The latest CONCEPT, the always probing Scottish Community Education Journal, has landed in my lap at a moment of some personal and political despair. A dearest friend and comrade of nearly 40 years is terminally ill. His cancer was missed – the other side of the COVID balance sheet. As he slips away I feel my [our] hopes for the future, our faith that ‘another world is possible’ slipping away too. As it is I hold his hand from afar, trapped on Crete, this locked-down island ‘paradise’. I send photos and anecdotes, phone and hope to hear his distinctive voice but he is often exhausted and distracted. The very title of this blog, ‘Chatting Critically’ is born of our shared conviction that at the heart of any would-be emancipatory relationship in youth work and far beyond is a willingness to listen, question and explore. In short to chat attentively, respectfully and openly. Perhaps I exaggerate but such a culture of contested concern seems to be on the wane. If we allow the parameters of public debate to be set by behavioural psychologists, who believe they know us better than we know ourselves, what else to expect?
In this light I can but thank all of those involved in CONCEPT and the Letters from Lockdown included in this Spring issue for making me smile a little and reflect afresh. Whilst I doubt whether I have departed the trough of despond, they have prevented me from falling further into its depths. It was much needed and is thoroughly appreciated.
I’m pleased and humbled to have an article in this special Covid-19 issue of CONCEPT. In the next few days I hope to return to and extend the argument to be found therein, summed up in the final sentence.
Surely, we cannot wash our hands of, keep our distance from, deny this once in a lifetime moment to turn the tide of history
Leave this aside the issue as ever is rich in its diversity of themes and in its range of practitioners. Guided by Mae Shaw’s editorial I hope very much that you will dip into its critical contents.
Editorial – Mae Shaw
This is the first time we have published a supplementary issue of Concept in our almost 30-year history. We were first motivated by a ‘call for solidarity’ from Luke Campbell (in this issue), drawing on his work with a local community action network since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. We hastily set to, seeking contributions from organisations and individuals we thought may be interesting, or interested to respond. It was not intended to be representative of the field of practice; more of a snapshot. We are aware that alongside a general sense of dislocation at this grim and demanding time, there is also alarming evidence of differential circumstances and experiences on the ground. We hoped to capture some of this for our readers, and to offer a modest opportunity to record, reflect, express, share and, maybe even generate some small sense of solidarity, needed now more than ever. The response has been very encouraging, and the number of contributions has grown beyond our original estimate.
The now ubiquitous claim that ‘we are all in this together’ may be accurate in some general existential sense, but the contributions here demonstrate how existing social and material inequalities are reproduced and heightened in this catastrophe. As many of the articles illustrate, some people are stuck at home, while other people are stuck without homes. Susie Dalton highlights how home can be the most dangerous place for some women, while John Player argues that a decent home has become an almost hopeless aspiration for many homeless people in Scotland today. For some young carers, as Mel Aitken shows, home can be both a prison and a place of protection and affection in a time of lockdown, with exhausting personal consequences. In the South African context, where inequalities of class, race and gender are more endemic and visible, Astrid von Kotze demonstrates how the residual geography of apartheid dictates the parameters of what ‘home’ means in practice, with poor black people (women in particular) trying to mitigate the greatest threats from the virus in impossible conditions.
A matter of increasing and widespread concern is the extent to which ‘vulnerability’ is becoming a shorthand for lack of personal agency for some. George Lamb, disability rights activist, is concerned about the ways in which the current ‘vulnerability’ script may undo the gains made by the disability movement in their decades-long struggle for rights, not charity, denying the voices of disabled people at this critical time. Some of the same concerns about reconstituting forms of dependency, which have been so strenuously resisted in recent years, are emerging in relation to the implicit ‘ageism’ reflected in much public health policy. Emphasising the continuing agency of ‘vulnerable’ people needs to be a primary concern for practitioners in this field. In any case, if this crisis has taught us one very useful human lesson, it is that we are all profoundly vulnerable!
