The Boy Scouts of America: A Comparison of Handbooks and Merit Badges

The Boy Scout Handbook and the merit badges that it contains are a source of much controversy. The handbook is seen as outdated by some, while others see merit badges as an opportunity to understand more about what they would like to do in life. This essay will compare these two sources of information on how each can provide you with diverse insight into your future endeavors.

The “boy scouts of america merit badge requirements” is a document that lists the requirements for each merit badge. This document can be found on the Boy Scouts of America website, and also in the handbooks. The handbook does not list all the merit badges, but it does give information about what is required to earn them.

“The term’scout’ used to refer to the one who kept an eye on the others. We’ve broadened the definition of the term a bit. We tailored it to match both the city and the wilderness, as well as peacetime rather than wartime. We have made the scout an expert in both Life-craft and Wood-craft, since he has been schooled in both the heart and the mind and hand. Riding, swimming, tramping, trailing, photography, first aid, camping, handicraft, loyalty, obedience, civility, thrift, bravery, and compassion are all covered by Scouting.

Do these items pique your interest? Do you like being in the woods?

Do you want to learn about trees the way a forester does? And what about the stars, as a tourist rather than an astronomer?

Do you want well-developed muscles all over, not only those of a great athlete, but those of a healthy physique that won’t let you down? Would you want to be a seasoned camper who can always find a pleasant spot outside and a strong swimmer who has no fear of the water? Do you want to be able to immediately assist the injured and remain calm and self-reliant in an emergency?

Do you believe in the virtues of loyalty, bravery, and kindness? Would you desire to develop habits that will ensure your long-term success?

Then, whether you are a farm boy or a shoe clerk, a newsboy or a millionaire’s son, you have a place in our ranks, because these are the scouting thoughts; it will help you do better work with your pigs, your shoes, your papers, or your dollars; it will give you new pleasures in life; it will teach you so much about the outdoor world that you desire to know; and this Handbook, the work of many men, each a leader in his — Handbook for Boys, Boy Scouts of America, 1911

Vintage illustration from boy scouts handbook.

The Boy Scouts of America celebrated its hundredth anniversary just a few years ago. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was created in 1910 as a military-inspired organization with the goal of preserving the virtues of self-reliance, patriotism, bravery, morality, outdoor ruggedness, and all-around manliness that the nation worried would be lost as it grew more urbanized. The Scouts have stayed faithful to many of their basic beliefs throughout their century-long existence, while also evolving with American society. Because the Scouts were created to be a storehouse of historically masculine qualities, examining those changes provides a fascinating lens through which to examine how our perceptions of manliness have evolved.

Comparing the original BSA manual, published in 1911, with the present one – the 12th edition was released in 2009 – is one approach to shed light on these developments. Kathleen Arnn performs a side-by-side comparison in an insightful book review for the Claremont Institute. While the new edition includes many of the same abilities as the original, she claims that “its treatments of these things have been stripped down and lack the passion, punch, and daring spirit—the manliness—of the original manual.”

Vintage knight illustration from boy scouts handbook.

The contemporary handbook’s omissions or reductions are revealing. The section on chivalry, which traced the Boy Scouts’ history back to the pioneers and Pilgrims, as well as the knights of the Middle Ages, is no longer available. While the 1911 handbook included a full chapter on Patriotism and Citizenship (with a letter from Theodore Roosevelt on “Practical Citizenship”), the present handbook has significantly reduced the length and content of such discussions. The original is also liberally sprinkled with allusions to great men in history for young boys to imitate, but the one released in 2009 is nearly totally devoid of such “heroes” (being inspired by history isn’t really fashionable these days).


The difference in how the two manuals approach the concept of excellent character is perhaps most noticeable. The original didn’t hold back when it said things like, “It’s dreadful to be a coward.” “The honor of a scout will not tolerate anything less than the highest, the best, and the manliest,” and “The honor of a scout will not permit anything less than the highest, the best, and the manliest.” Scouting honor is a treasured thing that cannot be taken lightly or trampled on.”

