What are Scouting Skills?
Can you throw some things in a pack, step off the road into the woods and live comfortably for a few days without getting lost? Can you build a fire, lash a tripod together, set up a shelter, cook your food, stay warm and dry and leave no trace of your presence when you leave? If the answer is yes then you possess what I would call some basic ‘Scouting Skills’.
Where did the skills come from?
Early in the last century author, illustrator and Naturalist Ernest Thompson-Seton gathered his knowledge of the wilds into a book called The Birch-Bark Roll as a guide for boys wishing to become part of his Woodcraft Indians. Robert Baden-Powell , inspired in part by Seaton’s work, included the skills of woodcraft in Scouting For Boys – the book that would spread like wildfire around the world and led to the worldwide Scouting Movement.
Why use this Woodcraft stuff anyway?
Scouting skills are separate from everyday life. They are, in fact, at odds with everyday life. They require us to push ourselves physically and mentally beyond our normal sphere of comfort.
Scouting skills connect us to our human origins. It’s generally agreed that the first basic elements of human culture arose shortly after we learned to build fires (about four hundred thousand years ago). When Scouts leave their homes and begin learning their way through how to work together in the woods something happens that is not quantifiable or particularly easy to explain, but anyone who has gathered around a campfire with the night at their backs knows what I mean.
Why are Scouting Skills still important?
Scouting skills may be practical useful things to know but let’s agree that they have little relevance to modern life, and that’s one of the most important things about them. If you’ll think about it Scouting skills had about as much relevance to ‘modern life’ of a century ago as they do today.
To become skilled at Scouting we have to turn our backs on the technological marvels upon which we have all come to depend, return to the dawn of civilization, stand in a forest clearing, and start all over again.
Anyone can pick up a basketball or football, play the game, and even become a decent player. But excellence in sports requires aptitude and physical ability that not all of us possess or can develop. The same thing is true of academics, we can rise to a certain point but will probably not surpass our natural aptitude for the subject.
Unlike the natural aptitudes required to advance in sports or academics any Scout can gain and master Scouting skills with dedication and practice. That ‘level playing field’ is a key reason we need to emphasize and promote Scouting skills
If we carry the technologies and attitudes of everyday life into Scouting it ceases to be something special, it ceases to be an alternative to the artificiality of everyday life.
Practicing and mastering Scouting skills creates a special community with a distinct code of conduct that re-orders the priorities of the everyday world. Practicing Scouting skills requires an unusual combination of self-reliance and cooperation, a level of awareness of one’s self, of others, and of the natural world no other endeavor replicates.
How do we get this right?
If we isolate Scouting skills from one another or from the environment where they are practiced we separate them from the immediacy of their practical application and relevance.
Why learn to tie a taut line hitch or a sheet bend? There may be a handful of practical uses for them in everyday life, but they are integral to setting up a rainfly.
Why learn all the skills of building, maintaining and cooking over a campfire. Just to sign a book and earn a badge?
Should we learn by sitting down and attentively following a PowerPoint presentation on Tenderfoot rank requirements?
Our challenge as Scouters is to take the Scouting skills that are fragmented into the words of separate, numbered requirements and put them in the context of experiences that constitute the process of Scouting. It’s a tall order.
The first step is understanding the importance and central role of Scouting Skills to the Scouting process, of not fragmenting them into disjointed bits of information.
Once we understand this we’ll be less likely to get distracted by indicators (our advancement reports for example) and apply ourselves to what creates the indicators.
Finally, aptitude at Scout skills is not as important as the effort required to learn and master them. That effort, not a certain level of excellence, is our aim. Scouts will be all the more eager to extend the effort when we concentrate on the interconnection and relevance of Scouting skills, with the reasons we practice them in the first place.