Making donations and volunteering to help others in respectful ways are important forms of agency, but so too is the capacity to question, and to accept that there will be contradictions. In struggling to make sense of the current reality, and using online resources to meet with like-minded others, Anne O’Donnell is rediscovering the ‘healing’ power of theory: the therapeutic properties of thinking, understanding, grasping, revisiting longstanding analytical frameworks and assessing the value of new ones. What’s more, as Lisa Rigby makes clear, this kind of critical awareness can creatively ‘bleed’ into other interrelated spheres which are not at present included sufficiently in public discourse: ‘…. public/private finance, international affairs, and ideas about health, including around the use of illicit drugs’.
Fear and growing anger about the cumulative effects of long-term austerity on the ability of public services to respond to crisis are matched by growing apprehension about the future of precious public assets. Callum McGregor is concerned that the now commonplace collective displays of ‘symbolic solidarity’ for ‘frontline’ workers do not inadvertently undermine a model of genuine ‘civic solidarity’ which expresses a selective determination to secure more equitable rights and rewards mediated through a democratic state polity. In the midst of such sincere outpouring of public goodwill, it can seem churlish to remind people that the British National Health Service is a tax-funded public service, not a charity – and certainly not a business. There will undoubtedly be attempts in due course to depoliticise this crisis, to reinforce rather than challenge the current ideological orthodoxy. But there will also undoubtedly be attempts to seize the crisis as an urgent educational opportunity; as a warning of even worse things to come unless that ideological orthodoxy is seriously challenged.
The immensely unequal distribution of private goods, gained at the expense of the wider public good, may become even more transparent as vast inequalities of wealth and privilege are laid bare. Tony Taylor believes that neoliberal fetishism of the free market and the sovereign individual has been fatally wounded; found completely inadequate to the demands of the current crisis, as ‘society turns to the nurse, not the entrepreneur’. At the same time, and depending on its severity, the crisis may force a fundamental rethink of what is a reasonable way to inhabit the planet, and the economic and social relations which sustain or destroy it.
Many of the contributions here draw attention to the power of community (in all its ambivalence), and to the creativity, empathy, reciprocity and mutuality inherent in human beings which can be either fostered or squandered. The question is how this critical and fearful rupture can generate a genuine and vibrant curriculum for educational work and action with communities of place, identity and interest. As Arundhati Roy rightly observes ‘Nothing could be worse than a return to normality’! We all look forward to looking back on this benighted time sooner rather than later. In the meantime, if you want to contribute to this discussion, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m pleased, even if the times seem dark, to have an article in this special edition of CONCEPT, the always challenging and diverse Scottish Community Education journal.
Entitled ‘The Decline of the Local Authority Youth Service in England – Reflections of an actor in its demise’ its conclusion written a few months ago is not too far off the mark.
Let me finish, though, on a fanciful if melodramatic note. Given the present political turmoil, it is possible that by the end of the year we will be governed by either an authoritarian, right-wing, populist administration or by a progressive alliance [Labour, SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru] committed to a social-democratic programme of redistribution and renationalisation. In these contrasting scenarios, what price youth work, what price a Youth Service?
Mel Aitken and Mae Shaw, the editors explain:
This is a special issue of Concept which considers the changed and changing landscape of youth work in the UK. It includes contributions which take a backward look in order to locate present day developments, articles which reflect on contemporary themes, issues and practices, and interviews with current youth workers who are striving to manage the contradictions of politics and policy for young people, on the ground.
In the early days of In Defence of Youth Work, we upset the then CEO of the National Youth Agency, Fiona Blacke by criticising the organisation’s embrace of neoliberalism and its outcomes-led, market-oriented agenda. Frustrated by our evident idealism she accused some of us, particularly those of an elderly bent, of ‘drowning in history’, clutching for survival onto battered copies of Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’. As it was we were quite taken by being so represented. We flirted with the idea of printing t-shirts with the slogan ‘Proud to be a Pedagogue of the Oppressed’, but the mood thankfully passed. Ironically too, in terms of my own political biography, Freire has been a footnote rather than a chapter in the narrative. Truth is, my copy of ‘Pedagogy’ sits somewhere on my bookshelves in very good condition, not at all well-thumbed.