Vintage illustration from boy scouts handbook helping old lady.

The current version, on the other hand, discusses character in terms of the non-offensive modern equivalents of leadership and personal growth. Doing the right thing becomes a question of “making the best of oneself” and “getting along with others,” rather than being couched in the ultimate language of moral goodness. Arnn goes on to say more about the shift:

“While character development remains a primary goal for the BSA, the most recent handbook has essentially replaced classic language of virtue with progressive language of leadership, which is hardly an improvement.” The chapter on chivalry has been eliminated entirely, and the chapter on leadership, which is ostensibly designed to replace it, has nothing on moral virtue beyond the Scout Oath and Law. Instead, it explains the EDGE teaching approach (explain, show, guide, and empower), explains the distinction between short and long-term objectives, and provides advice on how to use the internet to become a community leader…

Boy Scouts are still encouraged to follow their hearts and do the right thing, even if it is tough, which is sound advice in theory. It does not, however, go far enough. The issue was presented as though the conscience had to be established before it could be followed in the previous guidebook. Scouts had to be taught the qualities through study and practice, and they had to do the right thing until it was second nature to them. This was a severe punishment. Many will fail, but those that succeeded may feel proud.”

It’s also worth noting what has been added to the current manual. For example, whereas the original version only covers the issue of refraining from alcohol and smoke in five phrases, the current version expands on it with specifics on how to resist peer pressure. While the 1911 guidebook starts with the dramatic opening we mentioned at the outset, the current one begins with a tear-out brochure titled “How to Protect Your Children from Child Abuse.” “It’s as if our boys’ first thinking should be that they are potential victims,” Arnn writes.

BSA Merit Badges: Occasionally

Be prepared boy scout badge.

These insights provide stimulating fuel for thought, as well as, I’m sure, argument. But the other day, I decided to take a different approach to the BSA’s growth by comparing the standards for merit badges from time to time. Comparing the philosophical bents of the two handbooks is a bit more fun and a little less serious than comparing their differences. Nonetheless, it says a great deal about how we’ve evolved as a society and what we demand of young men.


The most noticeable difference is that currently there are far more merit badges to acquire than there were in 1911: 131 vs 57. The addition of badges in areas such as Robotics, Game Design (which involves playing and describing what you like about your favorite video games), Skating, Traffic Safety, Citizenship in the World (rather than just the country), and Disability Awareness reflects changing interests among boys and modern society’s sensibilities. At the same time, as the required skill set has become increasingly antiquated, several of the original badges have vanished or been integrated into larger badges; not many current boys need to know how to shoe a horse (Blacksmithing badge) or transmit a Semaphore code (Signaler badge).

Silhouette boy scouts sitting around campfire.

The variations in criteria among the badge themes that have generally kept the same over a century are the most intriguing to examine. As one would expect, the standards for the original badges were sometimes more stringent than those for their current equivalents. Even in the rare situations when today’s badges have a more challenging criterion (for example, in 1911, Scouts had to swim 100 yards; now they must swim 150), what sticks out about all of the current badges is how much lengthier and more detailed the rules are now than they were before. Each badge required the accomplishment of a brief set of one-sentence criteria, according to the 1911 manual. Modern badge criteria, on the other hand, may be as lengthy as 10 paragraphs, with the opening part always emphasizing the need of discussing safety concerns with one’s leader. For example, the gardening badge asks the Scout to discuss with his counselor the dangers he could face if he plants his tomatoes too close to a beehive.

Modern badge criteria differ from previous ones in that they are more abstract and mental in character. While the 1911 badge requirements all required direct activities, many of which were physical and hands-on, the current badge requirements place a greater emphasis on thinking than doing. Before attempting the hands-on assignments, the scout must fully Review/Describe/Explain/Illustrate/Demonstrate the underlying concepts and context of the badge’s subject matter.

