1940s-era ‘Handbook for Boys’ praised in New York Times Sunday Book Review

boy-scout-handbook-4th-editionTo the classics of American literature like The Great GatsbyOf Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird we must add one more: the Handbook for Boys, the BSA’s manual for life.

Before you balk at the notion, read this piece published earlier this month in the renowned New York Times Sunday Book Review.

In it, Dr. Edward O. Wilson, Distinguished Eagle Scout, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Harvard professor, calls the Handbook a “classic of literature.” He defines that as “writing that stirs the soul” and “contributes to the growth of a civilization.”

Wilson’s referring to the fourth edition of the Handbook, published from 1940 to 1948. That’s the one he read as a Scout.

Wilson didn’t have the easiest childhood. He moved a lot, attending 13 public schools in nine localities. He read just two books cover to cover in high school: the BSA Handbook and The Virginian. He wasn’t a great student and got mediocre grades.

But, Wilson writes, the Handbook for Boys stepped in where his secondary education fell short.

If you read Wilson’s robust Wikipedia page you’ll get a sense of all the man has accomplished in his life. He’s one of the most prestigious Eagle Scouts in history.

To think that he credits Scouting and the Handbook for Boys with forming his life is extremely high praise. He even writes that he used some of the book’s teaching techniques with his students at Harvard.

My favorite part of “A Manual for Life” by Dr. E.O. Wilson

The entire piece is worth reading, but this was my favorite part:

The “Handbook for Boys” expresses the best of the American ethos as it was at the middle of the 20th century, unparalleled for its brilliance of pedagogy and its uncompromising declaration of democratic ideals. It espouses individualism, responsibility, empowerment and the philosophy of taking hold and learning by doing.

In its 680 pages are to be found the essentials of camping, field cooking, swimming, lifesaving, first aid, semaphore and Morse code, and seaworthy knot-tying; mapmaking, agriculture, patriotic and popular campsite songs; and, not least, elements of American history, including emphasis on the Constitution and Bill of Rights. In the midst of all this are incomplete but serviceable field guides to North American trees, birds, insects and mammals, and to the planets and constellations. The book is true to the maxim “Teach me, I forget; show me, I remember; involve me, I understand.”

The best thing is that’s as true of the 1940s edition as it is of the edition today’s Scouts use. Speaking of …

What about Scouting today?

Most of Wilson’s review applies to his time in Scouting in the 1940s, but he does take time to discuss the state of the Boy Scouts of America in 2014:

I’m well aware that to many, the Boy Scouts seem unsophisticated and outdated. But I ask doubters at least to consider this: If asked to decide who would be both successful in life and exceptionally useful to society, the graduating senior of an elite New England prep school or an Eagle Scout in Kansas, I’d vote for the Eagle Scout.

See also

This post over at Scouting Newsroom

Thanks to Silver Buffalo recipient Neil Lupton for sharing this story with me. Lupton, I must point out, had the honor of hanging the Distinguished Eagle Scout medal around Wilson’s neck.


  1. I love what Dr. Wilson says and the way he says it. As far as the BSA adapting to the larger population living in urban and suburban environments, to this day, the lure of the great outdoors endures. In my opinion, gaining the richness of experience that obtains when one embraces Scouting’s fundamental outdoor opportunities and skills, remains Scouting’s major attraction and is imbued with it’s deepest rewards. I like to refer to this as Scouting’s Timeless Mystique.

    • I just did a quick internet search and couldn’t find it, but I did find the 1911 version here:


      The simplicity of it brought tears to my eyes. Tenderfoot has just three requirements, most merit badges have only 3 or 4 requirements (cooking has only one!), yet none of them seem any easier than merit badges are today. Succinct and to the point. Beautiful.

      • I bought a reprint of the 1911 book at Cabela’s. I am sure it is available elsewhere. Some complain that “requirements” have gotten easier over the year, but I think it is a mixed bag. 4 rqts for the Swimming MB: (1) Swim 100 yards; (2) Surface dive properly; (3) Demonstrate breast, crawl, & side strokes; (4) Swim on the back 50 feet. The BSA swimmer test covers most of that so the Swimming MB has become tougher. Others were much tougher including the “Agriculture” MB where the Scout had to do 8 requirements including to grow at least an acre of corn with a 25% better yield than the general average for the area. I am sure that not too many earned that one.

  2. I have 3 things in common with Dr. Wilson, I am an Alabamian, Eagle (1959), and a biologist. I have read the Creation and another of his books. I attended a biodiversity conference in his honor at the University of Alabama earlier this year. He was honored at a nighttime program. I got to meet him and shake his hand.

    Many older Scout books can be found on line for purchase at e-bay or similar sites..

  3. I have to say it’s an honor to have this book. I have a lot of the old boys
    Scout boys from the early yrs so I can pass down to my son one day.

  4. We just shared this at our Board meeting this morning and I plan to use some of that article at an FOS presentation tomorrow.

  5. Gotta love William “Green Bar Bill” Hillcourt’s writing style. Straight forward, easy to understand, informative, and inspiring. I’d take any of Bill’s BSHBs, heck even some of his non-Scout works on the outdoors, over some of the more recent editions as they contain a heck of a lot more info on the outdoors. I’ve even photocopied parts of his 9th ed.BSHB and handed them out at IOLS as they contained more info.

  6. I love Prof. Wilson’s summary: ” If asked to decide who would be both successful in life and exceptionally useful to society, the graduating senior of an elite New England prep school or an Eagle Scout in Kansas, I’d vote for the Eagle Scout..” A dear friend of mine passed away at age 93 a couple of years ago. He was raised a Kansas farm boy, graduated from Yale law school (the ultimate “elite New England prep school”) and went on to a distinguished career as chief of staff to a Member of Congress and attorney for the Department of the Interior. But the first line of his obituary was “He was an Eagle Scout.”

    • A blog is not a school term paper so a Wikipedia reference is probably okay. There are 67 footnotes at the end of the Wikipedia article, however, meaning that one could find additional information on Professor Wilson. Probably some those citations would pass muster with any reader.

  7. I have the 1940 Boy Scout Handbook. The 1950 Patrol Leaders Handbook, and the 1953 Explorer Manual. The art work is terrific! The books remind of my Scouting days as a youth…… and how hard I worked to become a 1st Class Scout…. There was no wiggle room, you had to know it. On page 203 in the Boy Scout Handbook there is a drawing of a boy laying on a ridge over looking a Scout camp…. as the saying goes “One picture is worth a thousand words”. On the page 202 is THE SCOUTMASTER…by Edgar A. Guest…. it says it all.

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