During his lifetime Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the worldwide Scouting movement, wrote many books and articles directed to Scouters.
Each Sunday I’ll publish a selection from his writings in the hope that you’ll draw inspiration and understanding from his timeless ideas.
He may have had his faults — the Tsar; he may have been a weak man, but at any rate he was no bloody-minded tyrant. He was merely the representative of a succession of autocratic rulers of Russia.
And though democratic self-government is a consummation devoutly to be wished for as a rule, who can say, in the light of recent history, that all Russia was yet ripe for it?
It is difficult for us in our little island to realise the strange contrast of peoples there, and how wide is the variety of different tribes, half of them Asiatic, and in many parts two hundred years behind the times. It is not, perhaps, generally realised that Nicholas himself was both sympathetic and alive to this. In him the people had a better friend than probably they knew.
One aim he had in view was to build up eventually a modem nation capable of selfgovernment, and of developing the immense resources of the country.
But he realised that this was not a matter of a moment that as a first step education on more up-to-date lines was essential, even though traditional methods were upset in bringing it about.
He was not too proud to look abroad and see what other folk were doing.
One day he heard the story of the feckless and the persevering frogs who fell into the cream. This attracted him to read the book in which it is told — namely, Scouting for Boys.
Then the writer was sent for to explain the scheme.
In an ordinary quiet little study I had a long and quite informal talk with the Tsar alone. He had fully grasped the possibilities of the Scout-training for education up to date, and he saw the meaning underneath its woodcraft and activities which gave free play to the individual on the line of self-discipline and service for others.
He explained how the existing system in Russia was to educate the boys as military cadets. The schoolhouse was a barrack, the masters ranked as officers, the discipline was that of the Army — and pretty stiff at that. No individuality was permitted to the boys, no games or practice that might develop their character from within; their schooling was a round of instruction imposed from without.
This, the Tsar felt, was not a way in which to bring a nation up to date nor to meet the growing instinct for liberty of thought and action. He saw a road to this in Scouting. He had, therefore, had the book translated into Russian, and had invited all the schools to try the training on their boys.
By way of encouraging this he had agreed personally to review the first school which passed its test in Scoutcraft. This happened to be one away in the Crimea, but the boys were brought up all the way to Petrograd by special train to be inspected and to receive his praise.
What a day for them!
He now invited me to visit schools and see the boys in their transition from Cadet training to that of Scouting. He felt the difficulty might be to change the spirit with the form of education, and for success this was essential. As he saw it Cadet-training was form without soul, whereas that of Scouting appeared to be the free expression of the right individual spirit on the part of the boy. He had grasped the idea himself, but whether the schoolmasters had done so was another question.
He was at any rate sufficiently impressed by the value of Scouting to make his own son take it up.
Visits to schools gave one a better understanding of what was in the Tsar’s mind when he recommended them to adopt Scouting.
A typical case occurred at Moscow. The school staff entertained me at luncheon as a preliminary to the inspection. Needless to say they were all in uniform, wearing swords, etc. The headmaster was an ancient colonel who had been in this position for over thirty years!
Before we were through the “zakoushka,” or hors d’ æuvre, my hosts were hard at it endeavouring to fill me up with wine, which still remained the surest sign of Russian hospitality. It is true that by the exercise of a certain amount of camouflage I got through the ordeal safely. But the fact of the attempt speaks for itself.
The parade of the Cadets was wonderful for precision of drill and smartness, the dormitories were spotless, each commanded by a non-commissioned officer from the Army.
The discipline was of the very strictest; no games were countenanced, natural tendencies were repressed in every direction, the boys were taught to fear and to obey.
Yet those lads had all the boyish go and spirit in them waiting to be utilised. Such Cadet-training was to me like an ordinary cyclist riding a motor-bike, and arduously propelling it by the pedals from outside, when all the time the spirit that was within would have run the whole thing for him if he only liked to apply it.
The spirit was there right enough. A guard of honour of the Russian Boy Scouts was formed up at the station to see me off; rigid as stone they stood in their ranks, but one could see the life and soul of the boy blazing in those excited eyes as one walked down the line. It struck me so much that I could not leave them with a mere glance, so I walked back, shaking hands with each. As I neared the finish their feelings became too much for them. There was a sudden cry, they broke their ranks and were all over me in a second, shaking hands, kissing my clothes, and everyone bent on giving me some sort of keepsake out of his pocket. The eager enthusiasm of boyhood was there, ready to respond even to a stranger and a foreigner.
To me it was typical, and accounted for much of what has happened since on a large scale in Russia.
Give a natural flowing stream its run in the right direction and it will serve you well. Dam it up with artificial restrictions, and some day it will burst the bonds and maybe become a raging, ruinous flood.
Imposed discipline leads to reaction; discipline from within needs none.
Moral: Don’t trust to military training as the best preparation for modern citizenship. For up-to-date self-government up-to-date self-education seems the right preparatory step. For this new wine in old bottles are not safe. You see the proof in Russia.