Encouraged by colleagues, who had qualified through the Manchester Polytechnic Youth & Community course, I did read Freire’s seminal work in around 1977. Leave aside the tortured style I warmed to his argument, the emphasis on dialogue, on a politicised consciousness [conscientização], on the struggle against oppression. However, it was not a revelatory experience. Now this muted response, I will claim, was not born of an excess of arrogance. It was no more than my journey towards some form of radical pedagogy followed a different route. By twist of fate, a cocktail of child-centred teacher training, non-directive counselling and Marxist-feminist education, the latter as a member of a small Trotskyist grouplet lubricated my faltering effort to comprehend usefully the relationship between the individual and society, between agency and structure. If names need to be cited, John Dewey, Carl Rogers, the young Marx, Sheila Rowbotham, Jo Freeman and Christine Delphy were an eclectic mix of influences – see below.
Dewey, J. (2011). Democracy and Education. Milton Keynes: Simon and Brown.
Rogers, Carl. (1969). Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become. (1st ed.) Columbus, Ohio: Charles Meril
Marx, K. Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (London, UK: Penguin Books, 1973)
Rowbotham, S. Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World (Pelican, 1973; Verso, 2015)
Thus, although I was heavily involved in the creation of what were viewed in those days as controversial part-time youth worker training courses, references to Freire’s work were noticeable by their absence. However, in the mid-1980s, whilst working for Leicestershire’s Community Education department I bumped into Freire once more, courtesy of his greater influence on community work and his significance on the curriculum of the De Montfort University full-time diploma and graduate courses. Indeed one of its lecturers at the time, Paul Taylor was to find prominence as the author of ‘The Texts of Paulo Freire’  and the INFED piece, ‘Dialogue, conversation and praxis’.
Yet, despite this proximity, I continued to keep Freire at arms-length. Ironically he fell foul of my growing rejection of Marxism as a quasi-religious dogma, complete with its own holy scripts, defended by a hierarchy of authoritarian leaders and obedient followers. Stimulated by Cornelius Castoriadis, ‘theory as such is a making/doing, the always uncertain attempt ….to elucidate the world’, I became increasingly cautious about the way in which theory stagnates into no more than the reiteration of established beliefs, passed down from gurus of one sort or another. Despite Freire’s insistence upon the centrality of reflective practice – Marx too demanded ‘the merciless criticism of everything that exists’ – his adherents seemed often less than self-critical and more than self-righteous about their practice, not so different in their blinkered outlook from my erstwhile revolutionary comrades. I decided I was neither a Marxist nor a Freirian.
None of which means I’ve no time for either Marx or Freire, far from it. It might though reveal that I’m guilty of reiterating mindlessly a seemingly dismissive perspective on Freire, which I haven’t questioned for decades. In the case of the latter this can’t continue, given the welcome publication of the latest edition of the Scottish Community Education journal, CONCEPT, a ‘Special Anniversary Issue: Pedagogy of the Oppressed’.
For now, I’m tangling with the challenging consequences of reading the truly fascinating diversity of articles that make up this celebration of the 50th anniversary of ‘Pedagogy’s’ publication, whilst contemplating Mel Aitken and Mae Shaw’s conclusion to their editorial.
We regard the Special Issue as a fitting tribute from a range of distinctive voices to perhaps one of the most distinctive, compelling and (still) contemporary voices in popular education.
I hope you will find the time to explore the contents and even join in a discussion about Freire’s legacy. A few immediate thoughts spring to mind.
The special issue underlines the continuing importance of Freire for community education and community development, particularly rooting this assertion in the Scottish experience. To what extent is this optimism that ‘the Freirean road remains open and full of hope’ mirrored elsewhere in today’s disUnited Kingdom?
Significantly none of the articles speaks directly about youth work, posing the question for youth workers, past and present, what has been or is the influence of Freire on their every-day engagement with young people and perchance the community?