioneers) aped it. If its insistence that there is a God has not sufficed to alienate the enlightened, its khaki uniforms, lanyards, salutes, badges, and flag-worship have seemed to argue incipient militarism, if not outright fascism. Its appropriation of Norman Rockwell as its official Apelles has not endeared it to those of exquisite taste.
Anyone curious about the imperially-minded origins of Scouting is directed to Michael Rosenthal’s outstanding book The Character Factory: Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts and the Imperatives of Empire (1984). But I would like to argue, along with Fussell, that these origins are almost entirely irrelevant to today’s movement. Neither they nor the now-dead prohibition on gay leadership justify throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Scouting has too much to offer for us to fret that it is, like all human institutions, bound to be considered imperfect by those of this or that ideological bent. Which brings us to the unlikely second reason the Scouts have been subjected to scrutiny: water fights.
Believe it or not, the “militaristic” Boy Scouts have for some time had a ban on water-gun fights, and precise restrictions on the size and shape of water balloons that would make an EU agricultural inspector proud. Snopes will tell you that this claim is a mixture of true and false, as Scouts are allowed to use water guns, just not on each other. It’s unclear how such a privilege might facilitate a “fight,” but leave that aside for the moment. Conservative media, notably The Federalist website, have seized on this policy as proof that, in the words of Rich Cromwell, “the BSA is now run by a bunch of effete pantywaists.” “The Boy Scouts have banned throwing water balloons and pointing water guns at each other,” Cromwell writes. “What’s left for them to lose?”
A perusal of The Boy Scout Handbook answers that question: plenty, pal. The Boy Scouts could jettison half of what they teach young people and still, I believe, be more effectively preparing kids for contingencies—for life itself—than many other organizations do, including the public school system. I’m sympathetic to Cromwell’s attitude. I believe that the ban is a clumsy overcorrection of Scouting’s perceived militarism. A boyhood without paintball welts is an impoverished one, never mind getting wet.
That said, we’re at an impasse. Liberals find Scouting too militaristic and intolerant. Conservatives find it not militaristic and intolerant enough, at least as defined by their liberal counterparts. (A while back, Kevin Williamson of National Review assailed Robert Gates for condemning the Scouts’ anti-gay policy not on its merits but because of—to borrow a term of art from Gates’s Pentagon career—“optics.” Williamson prudently left it for his readers to decide how they felt about the merits of the policy itself.) Neither side is discernibly interested in what Scouting has taught and continues to teach children.
While the chattering classes squabble over the fine-tuning of an organization with a long and mostly venerable history, a question mark hovers over American childhood. Where are kids supposed to learn things? I don’t mean how to code or to crush the SAT or to parrot the opinions that will keep them safe in college—the things, in other words, that keep the status quo running smoothly—but how to master skills that build confidence, independence, and character? We’ve reached the point where treating others with decency is subordinated to a creepy ed-school-buzzword version of “empathy.” “A Scout Is Kind” got there before social science hucksters decided to stick their noses in things. The aforementioned “grit” may be a novel concept in educational psychology, but it’s just a repackaging or rebranding of ancient Scout virtues.
Is it possible that kids received richer and more robust training in being adults—that is, being competent, prepared, decent, and wise—from traditional sources? Just compare the contents of The Boy Scout Handbook with everything else young people are immersed in: school, pop music, social media, video games, professional athletics, pornography, helicopter parenting, curated extracurriculars, and all the other influences that you can’t criticize or scrutinize without standing accused of get-off-my-lawn-ism. I would not hesitate to say that a child with nothing but the Handbook to guide him is better off than he would be thrown upon the tender mercies of the culture at large.
I hasten to reassure the reader that I’m not a shill. Growing up, I thought Scouting was, in a word, lame. That isn’t why I quit—I don’t remember why I quit—but it is how I later justified my aversion to, say, khaki uniforms, lanyards, salutes, and badges. It reeked of safety and conformity. I preferred an anti-program of unstructured woodland mayhem, involving light pyromania, unsafe pocket-knife use, and occasional trespassing (“the Hut,” “missions,” and “the Big U” will mean something to everybody I grew up with). “As a kid, I’d do stuff like this all the time,” wrote David Curcurito in a recent Esquire article, entitled “How to Have Fun,” “sneak onto construction sites and steal lumber with the neighborhood kids to build our makeshift forts.” Here’s a fitness tip Michelle Obama won’t give you, kids: Nothing gets your ass moving like being chased by large men in a pickup truck.
Yet, though I had fun, my education was haphazard and incomplete. The Boy Scout Handbook does contain much that is uncool, but it also organizes a body of knowledge and wisdom that, if you take the time to master it, will not only ready you for a lifetime of adventure but also make you that more modest kind of hero, a good person. As Fussell put it, the best advice is ethical: “Learn to think.” “Gather knowledge.” “Have initiative.” “Respect the rights of others.” Actually, there’s hardly a better gauge for measuring the gross official misbehavior of the ’70s than the ethics enshrined in this handbook. From its explicit ethics you can infer such propositions as “A scout does not tap his acquaintances’ telephones,” or “A scout does not bomb and invade a neutral country, and then lie about it,” or “A scout does not prosecute war unless, as the Constitution provides, it has been declared by the Congress.” Not to mention that because a scout is clean in thought, word, and deed, he does not, like Richard Nixon, designate his fellow citizens “shits” and then both record his filth and lie about the recordings (“A scout tells the truth”).
