Going By the Book
By Ken McAlpine
The 2010 BSA Handbook nods to the past, bows to the future.
You can aptly judge—and come to understand—a book by its cover. “The cover of the new Boy Scout Handbook is really colorful, and it’s got a whole lot of action,” says Joe Glasscock, project director for the new 2010 edition of Scouting’s treasured handbook that came out this summer.
Why is the cover—and, for that matter, the rest of the new Boy Scout Handbook—a colorful, action-packed assemblage? The answer is simple, and telling.
Beginning in 2006 the very adult task force assigned to decide the very important matter of Scouting’s direction as it takes its first steps into a very new and different century, did a natural thing. They put out reams of questionnaires and collected equal reams of answers. Yep, they polled adults, from Scoutmasters to outdoor experts. But wisely, the task force also did a very un-adult thing. They polled the kids. And why not?
“This is a book written for 12-year-olds, and 12-year-olds like action,” says Glasscock.
Welcome to the newest Boy Scout Handbook, the Centennial edition, two years and a century in the making, like some things you’ve seen before and like nothing you’ve seen before.
“The new handbook looks back over the first 100 years of Scouting and highlights what has been most important and exciting about Scouting’s first century,” sums up Robert Birkby, who wrote this 12th edition (as well as the 11th  and 10th  editions). “But mostly it looks forward to the coming century and where Scouting goes from here. We’re building on the last century to make the next one even better.”
A nod to the past, with an eye fixed on the future, the new handbook resulted from a vast collaboration. Opinions came in from every corner of Scouting and plenty of corners outside Scouting, as well. Every paragraph was combed over by the 18-member task force as well as experts in everything from disability challenges to Leave No Trace.
But the task of writing the paragraphs went to Birkby, a soft-spoken, droll, Seattle-based writer and outdoorsman whose credentials for bringing the Scouts into the 21st century, without neglecting the past, were impressive.
Past director of conservation at Philmont Scout Ranch, a leading advocate and instructor in backcountry trail repair, a mountaineer whose adventures have taken him to the Caucasus Mountains in Russia and to Nepal, Birkby is also, last but not least, an Eagle Scout from the small town of Sidney, Iowa—not an outdoor mecca but a magical, unshakeable memory nonetheless.
“My own Scouting experience as a kid had a huge impact on me,” Birkby says. “The opportunity to share some of that with young people today was a tremendous motivation in working on this handbook.”
Twelve Boy Scout handbooks preceded this one (they’re published roughly every 10 years), including the original book published in 1910 and the First Edition published in 1911. However, no handbook has arrived in Scouts’ hands at a more pivotal time.
Today’s world is not the world of yesterday’s boys; in some instances it is barely the same world it was five years ago.
In a culture of iPods, video games, GPS units, and previously unimagined problems (cyber-bullying) and opportunities (a mouse click opens a video showing how to sharpen a knife on a whetstone), Scouting, the organization, needed to do what Scouts always have done. Adapt. And become part of—please, pardon the pun—the current Web of life.
“We understood the particular gravitas of this new handbook,” says Tico Perez, BSA national commissioner and a chairman of the handbook’s task force. “The handbook defines today’s movement. There will be 5 million kids in the next 10 years who pick up this handbook and read it. We wanted to make sure it was exactly what they needed. And I believe we got it.
“It is a dramatic change,” Perez says.
For starters, this is Scouting’s first green edition, printed entirely on recycled paper using environmentally friendly processes. There is substantially more eye candy, too. Handbook designers looked at the kids’ books of today and borrowed the ideas they liked. What you see on the cover spills right on into the handbook—bolder and brighter pages, more action photos, and heaps of colorful charts, graphs, and boxed type.
The handbook is also organized in a completely new fashion. Well, not “completely” new. Hunting around for the right structure for the Centennial handbook, Birkby found the answer in the obvious place.
“I used the table of contents from the First Edition (1911) for this edition, with Scoutcraft, woodcraft, and campcraft as the major topics,” he says. “Doing it this way allowed us to really emphasize the building blocks of becoming a good Scout and a good person, and then that leads into an awareness of the outdoors and the environment, and then that naturally leads into all the Scouting skills that allow young people to enjoy the outdoors.
“Recent editions had the outdoor skills up front. Citizenship, fitness, knowledge of first aid, and the other building blocks of becoming a good person got buried deeper in the book. We’ve turned that around, emphasizing personal development from the beginning.”
