Developing youth work: Chapter 6 – Good purpose

developing youth work

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Here Mark Smith, in chapter 6 of Developing Youth Work, explores what might lie at the heart of youth work. He underlines the educational nature of the work. He also returns to notions of human well-being and suggests that educators are concerned with enlarging people’s appreciation of it, and developing their ability to act. Smith suggests that the (associational) nature of the institutions in which youth workers tended operate opened up significant possibilities.

contents: introduction · what is right? what is good? · educators and well-being · youth workers as educators · educators in the community · enlarging understandings of well-being · references

This chapter was an attempt to explore the purpose of youth work. Looking back at it, there are a number of significant gaps in the analysis – and it is simplistic in places, In addition, my formulation of purpose is distinctly inelegant. However, the chapter does contain a number of the themes that Tony Jeffs and I were to rework and develop in Using Informal Education (1990) and Informal Education (1996; 1999). In chapter 1 of the former we develop a little model of the process that places reflection upon, and discernment of, the good at the core (our position could be labelled as neo-Aristotlean or virtue-based). We argue that informal educators should be committed to that which is right rather than that which is ‘correct’.  We have continued to stress the associational nature of informal education and youth work, and have looked, as Dewey suggested, to working so that all may share in a common life. In Local Education (1994: 167) I explored this notion and ended up arguing for the nurture of community, conversation and praxis (informed, and committed action):

Local education involves grounding practice, or praxis to be more accurate, in local life. It stresses solidarity, cooperation and social responsibility. It requires workers to seek and value conversation; to engage with the views of others and the traditions we all inhabit. Its practitioners want to see people take their place in, and change, the world as free, but committed and connected agents. Their task, in short, is to foster those forms of local life which nurture community, conversation and praxis. 

I am not very happy today at approaching the area of purpose via the sort of route that John White suggests. However, the argument did end up in some interesting places – one of which is the notion of civic courage (after Agnes Heller), another is the realm of cultural critique (after Henry Giroux), and yet another is the nature of selfhood. Today I would not dare to approach this area via such a problematic notion as autonomy.

Lastly, I am not that confident about the notion of ‘youth work’. In Developing Youth Work I suggested that the phenomenon was best approached as different sets of practices (i.e. there are many youth works). More recently, as Tony Jeffs and I argued in ‘the problem of “youth” for youth work’, there are growing difficulties with the notion of youth itself – but in many respects that basis for working with ‘youth’ is the same as was set out in this chapter. If people define themselves as ‘young people’and seek out each others’ company – then we have the basis for practice.

Mark K. Smith. 2001

links: informal education · dialogue and conversation · association · praxis · using informal education – chapter one · Aristotle and practical reasoning · John Dewey · education in the community · social pedagogy · community · selfhood · civic participation · the problem of ‘youth’ for youth work


[page 106] In this chapter we approach an apparently simple question, ‘what should youth workers set out to do?’ As with all such questions, searching for an answer is far from straightforward. The traditions discussed in Chapter 3 reveal a range of ideas about what the proper purpose of youth work might be. Such divergence is inevitable given the various interests involved. Again, there are debates as to the actual functions of youth work. Does it promote the welfare of individuals, serve to secure the reproduction of the means of production and existing power relations, promote community or what? Those questions have already been approached. Here our primary interest is in what should, and what could, be.

What is right? What is good?

Such is the variety of possible ends, values and ideals which are relevant to how individuals ought to live their lives and how a community ought to organize, that the problem is how to choose between them and implement programmes that realize their promise. In order to make choices we might ask what action is right or what action makes for the greatest good. The latter question expresses, of course, a utilitarian concern. The basic thesis is that whatever choice or policy maximizes the positive balance of pleasure over pain across a group, or for a single individual if only s/he is concerned, is what is good. There is a simple equation between ‘the good’ and happiness or pleasure. In so far as an action results in a good result, it is right. However, pleasure provides a less than adequate account of the good. It is not the sole good. Hence, within welfare economics in particular, an attempt has been made to [page 107] replace the maximization of pleasure with the maximum satisfaction of desires or wants in predicted or actual preferences. In other words, we make a decision as to what might produce the greatest amount of utility. Thus, when appraising different programme possibilities, we ask what action maximizes benefits and minimizes costs for the whole group? There is an immediate problem in this. It can be argued that the principle of maximizing utility is incapable of protecting the fundamental interest~ of some individuals. ‘Because the disadvantages to the few can be counter-balanced by benefits to the many, utilitarianism cannot justify a concern for basic individual interests’ (Weale, 1983: 17). In this way it is possible that minorities can be severely disadvantaged.

