Bit Prepared: A Missing Link?

by Marco Fioretti

These days, software and good education cannot live without each other. Nobody could deny that the two are linked in many ways. To the best of my knowledge, however, one of those ways, and not the least important one, has not been officially practiced yet. Everybody knows that many schools and educators worldwide have to work with a null or tight budget. This forces them to look for the most cost effective tools. Other selection criteria are much more important, however.

Schools should teach students ways of living that benefit society as a whole. The most fundamental mission of schools is to teach people to be good citizens and good neighbors--to cooperate with others who need their help [1]. The real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people. To leave this world a little better than you found it [2]. Teaching the students to participate in a community, is a hands-on civics lesson. It also teaches students the role model of public service [1]. Happiness is the result of active work rather than passive enjoyment of pleasure [3]. So, let's teach concepts, not applications ... let's try to teach boys how to use tools to think [4]. The secret of sound education is to get each pupil to learn for himself, instead of instructing him by driving knowledge into him on a stereotyped system [5]. When appropriate, it is necessary to give students real skills, not only "directions for use" [6]. We want to get them all along through cheery self-development from within and not through the imposition of formal instruction from without [7]. The common thread in each project must be the ability of collaboration, to greatly enhance learning opportunities [8]. The boy, while working in co-operation with the others, is responsible for his own separate part of the job [9].

And my point is? Simply put, not one word in the last paragraph is my own. In my opinion, the several statements prove the unexplored link I anticipated: they reinforce one another but come from two distinct sets of sources. Those in plain text were written by several supporters of free software in education. The first is R. M. Stallman, founder of the GNU Project, explaining the main reason why schools should use exclusively free (as in freedom) software.

All the sentences in italic belong to Robert Baden Powell, the founder, almost one century ago, of the Boy Scouts movement. The Boy Scouts has become one of the most important international youth organizations, with almost 30 million members in more than 200 countries.

The purpose of Scouting, bearing the motto "Be Prepared", is to help all boys become good, active citizens. Scouting achieves this goal by making Scouts "play the game" in the outdoors--away from TVs, PCs and cell phones--as often as possible. There is no question that this approach remains valid and perhaps even more needed in the age of the Internet. Many members, however, use computers every day outside Scout activities. Nobody thinks for a moment that they should stop, but it is natural to expect that basic Scouting principles also be applied to these new tools. The Boy Scout movement places a lot of importance on self-reliance and not living out of pre-packaged solutions. The statements pasted above are merely the tip of a mountain of assertions that support the same thesis made by the founder and many Scout leaders from all countries: Scouting wants to educate from within, making the boy know and build his own tools, because that helps him to build and know his own character.

After reading this article, please also read the material listed in the Resources. Our thesis continues to make perfect sense (even more, if you ask me) if we substitute "schools" with "troops" or "patrols" and "students" with "Scouts". In the meantime, let's go back for a moment (thanks to Marco Bravi for pointing this out) to the core of Baden Powell's Last Message to all Scouts [2]: "leave this world a little better than you found it". Now, the modern world also is made of software, which is here to stay. Could a Scout apply the founder's advice to the software he uses? Leave any program a bit better than he found it? More to the point, should he? Why, yes! First of all, it would be a really neat and useful good turn to do so. Secondly, it would be an excellent way to acquire valuable skills for a qualified job. Of course, any Scout worth his promise does this only if and when it is legal to do so. Consequently, this Service (yes, Service) is possible only with software that is meant from its inception to be improved in this way. Such software, regardless of its price, legally guarantees:

  • the freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).

  • the freedom to study how the program works and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1).

  • the freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).

  • the freedom to improve the program and release your improvements to the public, so the whole community benefits (freedom 3).

Once more, we started at Scouting and ended up at Free Software: the four lines above are copied word by word from the official Free Software Definition.

The direct links between these two partners in education doesn't end here. Baden Powell believed "that we were put into this world of wonders and beauty with a special ability to appreciate them, in some cases to have the fun of taking a hand in developing them, and also in being able to help other people instead of over-reaching them and, through it all, to enjoy life - that is, TO BE HAPPY" . Writing software according to these guidelines, a Scout then should guarantee all the freedoms above to all future users of the improved program. "For example, if you distribute copies of such a program, whether gratis or for a fee, you must give the recipients all the rights that you have. You must make sure that they, too, receive or can get the source code. And you must show them these terms so they know their rights". In other words, the Scout should license his software under the GNU General Public License, from which I copied this clause, or a similar one.

Discovering the many other "Free Software is Scouting" connections is left as an exercise for the reader; please post them below, however). We already have enough evidence. If, on top of this evidence, we also pair the thousands of arguments about how free software can save money with the Scout Law that says "A scout is thrifty", the case seems to be closed. Linux and the whole FLOSS movement do appear as the soul of Scouting made software: the first, if not only, kind of IT technology that should be proposed to Boy Scouts or used by their leaders.

