Innocent Ignorance: Whitewashing an Empire with the Boy Scouts of America

The history of organized youth has much to offer scholars interested in processes of knowledge formation and dissemination. This is particularly true of an organization as easily recognizable and widely influential as the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). Popular culture in the United States is replete with images of cheerful Scouts roaming the woods or helping strangers in need. Among the more popular fictional representations are the Junior Woodchucks, which the Disney cartoonist Carl Barks created in 1951 to poke gentle fun at some aspects of Scouting. The Junior Woodchucks’ Guidebook, a satirical take on the BSA’s Handbook for Boys, appeared as a magical reservoir of knowledge that provided information on every conceivable subject, but was small enough to fit into a Junior Woodchuck’s backpack.

Since the movement’s founding more than a century ago, nature lovers devoted to teaching outdoor skills to boys and men have found a home in the Boy Scouts. Statesmen, generals, business elites, and religious leaders have endorsed the BSA for making good citizens. Using the incentive system of merit badges and the value system of the Scout Law, the BSA told its members to “Be Prepared” and “Do a Good Turn Daily.” In developing personal fitness and civic responsibility, Scouting also strove to instill gender ideals in the young. To become a Boy Scout was to sign up for an apprenticeship in manhood, to learn what being a real man actually meant.

Productive leisure, citizenship, and gender are perfectly legitimate entry points for reflecting on what the history of organized youth can contribute to the history of knowledge and vice versa. But I want to use this space to approach the nexus of youth and knowledge from a different angle. What if we ascribed the BSA’s staying power to more than just its ability to nurture (and feed off) various types of knowledge, practical as well as political? What if we conceived of the Boy Scouts as peddlers of an altogether different commodity—ignorance? While I maintain that the BSA was active in the transmission of both knowledge and ignorance, I want to take a closer look at the latter phenomenon and the ways in which it might help historians appreciate how non-knowledge, pretended or real, operated as a potent cultural force.

Title page of the BSA’s 1914 Official Handbook for Boys. The complete book is available at

To be clear, I am not interested in ignorance as a moral category, although it is hard to gloss over the ethical dimensions of the term. Simply equating ignorance with the absence of knowledge may not take us very far either. Instead, I propose to understand ignorance as a coping mechanism of historical actors who moved through worlds full of unsettling complexities and disruptive ambiguities. One might generalize very roughly that networks of ignorance, whether we think of them as regimes in a Foucauldian sense or more broadly as communities, are grounded in a sometimes firm, sometimes fragile consensus about the necessity of privileging certain bodies of knowledge while omitting or obscuring other bodies deemed a threat to the existing social and political order. Given their dual concern for molding and policing identities, youth organizations became unique laboratories for such coping mechanisms. Examining these laboratories not only allows us to study the extent to which specific scripts of ignorance developed at the top then percolated into the consciousness of the rank-and-file. Doing so also invites us to consider the ways in which ordinary members, young and old, rewrote these scripts to fit their own agendas.

In my forthcoming book, I argue that the BSA acted as a vehicle of American empire while repackaging U.S. global expansion as a playful and honorable masculine adventure.1 Crucial to this repackaging was turning a blind eye to the legacies of violence and conquest that blotted the nation’s history as it expanded to its nineteenth-century continental and twentieth-century global frontiers. This grim narrative may not have entered the political mainstream, yet BSA officials also willfully ignored it. The first edition of the Handbook for Boys, published in 1911, cast the history of U.S. annexations as a moral crusade. Even as Americans had acquired an oceanic empire in the wake of the Spanish-American War, the handbook told its young readers that “there is no country less warlike than ours.”2 In this sanitized account, America’s colonial ventures were presented not as bloody subjugations but as chivalric quests.

The BSA’s dealings with racial minorities and foreign cultures betray a similar refusal to engage with forms of knowledge rooted in other communities. From a present-day standpoint, it is difficult to see in the Scouts’ appropriation of Native American lore anything other than flagrant cultural insensitivity. “Playing Indian” at national and international Scout meetings generated easily consumable stereotypes that emphasized the masculine virtues of purity, ferocity, and honor—stereotypes that made generations of youths oblivious to the rich diversity of Native American life. This disregard for the aspirations and grievances of others had even more troubling implications in the global arena. As young people around the world rose up to protest the Vietnam War, Boy Scouts and their leaders continued to sit around campfires and tell each other stories about America’s inherent virtuousness despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If youths in the BSA might claim boyhood innocence and goodness, the United States could not. Senator William J. Fulbright castigated the naivety of his countrymen in 1966 when he wrote that in attempting “to remake Vietnamese society … we are still acting like Boy Scouts, dragging old ladies across streets they do not want to cross.”3

American Boy Scouts posing as faux Indians at the 1924 World Scout Jamboree in Denmark. Source: Sven V. Knudsen, ed., Jamboree Denmark 1924: Det Danske Spejderkorps (Copenhagen, 1924).

In an organization so devoted to nurturing positive attitudes towards America’s role in the world, promoting ignorance about facts that would have undermined this objective was hardly accidental. The celebration of “wondrous innocence” and primitive knowing that connected Scouting to a romanticized ideal of childhood echoed in the movement’s rejection of any studious intellectualism.4 When BSA founding father Daniel Carter Beard dreamed about ridding the world of “gray-haired philosophers,” he envisioned an ageless ideal of boyhood where grown men could retain an unfettered yet innocuous enthusiasm for the world.5 The luxury of not having to know everything, including the dark sides of empire, was justified in the name of creating a usable past and an uplifting present for America’s current and future male leadership.

This is not to suggest that Scouting constituted a monolithic bloc. The BSA’s conservative politics did not prevent individual youths from hiking their own trails to manhood. Consider the case of Mark Rudd, a prominent member of the militant left-wing group Weather Underground in the 1970s. Rudd had attained the prestigious rank of Eagle Scout in his teens before he became an antiwar organizer at Columbia University. Asked by a journalist to defend his radicalism, Rudd replied that all he was doing was adhering to moral principles expressed in the twelve Scout laws.6

The political theorist Jeanne Morefield recently coined the term “politics of deflection” to describe how Anglo-American elites managed to turn attention away from the historical violence and systemic inequalities of race, class, and gender on which their empires rested.7 In similar fashion, the image of the good-natured and upright Boy Scout could provide a fig leaf for imperial interventions that had required coercion and violence. To be able to shrug at the costs of empire—to make human suffering disappear behind a boyish veil of innocent ignorance—however, one had to learn to skip over inconvenient truths, especially if these truths seemed impossible to square with the values one held dear. This form of strategic ignorance in the Boy Scouts reminds us that knowledge is no bottomless cornucopia but a bounded resource that inspires awareness of some things while fostering unawareness of other things.

  1. Mischa Honeck, Our Frontier is the World: An Imperial History of the Boy Scouts of America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, forthcoming). 
  2. Boy Scouts of America, Handbook for Boys (New York: BSA, 1911), 333, 338–39. 
  3. William J. Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power (New York: Random House, 1966), 15. 
  4. On the concept of “wondrous innocence,” see Gary Cross, The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children’s Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). See also Mischa Honeck, “The Power of Innocence: Anglo-American Scouting and the Boyification of Empire,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 42, no. 3 (September 2016): 441–66. 
  5. Daniel Carter Beard, Hardly A Man is Now Alive: The Autobiography of Dan Beard (New York: Doubleday, 1939), 205. 
  6. “Letters to the editor: America at Odds with Boy Scout Values,” Portland Press Herald, August 25, 2012
  7. Jeanne Morefield, Empires Without Imperialism: Anglo-American Decline and the Politics of Deflection (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).