There is a period in the history of the Boy Scouts of America that not many people like to talk about.
Some of you may have heard the story before; some of you may have lived through it. I think it is vitally important for all Scouters to know because of what it teaches us about Scouting and its place in the modern world.
It was the late 1960’s, and youth membership in the BSA began to decline. People weren’t quite sure why. Some suspected that the modern world was starting to outgrow the traditional framework of Scouting. Everyone agreed that we still needed a good youth organization… but maybe the stuff of the past didn’t really appeal to boys anymore.
So, in the spirit of the time, we set to work crafting an “Improved Scouting Program”. This was going to be a modern program that fit the needs of the modern boy. We went back to the drawing board and reworked advancement, leadership, and the entire Scouting program. Finally, it was ready to launch.
In 1972, the eighth edition of the Scout Handbook was released.
In this work (I have a copy of it sitting on my desk), ranks were reworked into Skill and Progress Awards which took the emphasis off traditional Scouting skills. As a matter of fact, you could even make it all the way to the “Eagle Progress Award” without camping!
Along with this dramatic program reboot, there was a huge organizational push to recruit new members. This was call Boypower ’76 and had started a few years earlier. The goal was to have one out of every three boys members of Scouting by 1976. Tons of effort and millions of dollars were invested into this program.
Everything was primed for significant growth. Everyone waited expectantly for the membership numbers to skyrocket. We had a new modern program and a new initiative – everything we needed!
We were devastated by the results.
Instead of rapid growth, a lot of Scouts left the program… I mean a lot! Between 1972 and 1978 the BSA lost over one third of its membership. The organization suffered too. We were plagued by scandals all up and down the chain. A massive amount of fraudulent “paper units” were created to falsely boost numbers. Instead of an acclaimed success, it was a massive failure! It was beginning to look like Scouting as we once knew it was dead.
However, this was not the case. With one hand still left on the helm, we pulled off an amazing course correction that saved Scouting for millions of young men. That hand on the helm was personified in one man – it was a veteran Scouter named William Hillcourt. He was the author of several Scout and Scoutmaster Handbooks in the past. For decades, he was the very popular author of a long-running Boys’ Life series. He was a personal friend of Baden-Powell and had dedicated his life to Scouting.
I’m not sure whether the BSA approached him or the other way around, but I do know he came out of retirement at 79 years old and offered a year of his life without pay to write a new Boy Scout Handbook.
In 1979, the ninth edition of the Boy Scout Handbook was published.
In this work (I also have a copy of it sitting on my desk), Hillcourt brought back all of the traditional Scouting skills that had been trimmed from the modern program. Camping, hiking, pioneering, and etc were made requirements for advancement again. Emphasis was again placed on the Patrol Method. And the spirit of rugged adventure and excitement that made boys love reading Hillcourt’s work was infused throughout the whole book.
To everyone’s surprise, membership loss ground to a halt. This dramatic reversal back to traditional Scouting stabilized the huge membership loss for over a decade. It is no exaggeration to say the William Hillcourt saved the Boy Scouts of America in ’79 and made traditional Scouting a reality for millions of boys.
I hope you’ve heard this story before, but in my experience, I’ve found that most haven’t. I only know it through Scouting’s volunteer historians who have kept the story alive on the internet. I first read about it when I was a Patrol Leader from a website that is no longer in existence. It inspired me and encouraged me, and I think it’s vital that all Scouters know this piece of our history.
If you agree, please take a moment to share this story with all Scouts and Scouters you know.
You can email the article, ‘like’ and ‘share’ on Facebook or other social media, and post it on forums or email lists. Every bit helps spread the history of Scouting. Most importantly, talk about it with Scouts and Scouters you know. Bring it up in conversation, around the campfire, or at a roundtable meeting.
Traditional Scouting is not dead and is just as vital to young men today as it was 100 years ago! Boys haven’t changed, our problems haven’t changed, and the Scouting framework that changed the lives of millions of young men can and will do so for millions more to come!
If you want to stay updated with new articles published here on ScoutingRediscovered, please take a minute to leave your email in the little box in the right-hand sidebar.
Thank you for reading!
Traditional Scouting 101
Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2 – The Vision of the Scout
Part 3 – The Challenge of the Wilderness
Part 4 – Traditional Camp Programs