The moral and ethical content of The Boy Scout Handbook, both the editions that Fussell examined and the current one, is excellent because it is a framework and not a catalogue of specific proscriptions. It is not, as today’s “empathy” training and YA curricula seem to be, concerned with conditioning children to have particular views about particular social issues—broken homes, the physically or mentally handicapped, transgender rights—but rather with developing a set of values, like friendliness, courtesy, and kindness, that can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to any situation.
The education establishment’s preoccupation with adversity—for which “diversity” often serves as a careless synonym—is elegantly treated in about two pages, “Getting to Know Your Neighbors.” Your neighbors include senior citizens (“who can,” by the way, “draw on decades of experience to help solve community problems”); people with “special challenges”; and people from different cultural backgrounds. “By accepting the differences among us,” the Handbook says, “we can experience the variety and strength that all people can bring to a community.” This perfunctory and platitudinous treatment serves to emphasize that only an asshole would need or want to be told any of it twice.
By that token, a Scout doesn’t need to be “taught not to rape,” because he is taught—in terms that regard him as a man-in-training and not as an incipient monster—that a Scout Is Chivalrous. “Your responsibility to women,” says the current Boy Scout Handbook, is as follows: “Whenever you like to be with someone, you want the best for that person. A healthy relationship is supportive and equal… Don’t burden someone you care for with a child neither of you is ready to raise.” This plea for respect and responsibility would benefit a lot of grown men. It is bracing and funny to find it in a text aimed at boys who are too awkward, pizza-faced, and khaki-clad to be in any danger of needing to hear it.
The Handbook may bear, as in Fussell’s day, “the marks of composition by committee,” but the result is characterized by brash confidence. Advice is given, take it or leave it, without appeals to outside authority. The expertise belongs to the guild, to the generations of Scouts that have gone before. From the sense that you are receiving valuable wisdom from your elders there follows a desire not to disappoint them—to learn this stuff not because your teachers or the economy want you to but because it is a pathway to membership in a group of competent and self-reliant individuals. But exactly what sort of “this stuff” are we talking about here?
If the Scouts’ approach to being prepared may be summed up as mens sana in corpore sano, the “sound body” is at least as important as the rigorous, curious, and ethically engaged mind. When the state promotes health and fitness, we know it is for an unromantic purpose: to drive down health care costs, or to increase the pool of those eligible for military service. When the Scouts promote it, as the Scouts have always done, it is because it is easier to have a sound mind in a sound body—and hard to have an adventure worth the name without both. The Handbook has enough information about physical fitness and nutrition to render any state-sponsored initiative on that score redundant.
Of course, the Handbook does not stop at “good enough.” Its sections on First Aid and Aquatics demonstrate in a pretty dramatic fashion that the physical world is dangerous but rewarding to those who are willing to be ready for it. Illustrations of poisonous spiders and snakes, as well as gruesome injuries like compound fractures, memorably convey this message. And it is something to be told as a young person that when things go wrong, there is more you can do than helplessly key 911 into an iPhone with NO SERVICE. Not long ago a man humiliated himself by calling 911 on an aggressive cat; a Scout has at least a basic sense of how to deal with bears.
But for a Scout, knowing how to negotiate the natural world is about more than avoiding danger; it is above all about enjoying the natural world. Scoutcraft includes knowing how to swim as well as pursuing merit badges in “Canoeing, Rowing, Motorboating, Whitewater, and Small-Boat Sailing.” Woodcraft—“outdoor life in its broadest sense,” according to Ernest Thompson Seton—is a set of skills that runs from identifying plants to reading scat and tracks to interpreting weather patterns and constellations; to all this the modern Handbook adds instruction in Leave No Trace principles. Campcraft, the good stuff, is hiking; camping; cooking; navigating with compass, map, GPS, or the heavenly bodies; and using tools, knots, and fire.
Since moving to the Hudson Valley two years ago, I’ve had innumerable opportunities to kick myself for not knowing this stuff. When I go out in a kayak, it is someone else who points out the redwing blackbirds or identifies the cottonwood fluff falling on the water like snowflakes. When I hike, someone else reads the map, though not always with a high level of accuracy. At the Gunks, I don’t climb, because I don’t know any knots. (I do, however, know the Narceus americanus millipede when I see him.) I don’t know many constellations. I can pitch a tent, purify water, and bake a potato à la hobo, but that’s about it. I’m pretty sure, at least, that it isn’t too late for me to learn more.
The applications of Scout wisdom extend far beyond having fun in the woods, though. Scouting promotes reading and writing as a pathway to understanding the world and oneself. The organization fosters a sense of belonging to your community and world, not least by reveling in its own connection to the past. The Handbook is replete with illustrations and quotations from past editions and from United States history. (Daniel Boone, asked if he was ever lost, replied: “No, but once I was confused for about five days over where I was.” Some of us have spent half our lives that way.) It promotes a soft patriotism, which isn’t about slavish flag-worship so much as the understanding that you shouldn’t endeavor to criticize your country without first having a grasp of the good in it.
This is a good approach to life as well. Fussell remarks in his essay how “the boys’ author Frank Richards, stigmatized by Orwell as a manufacturer of excessively optimistic and falsely wholesome stories,” bit back: “Let youth be happy, or as happy as possible. Happiness is the best preparation for misery, if misery must come. At least the poor kid will have had something.” What sort of something is hinted at in another quotation from the Handbook. Stuart P. Walsh wrote in 1923, in Thirteen Years of Scout Adventure: “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.” If you can learn how to do that from a mere book, it must be a damned remarkable book. Better get your copy today.