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 Essence of scouting


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by John Kennaugh

Mr Twine says. "There also seems to be a greater desire among the Scouts themselves to get on with activities, rather than spending time collecting wood, building up and starting a fire, when they could just turn a tap on a propane cylinder." The Scout Association has moved away from BP's legacy for what it believes are good reasons however I would like to look at what BP's version of Scouting was and why it worked.

As a species we evolved and for most of history lived in small groups. There was no social gulf between adults and children as there is today. No separate culture. Children helped out as soon as they were able. They were included in adult social gatherings. They learned the skills of the tribe and gained status and respect as useful members of the tribe as they honed their skills. Scouting is based on that same model of a community and at its best adults and children play the game of Scouting together based on mutual respect.

The skills BP instinctively identified as Scouting skills were based on the skills of our ancestors, making camp, putting up a shelter, cooking over a fire, exploring our surroundings without getting lost, learning about the natural world and how to use what it provides, constructing things with pieces of tree and rope, tracking, and finally gathering socially around a fire. Things which are part of our natural heritage which our brief period being 'civilised' has not had time to erase and which, without our knowing it we miss. Old fashioned pursuits? Yes about 4 million years 'old fashioned'. Touching the spirits of our ancestors perhaps. Being part of a more natural social group than our modern complex society. Indulging in the natural play patterns of the man cub.

Rubbish you might say. I don't think so. Why do perfectly sane people abandon a modern fully equipped kitchen and light a BBQ at the bottom of their gardens? It is not a logical thing to do but it is a natural thing to do.

Scouting skills represented a different and separate set of skills/values to those of everyday life. When I was at school my playground status was rock bottom. The pecking order in the playground depended on how good you were at football (among other things some less savoury). Scouting had an entirely different set of values. The skills required to be a good Scout required practice and dedication rather than natural aptitude. In the BP scheme a 'Scouting skill' was a special skill you needed, and frequently used, when Scouting, when doing Scouting activities. You took pride in that skill, you tried to hone that skill and your status as a Scout depended on it. A badge showed what skills you had mastered and could, when asked, reproduce, and teach others.

As far as I am concerned the traditional Scouting skills are underrated and devalued by those who never mastered them and can't be bothered to try. I personally have always found them exceedingly useful. We have had a bumper crop of beans this year and my square lashings are holding up very well although at one point the whole thing was getting top heavy due to a bumper crop so despite the cross bracing I had to add some guy lines. I had to fetch a motorbike from Bodmin on a trailer and there was nothing but my roping skills between me an a very expensive disaster. I had a pleasant week camping in a wood. I could get a kettle of water boiling quicker starting from scratch and lighting a fire than using the gas cooker I took. If I only wanted enough water for one cup of coffee the cooker won but then there was no fire to sit by while I drank it. By importing into Scouting every aspect of modern life, the values inside Scouting become identical to those outside of Scouting. It ceases therefore to be a natural alternative to the artificiality of everyday life and it ceases to be somewhere young people who don't fit in can take refuge and be equal to the rest. Some of the best Scouts I have known have, in one sense or another, been misfits outside of Scouting. It was Scouting which gave them self respect. Now there is very little which can be identified as a 'Scouting skill' and those few which remain are being sidelined. If fires are out there is no point in using axes and saws. Scouting is 'keeping up with the times'.

Why cook on a fire when all you need is to turn a tap on a propane cylinder? Why stop at fires? Why use tents? If camp sites had decently equipped chalets or bunk houses your Scout troop wouldn't need to cart its own equipment around the countryside. It wouldn't actually need it in the first place, think of the time that would save. Arrive, dump your personal kit in the bunk house and you are instantly ready for the first activity of the day. What shall we say - building a raft perhaps - maybe not that requires skill and effort. Modern young people need something more instant than that besides there are grants available if you take the trouble to apply for them. Who wants to muck about with rafts? Why not get some decent modern canoes for example. If we are going to keep young people interested we need to be as well equipped and meet the same standards as professional activity providers don't we? On the other hand why bother. Why not leave it to the professional activity providers, they get paid for it? Why should we do it for nothing there seems to be plenty of money about and grants for those who can't afford it?

I though the reason we do it for nothing is because we are not simply unpaid activity providers, we are something different - Scouts.

  • Scouting is belonging, it is a community where young and old share a common purpose.
  • Scouting is a code of honour.
  • Scouting is about self reliance and helping others.
  • Scouting is about learning to think ahead and work as a team.
  • Scouting is about being trusted to act responsibly and to take responsibility for oneself and others.
  • Scouting is about learning skills which help you play the game of Scouting, and earn you the respect of other Scouts.
  • Scouting is about passing your skills on to the next generation and taking a pride in using them well and reaching the highest standard you can.

Scout activities are different to those activity providers provide in that they are, or should be, aimed at building up and encouraging the above. Building a raft scores highly. It involves team work and planning. It requires skill and leadership. It allows older Scouts to demonstrate their skills and help the younger ones who are not as good. Cooking on a fire scores quite highly. There is a lot of skill involved and teamwork. It can result in considerable pride and satisfaction when done right. Abseiling scores zero but I wouldn't mind betting that it is one of the 'activities' Derek Twine has in mind that Scouts these days 'want to get on with'. The adventure in Scouting is not in being dangled from a rope over a cliff nor being taken to some spectacular mountain top with expert guides. The true adventure is finding oneself in the middle of open moorland with no adult to help and having to rely on ones own skills. Being trusted to take responsibility. Unfortunately the population as a whole, and a lot of adults in Scouting believe that trusting young people is being irresponsible. I agree with the District Commissioner who says "Train them! Trust them ...and keep taking the pills". Trusting young people is scary but it is (or was) what we do in Scouting.

You sit around your damn computers if you like. I prefer sitting on a log, in a wood, by a fire, watching the sun go down and trying to tune in to what nature is up to around me. I have spent too much of my life sitting in front of a computer already and young people are condemned to spend much more of their lives so doing than I have. As for the idea of a computer base at camp :o( Me? I have never even liked taking tables and chairs. Scouting is going the way it is going. I wish it success but it is not my type of Scouting any more. I suspect that in 20 years time some bright spark will come up with this terrific new idea. "Let's junk all this high tech stuff, build a shelter in the woods and cook on a real fire".

For the record a wood fire is more environmentally friendly that a propane cooker.

(Editor's note: Derek Twine is the Chief Executive of the Scout Association in the UK, Mr. John Kennaugh is a former long time Scouter in the United Kingdom. BP refers to Sir Robert Baden-Powell, later Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell)

© 2003 John Kennaugh. Used with permission.

Be Prepared !


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