The Coexistence of Contradictory Ideological Tendencies in the British Boy Scout Movement before World War I

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Marc Baer, Hope College

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The Boy Scout movement, founded in the United Kingdom by the Boer War hero Robert Baden-Powell in 1908, was arguably the most successful youth organization of the twentieth century. Within two years it was the largest organization of its kind in Britain; by 1914, it was the largest in the world. The extraordinary way in which Scouting spread outward from Britain to become an immense international body with millions of Scouts and adult leaders, as well as the near-legendary status that Baden-Powell himself attained, has led historians of Edwardian Britain to scrutinize the origins and significance of the movement as well as the means by which it became so popular. Scouting’s original stated goal was to train boys to be good and useful citizens of the British Empire by means of physically strenuous outdoor activities and a strict code of ethics and discipline. However, many scholars have questioned the motives of the organization’s leaders, pointing out their conservative, imperialistic, and even militaristic views.

This research examines the Boy Scout movement in Britain from its inception to the eve of World War I. It reveals that the organization incorporated seemingly contradictory ideological views into its central message and suggests that this allowed it to establish itself in the middle of the political spectrum, where it could appeal to British youths and adults from a wide range of class and ideological backgrounds. Special attention is paid to the writings of Baden-Powell and to the issues of degeneracy, class conflicts, race, militarism, and the challenges facing the British Empire.

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