Several alternatives to utilitarianism have been advanced, but the most influential in terms of recent social policy thinking has been the work of Rawls (1972). The central place he accorded to social justice provided a lift to those who believed that this was the proper aim of social policy. Rawls sought to construct an independent theory of justice. What is right or just was to be established separately from what is good or makes for the most good. He called his approach a procedural theory of justice: ‘Pure procedural justice obtains when there is no independent criterion for the right result; instead there is a correct or fair procedure such that the outcome is likewise correct or fair, whatever it is’ (Rawls, 1972: 86). The operational principles of justice are first that:

each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all . . . [and, secondly, thati . . . social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of equality of opportunity. (Rawls, 1972: 302—3)

Rawls is, in essence, proposing three different concepts, ranked in this order:

(i)    equality in basic liberties;

(ii)   equality of opportunity for advancement;

(iii)  positive discrimination in favour of the underprivileged to ensure equity. (Jones et al., 1983: 14)

The argument is, that if such principles are followed, the outcome will necessarily be just and good, even though the exact experience of the just society cannot be specified in advance. However, in calling [page 108] his theory of justice ‘procedural’, ‘Rawls seems to bestow on it an aura of impartiality, whereas the procedures he specifies are designed to further a particular form of society’ (Goodwin, 1982: 273). This form is implicit in the original assumptions. In other words, he smuggles a range of liberal ideas into what is claimed to be an objective theory. Thus, just how successful Rawls was in his enterprise, indeed whether his scheme is essentially different to utilitarianism, is open to considerable debate. In reality, his theory of fairness asserts a particular social idea without a substantial theory of the good.

In many respects Marx’s account of the good poses similar problems. In his Critique of the Got ha Programme, Marx sets out some elements of the communist society:

When the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and with it the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; when labour is no longer merely a means of life but has become life’s principle need; when the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly – only then will it be possible to transcend the narrow outlook of bourgeois right, and only then will society be able to inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! (Marx, 1875: 263)

The socialist principle of distribution, while clearly exhibiting its value base, is also procedural. There is a clear ordering of criteria, with that of need being dominant in the distribution of material goods, and opportunities appropriate to talents, given that equal needs and talents are treated equally. ‘Equality would be invoked in the many areas of life where need is not paramount. . . . Thirdly, merit may determine the distribution of any surplus goods when basic needs are satisfied’ (Goodwin, 1982: 274). However, when we come to examine the nature of the communist society, we can see that Marx’s notion of what is good for human beings centres around creative social labour. This is somewhat limited, especially when we consider other possible and additional candidates such as health, friendship, sex and religion.

In order to proceed further in our understanding of what the purpose of youth work should be, it is necessary to have both a more adequate theory of the good and a theory of justice and principles by which the good may be distributed. Such an original task is clearly beyond the scope of this book. Instead, we will follow a naturalist [page 109] line of analysis developed by Alan Brown (1986) and revert to an Aristotlean argument. This is, that by identifying human nature in sufficient detail, we shall discover to a reasonably determinate extent the nature of human good. This is a similar exercise to that suggested by Pring (1984) in respect of personal and social education (see Chapter 5). He argued that such philosophical reflection ‘should be a part of the professional job of those who introduce personal and social education into the curriculum and into the life of the school’ (Pring, 1984: 167). There will be many reading these words who are either unfamiliar with this approach or who are schooled in another tradition of moral philosophy. Here I want to simply say that this is the route with which I am most happy. It is possible to reach a similar end-point via somewhat different lines of argument (see, e.g. Lindley, 1986).

Central to Aristotle’s efforts is the question ‘What is the good life for wo/man?’ This human good or eudaimonia is sometimes translated as human flourishing or well-being, and has much in common with Mill’s concept of human happiness (Lindley, 1986: 104). Brown suggests that there are certain activities and behaviours that are characteristic of humans and that it is therefore possible to say whether these things are suited to them. These would then be constitutive of the good life (A. Brown, 1986: 135). He offers one such set of basic human goods as a starter:

1. The means of subsistence; adequate food, clothing, shelter and so on.

2. Pleasure. . . . Human beings do indeed value pleasure for its own sake, so that it can be described as an irreducible aspect of the truly good life.

3. Work, rest and play; these constitute the basic activities that human beings must engage in if their lives are to be well-balanced, if they are to develop as human beings.