Below are some side-by-side comparisons of the ancient emblems and their current versions to demonstrate these differences:


The Boy Scouts are most renowned for their camping activities. When comparing the original camping merit badge to today’s, it’s clear that the practical criteria have been relaxed; for example, Scouts used to have to sleep out for 50 nights, know how to create a fire without matches, and build a raft. The current badge, on the other hand, has reduced that need to 20 nights while considerably expanding the more mental requirements – writing checklists, planning plans, and explaining various camping standards and items of equipment.

Boy scouts camping badge requirements 1911 versus 2012.


The rigor here is fantastic. “You can’t simply make something up out of thin air.” It’s not worth anything until you patent it, child!”


Boy scouts inventing badge requirements 1911 versus 2012.

Firefighting/Fire Prevention

What’s interesting is that the 1911 badge is geared toward preparing the Scout to actually fight the fire and rescue people (as if encouraging boys to rush into a burning building was the most natural thing in the world), whereas the modern badge focuses on how to prevent and escape fires, as indicated by the change in the badge’s name. It also offers an important skill: how to light a candle safely!

Boy scouts fire safety badge requirements 1911 versus 2012.


In my view, the pioneering badge is one of the coolest, and there are some parallels between the old and new versions. However, instead of having to construct a bridge or derrick, current Scouts are required to construct a model of one. The initial Scouts were also forced to construct a hut. To be fair, a contemporary Scout could opt to create something similar for the pioneering project he gets to pick; but, in fact, all you get is a bunch of monkey bridges. And the necessity for tree felling should be reinstated!

Boy scouts pioneering badge requirements 1911 versus 2012.


The cooking badge is an excellent example of where current hands-on criteria exceed or are at least comparable to those of the original, while also being substantially supplemented by safety considerations and other restrictions (for example, the camping meal must meet the food pyramid recommendations). As a side note, it’s fascinating to compare the menus of the 1911 and 2009 editions; the 1911 edition had a dish for frog legs, while the 2009 edition has a recipe for tofu stew.

Boy scouts cooking badge requirements 1911 versus 2012.


The fishing badge is perhaps the best illustration of today’s criteria being watered down (pun intended!). While Scouts at the beginning of the century had to manufacture two separate poles and catch 10 different types of fish with them, today’s young fisherman just has to reel in…one. To be honest, the original angling badge included both rod and fly fishing, although they are now distinct medals. Even then, you only need to catch one fish to acquire the fly fishing badge, so even if you caught the needed amount for each badge, you’d only have caught 1/5 of the haul expected of Scouts in the past.

Boy scouts angling fishing badge requirements 1911 versus 2012.


All companies, even those that have been for decades, must alter and develop in order to remain relevant in today’s society. I continue to believe that the Boy Scouts are a wonderful organization to enroll one’s kid in or participate in as a young man. Furthermore, I do not believe that all of the adjustments made to the current badge criteria are absolutely “bad.” In this litigious age, when the BSA is just a bee sting away from a lawsuit, some are unavoidable. And, since our industry has become more thought-based and less hands-on, success in contemporary society requires a larger degree of “soft skills” than it used to; the ability to organize and explain things will tremendously assist a young guy through life.


However, I must admit that the 1911 badges’ simple, uncomplicated criteria appeal to me considerably. Certainly, all of the current, preparatory research about the underlying framework for a talent is vital, but you have to get down to executing the thing sooner or later. And, in my view, the sooner the better! There’s something to be said about trial and error learning. The more the Scouts can be a haven of hands-on activity — a place where one can truly get their hands filthy with the physical, tactile objects of nature — the better in a world where everything is becoming more abstract. There’s also something to be argued about putting greater pressure on young males than we do occasionally. They suffer from the tyranny of low expectations all too frequently, but if pushed, they are willing to rise to the occasion.

What are your thoughts on the discrepancies between the 1911 BSA manual and the current merit badges? Do they indicate progress or deterioration? Let us know what you think in the comments!



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