The restructuring of the handbook also reflects a rethinking of Scouting’s approach.
“The format of the 1998 handbook basically shadowed the requirements from Tenderfoot to First Class,” says Birkby. “A Scout could follow the content page-by-page from the time he joined a troop right through earning his First Class rank. This new edition emphasizes the experience of Scouting rather than earning a badge. Engaged in the best adventures Scouting has to offer, Scouts will find they are naturally progressing along the trail to Eagle.”
“What today’s youth want is outdoor activities and adventure. They want to be challenged,” echoes Perez. “They want to do all the things we do in Scouting. And I think some of our prior handbooks … they never communicated that. They never said, ‘This is who we are; we are the ones who are backpacking on the Appalachian Trail and whitewater kayaking and rappelling. We’re the ones who will prepare you to do all these amazing things.’ This handbook actually shows the movement as it truly is and not just something you’re only going to pick up when you want to advance.”
The restructuring, says Perez, provides a practical benefit, too.
“Your Scoutcraft, your campcraft, your first aid, it’s all in one place. It’s very easy to use this book.”
Find the basics of first aid, plant identification, and campfire cooking in the handbook. Then click on the accompanying Web site recommendation provided in the handbook (either the BSA’s site, www.bsahandbook.org, or a BSA-approved Web site) and learn where boys can get advanced first-aid training or find a backpack full of campfire meals that will make their campmates swear they are graduates of the Culinary Institute of America.
The new handbook teams with the Web to provide inspiration—read stories of Scouts who have saved people’s lives—and even an old-school refresher. On the BSA’s handbook Web site you’ll not only find videos demonstrating how to tie a clove hitch, bowline, and sheet bend, you’ll also find a video demonstrating how to tie a necktie.
“A fun little story,” Glasscock says, laughing. “Before we put the handbook together, we listened to feedback from thousands of people. I heard from a mom who said, ‘In the next handbook, would you please show boys how to tie a necktie? I’m going crazy.’ I said, ‘Ma’am that’s a great idea.’ It ended up in the knot section, obviously.”
In old-school speak, it’s like having the Library of Congress—and then some—in your hip pocket.
“It’s fantastic,” says Glasscock. “Pretty much any subject a Scout is interested in, they can dig a whole lot deeper with just a click of a button.”
Of course, it’s not at all far-fetched to today’s youth. It’s simply their world. Scouting is really only tapping into the here and now.
Sums Perez: “All of those things that are essential for a kid, it can be argued, live online. So we decided to make the resource accessible to them.”
Though it might be news to today’s generation, the Web didn’t invent everything. There is much of the past in the new handbook—from artwork (in a literal and figurative blend of nostalgia and the 21st century, old Scouting art is melded with modern photos) to outdoor survival advice. Again, the reason is simple.
“The authors of earlier handbooks got the values of Scouting right,” Birkby says. “In the new edition, much of the BSA’s core message comes through from 1910 pretty much intact.”
Nor is it wise to forget the past. The new handbook gives Scouts the latest information on using global positioning system technology but with an important caveat highlighted in a colorful box. A GPS receiver is not a substitute for developing skills with a map and compass. A GPS unit with dead batteries is no more useful for helping you find your way than is a rock you pick up on the trail.
Though the Web connection is the biggest change, there are other new additions, too. For the first time the handbook shows how to apply Leave No Trace principles on camping trips. For the first time an entire chapter is devoted to guiding Scouts toward becoming effective leaders in their troops, schools, and communities. And for the first time, plastic flying disks are recommended as dinner plates.
It’s important here not to get bogged down in adult details such as surveys, task forces, and words like “gravitas,” because in the end Scouting is about fun.
Throughout the new handbook you’ll find highlighted quotes. Here’s one from the 1939 handbook:
The world and the words change, but the song in a boy’s heart remains the same.
Birkby hasn’t forgotten.
“When I was a young Scout in Iowa, my troop camped in little woodlands next to cornfields and on the bluffs above the Missouri River, and I had great adventures with my buddies,” he says. “Scouting made the outdoors come alive.”
Award-winning writer Ken McAlpine has contributed to Outside, Sports Illustrated, and Reader's Digest. He is the author of Off-Season: Discovering America on Winter's Shore and the recently published Islands Apart: A Year on the Edge of Civilization.