4. Social relationships: these constitute the proper social context for the pursuit of the basic good activities, and reflect the fact that we have social, and not just private, needs. (A. Brown, 1986: 159)

There will of course be endless debates about what constitutes, say, a good form of work or play. Further, each class of good is elastic. In other words, we can have too much or too little of each. Nevertheless, each of the basic goods must be present to some extent for life to be as good as it can be:

The idea is that the proper enjoyment of each class of good leads to self-development, flourishing or the good life. But [page 110] these. . . are not some further good or end to which the basic goods are merely means. The good life is but the name we give to a life which successfully combines the basic goods. (A. Brown, 1986: 160)

For goods to be reconciled and ordered it is necessary to engage in a process of practical reasoning and it is not possible to use simple rules or procedures such as those associated with Rawls’s principles of justice or that of utility. However, having established that if a life is to be as good as it can be, i.e. it must include all the basic goods, it is possible to discover the proper extent of engagement in each basic good through trial and error. Individuals can of course look beyond their immediate experience for guidance. Science and commonsense understandings may provide some indication of proportion. As the pursuit of the goods will usually involve the cooperation of others, such activity has to be coordinated. ‘The need to live in a society which has definite social structures will impose a system on the pursuit of the good — it will dictate norms of family life, economic activity, creative pursuits and so on’ (A. Brown, 1986: 161). Knowing that good will be fostered best in certain types of social structure, it is logical to accept the rules and restrictions generated by that structure which relate to the basic goods.

Educators and well-being

If we now consider what might be the role of educators in relation to this way of proceeding, and here we are heavily dependent on the work of White (1982), then it is apparent that their tasks will be three-fold. First, individuals have to understand in general terms what their well-being consists in. They have to see themselves as animals with an array of desires, ‘and to appreciate the way in which these desires may take different forms owing to cultural influences and new desires of all kinds be built out of them’ (White, 1982: 58). This process is both expansionary (it opens up doors) and restrictive (i.e. choices have to be made).

Secondly, the educational task must include the development of competencies in relation to the attainment of such basic human goods. This involves the development of skills in relationships, in obtaining the means of subsistence, in work and so on.

Thirdly, and crucially, the possession of general understandings and skills is not enough – educators also have a fundamental role in shaping dispositions. In other words, people need to gain various dispositions or virtues which enable them to fit all this together into a coherent whole.

[page 111] To proceed it is necessary to address questions surrounding the relationship of the individual to the collectivity: the extent to which education is for the good of the individual or the collectivity. There is a tension between education as an activity which seeks to offer benefits to individuals and education which is designed primarily to meet ‘society’s needs’. When understood in terms of the longstanding problem of the relationship of person-centred to moral aims in education, then a number of ways of attempting to resolve such tensions are apparent (White, 1982: 68—92). The first is simply to assert that the individual’s good is identical with the good of others. In a situation of scarce resources and limited opportunities this argument is difficult to sustain. At some point individuals pursuing their own interests must clash in such a way as to make the term ‘common good’ meaningless.

A second course is to assume that an individual’s good should be of central importance to her/him within a framework of minimum moral duties. It is in the individual’s self interest, as in everybody elses’, for there to be generally accepted moral rules providing a framework within which people can serve their own ends. This sounds like the morality of the market, of the pursuit of profit within a minimal framework of rules. As might be expected, this course also leaves a range of questions unanswered — how extensive are the moral obligations involved? To what extent should the individual promote the well-being of others? ‘The choices for the minimal moralist seem to be irrational rule-worship on the one hand or free-riding on the other’ (White, 1982: 84).

The third possibility is universalistic — individuals should work self-sacrificingly for the good of humanity. Not only is this a denial of the worth of the individual and the self, it would also appear to fly in the face of what we know of human nature. To put forward as a morality something which, even if it were admirable, would be an impossible ideal, is likely to do more harm than good. ‘It encourages the treatment of moral principles not as guides to action but as a fantasy which accompanies actions with which it is quite incompatible (Mackie, 1977: 131—2).

A fourth possibility is to argue that individuals should work for the good of small communities, which, being small, help them to realize their own well-being. These small communities are, in turn, nested within larger communities, so linking individuals to humankind as a whole. This argument faces similar problems as the first, but at least has the appeal of making moral obligations concrete, that is to say operating around people in face-to-face situations. However, there are major problems here concerning the nature of the [page 112] relationship between the localized community and the larger one about the extent of boundaries.

