What magicians can learn from Boy Scouts

I have a couple of apprentices in the magical arts. From one perspective, I’ve got no business having apprentices. I’ve been doing this formally for maybe six or seven years, definitely for only five years. I’ve been reading about it for twenty years, though… and though I might wish that I got out of the chair and did stuff earlier, it is what it is.

From another perspective, though, I’ve been wanting to practice magic for decades. My mom says that my favorite Halloween costumes were wizards and magicians and elves. I was waving a magic wand around in the back yard almost as soon as we had a back yard (that would have been when I was 8). Sometimes we fake it ’til we make it.

What’s on my mind today though is how the Boy Scouts of America do their training. A former scouting colleague of mine asked me for a letter of recommendation recently, so that he could become an Eagle Scout. Donald Rumsfeld and I agree on very little, but our one known point of agreement is that “Eagle Scout is practically the only thing you did by age 18 that you can still put on your resume at 50 and nobody laughs at you.” There’s a reason for that, of course: Eagle Scout represents hundreds of hours of invested time, money, effort, community activism, and networking — all the things that go into making a great leader. And the last half of effort involved in getting to the Court of Honor to become an Eagle is entirely self-directed. An Eagle Scout may be an insufferable prick, but at least he’s got the broad training necessary to be a useful human being.


At the heart of any Eagle Scout’s development is a set of requirements. Like any member of an esoteric order of priesthood, they have to have gone through minor orders, and fulfilled the requirements thereof: thus, an Eagle Scout has to know CPR and first aid, how to swim and how to camp. They also have to have completed a basic training boot camp in twenty-one specialities called Merit Badges.

The Merit Badges each represent (I worked this out once) about six to twelve hours of labor. Not reading, mostly, but doing. The one I always take as my guidepost is the Indian Lore badge, which I once taught — I taught it in five one-hour classes, and it required maybe two hours of homework in the form of building a model and some crafts projects. So, those twenty-one specialties represent 125–250 hours of time invested in learning how to be a better and more skillful scout. There’s probably an additional 300 hours invested in other community activities within scouting, and another 500 hours of being awake and alert to the world’s needs.

The takeaway for me as a magical practitioner and trainer is of course to think about what is essential — what must every magician know how to do? And then think about what are the 100+ specialties that a magician might need to know how to do (tincturing, Geomancy, tarot, talismans, ritual, etc), and how many of those are likely to require massive time investments— how can they be broken up?

For example, the merit badge for citizenship is actually broken up into multiple categories: citizenship in your town, citizenship in your state, citizenship in your country, citizenship in the world. Swimming is divvied up into swimming, and lifesaving. Boating is divided into kayaking, canoeing, sailing, power boating, and maybe rowing. None of the merit badges qualifies you as an expert, but it does provide a solid foundation of quality information from which to initiate a lifetime of practice — in self-management, in helping others, in self-care and world-help on a local and global scale.

And I wonder if there’s a way to make magical training more like that, either for my own “kids” or someone else’s. Because my apprentices — or yours — don’t need to practice magic exactly the same way I do. That would defeat the purpose. But we do want them to operate within a particular broad tradition, one in which some competency as a diviner, a maker, an advisor, a thaumaturge and theurge can be assumed. Can those things be standardized? Maybe. Maybe not.

The Secret Agenda

Of course, I’m also thinking about my regular classroom, and what scouting can teach me about teaching and learning there. Each of the scouting merit badges takes a week to complete: five classes and two hours of homework. Each of my classes meets for four hours a week, and I’m allowed to give an additional hour and 20 minutes of homework. Not quite the same amount of time as a merit badge, but close.

In that context, I could break down my first six weeks of Introductory Latin in the following way:

  1. Latin pronunciation and spelling
  2. the verb esse & its use
  3. nouns and verbs
  4. adjectives and adverbs
  5. conjunctions and prepositions
  6. conjugations and declensions

It’s a silly way to think about Latin, of course. Languages aren’t broken up into merit badges. But then, nothing really is. but the thing that always impressed me about Merit Badges was that they could be evaluated on the basis of external completions: make this object, use these words in discussion, perform this experiment and write a report, build this model. It’s all very constructivist and visible and verifiable. What internal changes went on in the head of the scout were immaterial — what mattered was the building and the making.

What mattered was the engagement of the hands with the mind: the transformation of matter in the material world. The thought process would come, it was believed, if the experiments and constructions were made.

And it turns out this is a lot of what I believe about magic, and about scouting, and about teaching: that the brain changes and the learning we’re setting out to create in our pupils result more from getting them to do and to make than to think and to be. We’re asking them to change the verbs they use to define their relationship to the universe.

And that works whether we’re talking about scouting, schooling or magical apprenticeships. Doesn’t it?

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