Why Unique Scouting Jargon?

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Like most human specialized endeavors, Scouting has its own unique jargon. We often use these terms without much thought about their original meaning or its meaning as time has passed. Let’s stop and examine this language for a few minutes to see what we can learn about the philosophy of scouting.

The terms Cubmaster and Scoutmaster are used every day. There is even a movement to change these terms. Many national councils in the Worldwide Movement of Scouting have already taken this step. What does the term “master” mean in this context?

In Baden-Powell’s youthful days (1850-1880), a school teacher was referred to a “school master.” The teacher might have had a Master’s Degree. These were the 19th century license to teach. They had mastered the material well enough to teach the material.

Notice it is not a reference the doctrine of law known as “master-servant” or other less savory references that the XXXIII Amendment to the Constitution outlawed.

Knowing what Baden-Powell meant when he chose the term, does it change your vision of what a Cubmaster or Scoutmaster should do when working with Den Leaders or Senior Patrol Leaders, respectively? Look to some of the early stories from Wood Badge leaders about their first experiences as scouts trying to figure out how to build fires, pick camping sites, or hike without going in circles. The need for a teacher was clear. In some of the stories, the boys would set up tents but the police would show up and march them home, because no adult was present to vouch for the boys’ good intentions. The need for an adult mentor, not just an older brother was also clear.

Council is a very strange term. In the late 19th Century, British government was moving away from Administrators with sole responsibility. They were moving toward a more collective method of organizing. Councils sprung up everywhere in British society. They were not corporations. In American parlance, we would tend to use the term “committee.” Since Baden Powell was encouraging a “Scouting Movement” not a “scouting organization,” the idea of individuals coming to together more informally fit his vision for what scouting should be.

Commissioner is a very strange term. In the Commissioner literature, the attempt to explain the term is that Baden Powell wanted to rely on the landed gentry, who did not work for living to advise new scoutmasters. He chose an archaic term of Commissioner from the 13th Century. Council Commissioner’s Training Manual, pg. 57 (2009) tells the story this way:

The word “commission” dates back to 1344, when it was derived from the Latin word commissionem, meaning “delegation of business.” The nation’s monarch delegated authority to a deserving few.

Individuals identified by the monarch had to qualify as a “gentleman,” legally defined as a man who earned his income from property and as such was independently wealthy with time to devote to other agendas. It was exactly this kind of man that Lord Baden-Powell wanted as his volunteer commissioners: men of both money and leisure. [ed.: too bad this era has past.]

Baden-Powell’s first chief Scout commissioner was Lieutenant General Sir Edmond Roche Elles Baden-Powell’s commissioners included W F deBois MacLaren, who donated Gilwell Park; and Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book [ed.: and the source material for Cub Scout concepts].

As communities formed more troops, it became evident that leadership was needed to maintain standards, provide camping opportunities, recruit leaders, give training, establish local courts of honor, and stimulate local Scouting This person was the commissioner.

The Scout commissioner represented the local community committee or council. A great deal of importance was placed upon the selection of this man. He was expected to have a great deal of outdoor experience and act as the local authority in all Scoutcraft matters.

While originally a volunteer, in some areas the community was able to raise enough funds for the Scout commissioner to become a salaried position.

The areas with paid leadership positions, such as a Scout executive or executive secretary, became known as first-class councils, while those with a volunteer head, still called the Scout commissioner, were known as second-class councils. By 1931, there was only one second-class council left.

The wreath of service that surrounds all commissioner and professional position badges is a symbol of the service rendered to units. It also symbolizes the continued partnership between volunteers and professionals.

Sometimes a return to original definitions helps better understand how we can improve our service to youth, as an indirect means of returning to first principles.

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