White, having reviewed the four options, proceeds to argue that a solution is possible via the idea of autonomy and an enlarged understanding of well-being (1982: 92-103). Education, he argues, should aim at individuals autonomously pursuing their own well-being. To be autonomous requires that people have a developed self, to which their actions can be ascribed. ‘In turn this requires a consciousness of oneself as a being who acts for reasons, whose behaviour can be explained by reference to one’s own goals and purposes’ (Lindley, 1986: 6). A second dimension of autonomy requires freedom from external constraints. That is to say, an autonomous person is someone who is not manipulated by others. Such a person is able to act in pursuit of self-chosen goals. However, autonomy on its own is not enough to get around the problems of reconciling person-centred and moral aims. We might be left with a ‘solution’ looking uncomfortably like one of those already rejected.

One way forward is to introduce the idea of responsibilities as, for example, the Grubb Institute has done when defining that state of being known as ‘adulthood’: ‘To be an adult is to remain in touch with your capacities and responsibilities whatever the relation between the context and oneself’ (quoted in YMCA, 1986: 3).

The definition is reminiscent of some of the conceptions of social education discussed in the last chapter and could be attractive to those seeking some purpose in youth work. Its particular virtue is the emphasis upon ‘connectedness’, which presumably means something more than simply knowing one’s limits and duties. It also involves relating the different attitudes and motives that a person may hold and becoming conscious of their contradictions. Aside from questions as to whether the word ‘adult’ with all its other meanings is a helpful way of labelling this state, a major problem facing this definition is that it only has a flimsy theory of the good when compared with well-being. For example, it says little directly about the nature of the responsibilities. Essentially what is said is that to be in touch is to be good.

White skates around some of these problems by enlarging what people may understand of their own well-being’. The well-being that educators should help individuals to pursue involves leading a life of moral virtue. In this life, the individual’s own needs should not automatically be given preferential treatment but be weighed in relation to the needs of others (1982: 98). The process by which this [page 113] weighing takes place returns us to the concerns of the opening section of the chapter. There it was argued that the purpose of the political community should be the pursuit of the good. This good is the good of the individual members of the community. The good life is one which involves all the basic goods to the proper extent. Thus the good society is one which promotes such lives, at least as a prime objective (A. Brown, 1986: 166—7) and good people are those who seek the basic goods to the proper extent in both their own, and generally in others’, lives.

Individuals cannot make decisions about what constitutes well-being in this enlarged sense without reference to others. The scale and nature of such cooperation would appear to take us beyond the sort of minimalist position already dismissed. In other words, the full development of any individual requires the presence of sophisticated and convivial social structures. This very reliance on social relations should lead people ‘to reject any social system which systematically denies anyone access to any basic goods if an improvement is possible – even where that improvement will impose costs in terms of other goods to some’ (A. Brown, 1986: 169).

For individuals to understand and care that their own well-being consists in weighing their own needs and interests with those of others, they also require a social and political system which allows such individual decisions to be made and carried out and which ensures access to basic goods. Manifestly, liberal or bourgeois democratic societies have failed to realize the development, maintenance and exercise of autonomy (Lindley, 1986: 187). Capitalism, whether private or state, has been unable to deliver the proper distribution of basic human goods. As a result, the task of educators is not merely to help people to develop their own understanding of what exists and what is good, they must also work with people so that they may answer the question ‘what is to be done?’ Such political or citizenship education is not simply about knowledge, it also has to do with attitudes and feelings, and with the acquisition of appropriate skills (M. Smith, 1987: 3—8). Knowing what to do is not enough, people must also have the disposition and capacity to act, so that they may challenge and attempt to transform the political, social and economic forces which deny them well-being. They must be educated to display civic courage:

one should think and act as if one were in a real democracy. The fundamental bravery of this way of life is not military heroism but civic courage. Whoever says no to the dominant prejudices and to the oppressing power, and when necessary (and it is often necessary) to public opinion, and practises this [page 114] throughout his life and in his life-conduct has the virtue of civic courage. (Heller, 1976: 202)