With all due respect for the late Green Bar Bill, who saved Scouting from the 1970s fiasco I might add, I personally liked the Skill Awards used for the T-2-1 requirements from 1979-1989(no so much 1972-79 requirements since Camping Skill Award was not required for advancement). It allowed Scouts to focus on one set of skills at a time, instead several skill simoultaneously. This allowed a Scout to focus on one particular skill and master it. Grant you Scouts in an active troop would be doing multiple things on camp outs, the Skill Awards focused the Scout on one particular skill, and recognized him for mastering it.
Also this was great for new unit leaders with little to no Scouting expereince to get their scouts up to par on basic scouting skills. Especially leaders who are plagued by “helicopter parents.”
And with the advent of “helicopter parents” who want their sons to get Eagle ASAP so their Scouts are racing through the requirements without mastering the skills, I beleive it would aid in having the Scouts retain the basic Scouting skills. I’ve seen to many OA candidates with little to no outdoor skills, yet they are First Class and above and “Honor Campers.”
And I know basic Scoutcraft skills are useful today. Take Pioneering. From me using Sheepshanks to shorten the various powercords on my work computer to the NASA astronaut, sorry forgot his name, who used a Square Lashing to fix a broken piece of the Space Shuttle several years ago, it is relevent
Michael Asbell says
This may well be the best discussion of why we do “old-fashioned” scout skills in Boy Scouts. I’m going to have to spend some time meditating on this and then figure out the best way to share this with my scout parents. I may also link to it on my blog about the importance of our connection with nature. Thank you, Clarke!
Larry Green says
As an aside to your post, I think many Scouting skills are useful and applicable to everyday life. Here’s a case in point that I’m drawing upon from an experience that happened YESTERDAY! On the beach, a canopy was required as the sun shelter for some sound equipment for a 4th of July beach party. The wind was strong and part of the canopy’s frame buckled and bent. It was evident the shelter wouldn’t stand up and couldn’t be used in its present state. It was drooping and useless. So what to do? First thing was to get a hold of some cord. Done. No pins or stakes would hold in the soft sand, so the next thing was to find pieces of drift wood. Done. Now to dig holes in the sand, deep enough and at the proper distances and angles to to make deadman anchors. Done. FInally tie one end of the cords to the wood, bury it securely, and tie the other end to the frame in strategic places to compensate for its weakened state. Done. Basic Scout knots were used. “Wow” people said, “How clever! We never would have thought of that! Were you a Boy Scout?” Of course.
Clarke Green says
Are Scouting skills relevant occasionally? Well, of course, but that’s not what we should be using them.
They aren’t supposed to be, in themselves, some practical preparation for adult life. What we are aiming at is the process we employ in learning and mastering them.
Frank Maynard says
Sure! They’re “gee whiz, how did you know that?” skills that will come in handy in bits and pieces later in life. But they are also a way to teach and learn something inherently unfamiliar to most boys, and they serve both purposes: knowing a useful skill, and learning how to teach and learn. If, instead of “Scout skills”, we were to use familiar skills like using a smartphone or playing basketball, there wouldn’t be much learning going on because they already know that stuff.
Allan Green says
The skills themselves are not of importance here. Indeed several skills that we teach are having less and less relevance to the teenager and to the camper of today.
Knots: As a boy, I had to tie a good two half hitches knot and a taught line hitch or my army pup tent would fall in on me in the night (it happened on occasion). Today, the dome tents go up and a tie down tension device is attached to the tie down lines already. My scouts forget them quickly if not reviewed.
Axe and Knife: Not so much needed. We were taught in the Outdoor Skills class that any branch too large to break or saw off was not needed for a fire. And if a boy shows up at school today with an axe or a closed blade knife, he will be whisked away to a juvenile detention facility “for being the danger to society that he is.”
Map and compass: not so cool in the age of GPS and Google Maps.
Cooking: Well, this is the exception, as I believe we will do the boy a service teaching him to cook so that, when he is a grown man he has the ability to cook a meal for himself or to please that someone special.
The point here is that “The journey is the reward”. The learning and the ability to learn and grow are the end, the goal. Doing this stuff in the wilderness is the adventure that will drive him on. Baden-Powell, and Seaton before him, was a genius for putting it all together.