In spite of this, although many schools have made official endorsements of Free Software, as far as I know, Scout associations have made none. As of April 5th, 2004, searching the Web sites of the World Scout Movement, the International Union of Guides and Scouts of Europe and the Boy Scouts of America doesn't return anything about Linux and free software. I also asked for comments, without feedback so far, on the and mailing lists. The current requirements of the Computer and Internet Merit Badges of the Boy Scouts of America do not mention free software at all. Even a general search on Google didn't return anything relevant. Why hasn't this affinity been acknowledged before? I've been wondering for years, since I first realized what free software really was or could be about. For the record, I've been a Scout since 1977; I am not mixing random quotes found on-line last week in order to make noise. Instead, I want to stimulate a constructive discussion. Is it really true that no Scout association in the world officially uses and recommends free software? If so, why not, considering the similarities?

I'm almost sure that, until today, it simply has been a mix of innocent reasons: the sheer ignorance that there is an alternative; the need to concentrate on issues perceived as more urgent or closer to the "core business" (yes, I agree that Baden Powell himself would pour a mug of cold water down my sleeve for writing those two words); the existence of parents enraged because "Junior doesn't get his daily Pizza at Camp!!!!"; and the need to not irritate them further exactly because Junior sorely needs some Scouting, any Scouting, to remain sane.

I've personally been in similar situations as a Scout Master, and I know how it feels. Still, at least in the medium and long term, none of these arguments seems valid. There certainly may be other reasons, which escape me, why a tool that matches the Scout philosophy so well must remain ignored. If this is true, it would be a good idea to explain why and give clear directions to all Scouts. If, instead, there is a case to increase the adoption of free software among Scouts, let's look at some ways to achieve this goal faster.

The Eagle Conspiracy

While discussing this article with Linux Journal Editor in Chief, Don Marti, I learned that we both were Eagle Scouts (or the equivalent title in our respective Scout association). Alessandro Rubini, co-author of Writing Linux Device Drivers, and Marco Bravi, a founder of the Rome LUG also have a Scout master badge in their backpacks. Does all this point to some kind of on-line conspiracy, a potentially powerful league of Hacker Scouts, still largely unknown to one another? I'm quite sure this is the case and that such a league would count many members. Even if it doesn't exist yet, no problem; it's time to start it. Raise your hands, everybody!

Patching the Badges

Merit Badges are a good starting point for the project of closing the Scouting/free software gap. Currently, Software Badges exist in many Scout associations, which is a good thing. Scouts must be self-sufficient, both in the wild and in daily city life. Because the latter usually implies working with computers to some extent, the more they are known the better. It is in this spirit that I have prepared the short list of requirements below, applicable to all computer badges. Some of them are inspired directly by the concepts presented in this article, while others are more basic, aimed at helping Scouts become good Netizens. Any feedback is welcome.

  • 1.Describe the difference between free (as in Freedom) and proprietary software.

  • 2.Discuss the differences among free software, shareware and freeware.

  • 3.Describe the difference between open and proprietary protocols and file formats. Give at least three examples of each.

  • 4.Describe the difference between command-line and graphical user interfaces, pointing out the advantages of each.

  • 5.Install one or more operating systems on the same computer, starting from scratch.

  • 6.Download, compile and install a computer program from source.

  • 7.Apply a patch to the source code of a computer program.

  • 8.Install a firewall on a computer, and test it by using an on-line validating service.

  • 9.Be prepared to discuss digital signatures and how to exchange them among different operating systems.

  • 10.Be prepared to discuss Web site accessibility--why browser-specific code is counterproductive, how to guarantee that users with handicaps can use the site and so on.

  • 11.Describe the correct procedure to ask for support in on-line mailing lists.

  • 12.Demonstrate knowledge of proper behavior suitable for public mailing lists and newsgroups (Netiquette).

Let's Play the Free Software Game!

I hope I have made clear why I think Scouting and free software have a lot in common, and why the first should use the second. To me, Linux enables me to continue to be a Scout even when I'm at the keyboard. It also allows me to try to help others, as in the RULE Project. I'm convinced that if Baden Powell was alive today, he'd use Linux. Do you agree? If not, why not? Let me know your opinions, both on this forum and privately. I'm obviously eager to help Scouts use free software, and I am available for further discussion and support. Above all, invite all your Scout friends who don't know about free software to read this article and act, or at least provide feedback. Ask them (and yourself) how they would score on the following test, and, again, let me know:

  • Are you using free software to manage your Scout activities?

  • Are you asking that proprietary formats not be used on Scout Web sites and in official Scouts documents, nor sent as e-mail attachments?

  • Are you making sure your Scout Web site is viewable with any browser?

  • Are you at least using and its open file formats?

  • Are you encouraging your Scouts to use free software and to earn their Merit Badges with it?

  • Will you ask your Scout association to do and endorse all of the above?

Judging from what is available on-line, the most likely answer seems to be No in all cases. On the other hand, this could turn out to be a similar situation to what happened six or seven years ago, when corporate executives heard about Linux for the first time. They would call their system administrators and ask "why aren't we doing this open-source stuff yet?!?", only to discover that Linux already was on servers all over the place.

One last word: while talking to him about this article, Alessandro Rubini pointed out an interesting corollary to these thoughts of mine. Both Scouting and free software have been accused time and again of extremism. The first is supposed to be a bit too much on the right/nationalist/militarist side, while the latter makes the opposite "mistake". Hopefully, showing their affinities in this manner will help to demonstrate that neither accusation is well-founded. To me, both movements seem to arise from such a massive and healthy dose of common sense, a desire to be active and a love for a job well done as to be simply beyond any label of this kind.

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