Developing civic courage and the other knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and act upon the institutions and processes which significantly affect well-being is a daunting task and places a number of duties upon the educator as Giroux has indicated (1983: 202—3). First, the active nature of people’s participation in the learning process must be stressed. Learning relationships have to be structured to facilitate dialogue and critical engagement (see Chapter 7). Secondly, people must be taught to think critically. They need to be able to engage in questioning, problem-posing and theory-making which connects with the situations they find themselves in. Thirdly, ‘the development of a critical mode of reasoning must be used to enable students to appropriate their own histories, i.e. to delve into their own biographies and systems of meaning’ (Giroux, 1983: 202—3). A critical education will provide the conditions for people to address their own culture, to own their experiences and thinking, and hence to speak with their own voices. Fourthly, people must also learn what is good, they must learn what values are central to human life and well-being and how such values are transmitted and tortured in the interests of the powerful. Finally, people must learn about the structural and ideological forces which influence and restrict their lives:

The order of priorities, the scale of values in our everyday life is largely taken over ready-made, it is calibrated in accordance with position in society, and little on it is movable. There is little opportunity to ‘cultivate’ our abilities beyond, at best, very narrow confines. (Heller, 1984: 15)

Part of the educator’s task is to enable opportunities, however limited, to help people to gain the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes in order that they may push back the boundaries within which they may act for the good.

We can now see the wholeness of the educational enterprise. While the focus here may be on the political, ‘the human meaning of public issues must be revealed by relating them to personal troubles — and to the problems of the individual life’ (Mills, 1970: 248). The questions ‘what exists, what is good and what is to be done?’ relate as much to the individual self as to the context in which it exists. If individuals are to pursue their own well-being autonomously, and if there is to be an ‘association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’ [page 115] (Marx and Engels, 1888: 76), then educators must help people to achieve a state of active and critical connectedness or nexus both within and beyond their selves in order that the proper balance of basic goods may be achieved.

Before leaving this discussion it is necessary to reflect upon the relevance here of the criticisms made of social education in the last chapter. First, it should be noted that the approach adopted, by enlarging the notion of well-being and by recognizing the fundamental importance of social relations and structures, has been able to reconcile person-centredness with broader political and moral aims. Secondly, while the dangers of paternalism and the use of contested notions such as adolescence remain, they are strongly counter-balanced by an insistence that education should aim at individuals autonomously pursuing their own well-being. Enabling people to act in pursuit of self-chosen goals requires the educator to operate so that young people may take responsibility for their learning. Thirdly, there must be some question as to the ethnocentricity of this model, just as there was in the discussion of social education. At one level autonomy is a liberal notion, yet great value has also been placed upon it within classical Marxism. However, it is not a universal feature of all cultures. Thus, the central question is whether it is objectively valid, whether people ought to be brought up to be autonomous (White, 1982: 128). Such a state requires a developed sense of the self and a will of one’s own, that people should be free to choose and take responsibility for their own actions. In order to ameliorate, but not dispose of, the charge of cultural aggression, specific attention must be paid to the nature of the self. This sense of self may be Hindu, Shinto, Confucian, whatever. In other words, people may choose to be dependent on selected others. Hence, the thinking advanced here may be universally applicable. That is to say it may be acceptable to particular elements within broad cultures. However, many would dispute the notion of autonomy and the implications it may have for life.

Youth workers as educators

Thus far we have been able to progress without actually saying what education is and why it should be the focus of identity for youth workers. To ‘educate’ was originally to rear or bring up children or animals, its root apparently lying in educere, to lead forth (Williams, 1976: 95). In this way education was age-specific, essentially applying to children. The content was to be found in ‘the culture which each generation purposely gives to those who are to be its successors, [page 116] in order to qualify them for at least keeping up, and if possible for raising, the level of improvement which has been attained’ (Mill, 1867). However, such an inter-generational perspective is inadequate as learning continues through life. While people may be described as educated, that is not a fixed state, they can never know or be able to do everything. In addition, education either can be self-directed or facilitated by others. But, such a conclusion should not be allowed to blur ‘the vital distinction between a person’s upbringing, which for him cannot be voluntary, and his adult learning activities, whether cultural or occupational, which should be voluntary’ (White, 1982: 132).

It is also apparent that education is intentional, i.e. people seek to improve themselves or try to help others learn. As part of the process people have to manage the external conditions that facilitate the internal change called learning (Brookfield, 1986: 46). In other words, there has to be some plan for learning. From this we have an understanding of education as a process which is to some extent planned and aimed at facilitating learning. However, such is the breadth of this understanding, that a number of other forms of interventions can also come under its aegis. It may be that the phenomenon is so complex as to be beyond adequate definition, but at this stage things do not look so hopeless. It is possible to approach a broad definition. We have already seen that education is incorrigibly normative and idealistic and it is this that Jarvis picks on to define education as ‘any planned series of incidents, having a humanistic basis, directed towards the participants learning and understanding’ (1983a: 5, 1983b: 26). In focusing upon a humanistic basis, let us return to Dewey:

Knowledge is humanistic in quality not because it is about human products in the past, but because of what it does in liberating human intelligence and human sympathy. Any subject matter which accomplishes this result is humane, and any subject matter which does not accomplish it is not even educational. (Dewey, 1916: 230).

Humanism ‘means at bottom being imbued with an intelligent sense of human interests’ (Dewey, 1916: 288), and while its invocation may separate education from indoctrination, it does not set it aside from, say, therapy. At one level this is because therapy inevitably involves education, but further differentiation is possible as soon as we examine the balance of theories appealed to and practices used. These are reflected, to some extent, in the contrast between the social and personal development and welfaring traditions of youth [page 117] work (see Chapter 3); in the contrast of developmental psychology with psychoanalytical theory and abnormal psychology; in a concern with ‘normal’ people rather than those ‘in trouble’; and in different frameworks for contact (Hudson, 1984: 48—9).

The question now arises, why should youth workers appeal to educational ideas and practices as the central point of orientation in their occupational identity? Given scarce resources, the key consideration is the extent to which the adoption of an educational as against any other youth work identity promotes lives in which all the basic goods are involved to the proper extent. This is a deeply political question and at this point we have to enter the messy world of existing institutions, traditions and practices. Historically two themes have dominated the discussion of purpose in youth work: education and amusement. In the case of the latter, the simple provision of opportunities for social relationships or for play does nothing directly to enable people to gain the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes in order that they may make use of such openings. Secondly, it allows moral and political calculations as to what is proper or good and how individuals weigh their own and others’ interests to go by the board. At this simple level the case for education is clear. Furthermore, it will be argued that the nature and shape of many youth work institutions and traditions are peculiarly suited to particular educational tasks. If they did not exist, something very much like them would have to be invented.

Against this we must consider the claims of other forms of intervention: the therapeutic, the provision of material goods, the creation of opportunities for vocational skilling and so on. Two questions are central here: what does youth work possess which makes it especially disposed to particular forms of intervention, and what can or do other agencies offer? In the case of the former, the weight of history lies heavily in education’s favour; in the latter, as we saw in Chapter 4, powerful institutions already exist with the potential, if not the disposition and direction, to promote lives in which all the basic goods are involved to the proper extent.

Youth workers need to commit themselves fully to making a choice. Those not solidly locked into a particular youth work tradition are likely to lack a coherent occupational identity. Not having that deep sense of place and purpose not only leaves them vulnerable to fads and fashions, but it is also personally debilitating and unsettling. They lack a home in the world and, as such, have difficulties ‘making sense’ (Heller, 1983: 65). For their work to proceed they will have to name their essence. [page 118]

Educators in the community

If youth workers accept they are educators and that they should aim to enable individuals to pursue their own well-being autonomously, then it is necessary to define what their distinctive contribution is. Educators in other institutions have expanded their work with young people and have adopted many of the concerns, methods and rationales associated with youth work. While schools, for example, may experience difficulties in providing appropriate programmes to enable social and personal development, their scope and scale dwarf those of youth work. Within what has been advanced here there is a clear rationale for their interventions with young people in this respect. Given that significant intellectual, physiological and social developments are associated with youth, there should be a desire to enable young people to understand what their well-being consists of in relation to these. At the same time these developments strengthen the conditions that allow individuals to pursue their own well-being autonomously. Should then these concerns be the central focus for youth workers? The very expansion of other agencies into this arena and their relative success and potential suggests that youth workers must offer something very special in this respect if they are to remain relevant in welfare. One such candidate could be their potential as educators in the community.

Schooling rarely engages in a sustained way with networks beyond those immediately presented within its walls. Further, as Rogers and Groombridge have argued about adults: ‘most … learning goes on outside the classroom and always will. It is such a mundane and familiar activity that it is easy to overlook how deliberately and constantly many millions of adults are seeking to learn something new’ (1976: 58). Where educators do seek to connect, where they work ‘in the community’, they are often set apart from teachers. At one level, making such a distinction between school and community is nonsensical. The school is part of the local social systems that many would see as constituting the community. In this sense, educators are as much in the community when teaching third years French, as when engaged in a heated discussion about modern art in the Over-60s Club. However, when approached symbolically a rather different picture emerges, a picture which places a special emphasis on people’s experience and perceptions, and the way in which they construct and use boundaries in order to give substance to their values and identities (Cohen, 1985). Wallrnan has used the device of a person’s ‘locus of identity’ to good effect in this [page 119] respect (1984: 214). To call someone an educator in the community is to say that their identity as an educator is sustained in significant ways by the structures and forms which they associate with that entity. These structures may be provided by religious bodies, family gatherings, hobbyists’ societies, tenants associations, street-corner groups, neighbourly networks, and a myriad of other everyday situations. In some, education will be the central focus, in others just one consideration among many. Often the role of the educator in these situations is to enable individuals and groups to identify, plan, resource, carry out and evaluate their own learning projects. The educator’s expertise is in the process of education, rather than in the specific topic for ultimate study.

Youth workers with a remit to work as educators in the community may offer their educational process skills in much the same way. The learning projects that young people identify may well differ from those of older age groups, given the particular social, physical and emotional experiences associated with youth. Indeed, it is easy to predict what some of the main themes will be. However, the central point about this relationship is that the educator does not seek to bring a particular curriculum to young people, other than that associated with the process of learning and with the values that it expresses and implies.

Alternatively, youth workers may actively seek the adoption of a particular curriculum, such as in the various programmes associated with health education. Here the desire might be to raise awareness and competence in relation to particular areas such as childcare, solvent abuse and AIDs. However, entry and the resulting programme still have to be negotiated and this entails a different relationship between practitioners and young people than that which usually exists within schools or, indeed, within much youth work. It is more akin to the relationship between community workers and neighbourhood groups. In the school or youth club, practitioners usually see themselves as being responsible for what happens. Youth workers manage buildings, initiate groups, organize programmes, arrange equipment and take the blame when things go wrong. Community workers may do all or some of these things, but the balance is different, and this may arise from their more generalized respect for the integrity and responsibilities of the groups they work alongside.

All this implies a vital shift in the rationale for working with young people, one which recognizes a movement from the compulsory sphere of upbringing towards the voluntary concerns of adult learning activities. The new rationale for working with young [page 120] people would be first because they are ‘there’. In other words, part of the reason for working with youth is that ‘youth’ appears to have meaning in the lives of a particular group of people. Young people seek out each other’s company, want to do things together, seem to feel that there are particular problems about being ‘young’. The second reason for wanting to work with this group is that it would appear that at this particular moment people, for the first time, are attempting to step outside themselves in order to make sense of the world. While it is clear that change is possible throughout life, the apparent fact that young people are beginning to think in a different way should signal a change in the sort of work that can be done and the relationship of the educator to them.

The pedagogic assumptions underlying these approaches are clearly in line with what has been said about purpose in this chapter: the processes would appear to be capable of helping individuals to pursue their own well-being autonomously; however, content would have to be judged on the particular individual(s). Certainly, there is a strong case for this form of intervention with young people and one to which youth workers could make a significant contribution. But is this contribution distinctive? A very similar argument is advanced by community schoolers (see Allen et al., 1987) and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that it is school structures and processes which must be reorientated. Thus, while this activity is worthwhile and youth workers may have a role, there remains a question as to whether it should be their primary focus.

Enlarging understandings of well-being

To get any further we must return to our initial discussion of education and ascertain what elements are handled inadequately, and what cannot be effectively and wholly pursued within central institutions such as the school and household. Immediately it is apparent that there is a lack of attention to helping young people to understand well-being in the extended sense, to develop civic courage and to enable them to think and act politically. Further, households are unable to fully handle these matters themselves. Individuals join other groupings such as religious bodies, cultural organizations and political parties so as to work at practical, political and moral questions, to celebrate and maintain their beliefs and to influence others. In addition, schooling has failed to enable people to act collectively in the world and to learn from it.

Entwistle (1971) has provided one of the best known explorations of the school as an institution which can be used to develop young [page 121] people’s political knowledge and skills. He examines some of the areas, such as school societies and councils, where students can become involved in decision-making processes that affect the institution. The most obvious criticism of such work is that pupils are only ‘playing at politics’ and are not engaged in real politics at all, ‘for real politics is about power upon which real and important differences of outcome may depend’ (Wringe, 1984: 102). This point is underlined by Entwistle himself, when he says that ‘the government of most schools still approximates to that of the totalitarian state rather than to a democratic model’ (1971: 35). In effect, schools councils and the like do not provide education in participant democracy at all, but education in leadership for the few and political passivity for the majority.

Other approaches do seek to put young people into direct contact with the political systems beyond the school. Here the idea may be to encourage young people in their efforts to find expression for their own views or those of the community of which they are a part. This may result in active campaigning around issues as diverse as nuclear disarmament or the lack of bus shelters. A major problem occurs here in that such groupings of young people will not be organizationally separate from the school. Not only does this mean that actions of the group will directly reflect upon the school and their freedom be limited, but it also severely hampers the potential for learning as people are not in a position to take responsibility for their actions. In other words, young people are denied the opportunity to form and guide what Entwistle calls ‘micro-institutions’. Such institutions are an integral part of his advocacy of ‘associational democracy’:

This conception is based on the assumption that it is those micro-institutions (economic, cultural, educational, religious, philanthropic, recreational) encountered by people in their daily lives which offer them the reality of participating in the management of affairs which touch them closely in relation to their work, their play, their domestic affairs, as well as in their dispositions to be altruistic or charitable in relation to their fellow men. . . . Nor is associational democracy merely the politics of the parish pump. Voluntary associations are the channels through which, for most of us, engagement with politics at the macro-level is possible. (Entwistle, 1981: 245)

A lack of such intermediate institutions or mediating structures, ‘not only leaves the individual vulnerable in times of crisis — as for example, when in need of social care — but threatens the political [page 122] order by depriving it of the moral foundations on which it rests’ (Bulmer, 1987: 68). They provide a focus for social, political and religious activity and a point of attachment.

It is exactly these sorts of institutions which youth work provides. The groups that practitioners work with and within frequently have an organizational status independent of the State. Thus, while a proportion of workers may be state-employed and bound by specific policies, the groups which they assist are not. They are in a position to make choices and face consequences. Their ‘associational’ or voluntary status involve structures that are open to a certain amount of direct participation by the membership or local community, and that engage with political institutions at the macro level. Some groupings can be considered as organized forms of mutual aid, ‘through which enthusiasts combine together to produce goods and services for their own enjoyment’ (Bishop and Hoggett, 1986: 4). In this we have a site for a participant political or citizenship education that is a good deal more convivial than that afforded by the school. Indeed, it is necessary that such institutions have an identity quite separate from the school as we know it, for it is essential that they are owned by their members. However, while recognizing that the school is structurally unable to provide the context for certain forms of work, learning from those forms must find its way back into the school if charges of marginalization are to be avoided.

Furthermore, we also have to recognize that the bulk of those engaged in youth work are in fact not paid and are often part of the community from which the membership of their groups are drawn. This contrasts strongly with professionalized forms where practitioners and sponsors tend to make little reference to, and have little or no previous connection with, the social systems and cultures with which they have to work. The level of shared assumption, of common experience and of similar prospects may be higher than that within professionalized interventions. It may also be that such workers have not been able to step outside their experiences, to reflect upon the reasons for their practice and the things that they might aim for. However, this problem is surmountable by bringing educators imbued with a critical perspective into an engagement with these organic youth work forms. There is then the chance to provide a context in which people can interrogate their own culture and develop a new understanding of it.

In addition to the particular qualities of structures and personnel, certain traditions of practice connect very strongly with the desire to enlarge people’s appreciation of what their own well-being might consist of. Here, we can return to the concerns of Chapter 3 and, in [page 123] particular, the qualities that many workers within the social and leisure traditions seek to promote.

Here lies the special contribution that workers in youth organizations can make. They may not be able to lay exclusive claims on the methods, concerns and purposes they utilize, but their personal qualities, the institutions in which they operate, and the nature of certain traditions of practice hold the key to youth workers’ relevance as educators. They can make a special contribution to the development of people’s understanding of, commitment to and competencies in the processes that allow individuals to act together to promote well-being or human flourishing. To say this is not only to argue for a basic shift towards educative practice, but also to assert that the primary focus in youth work should move away from a near exclusive concern with the self and immediate others. It is also to view those who argue that youth work should be directed at groups of young people with particular ‘deficits’ with great suspicion. Here, youth work is conceived as a universal phenomenon. Its practitioners should be working to enlarge people’s understanding of their own well-being so that they weigh their own needs and interests with those of others, to help people to display civic courage, and to enable people to gain for themselves the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to think and act politically.

With the emphasis being so firmly placed upon education, it does raise questions as to the continuing appropriateness of the designation ‘youth work’. It is work with youth, but of a particular kind. Often, for other external reasons, a number of LEAs have already given workers such titles as ‘Community Educators (Youth)’. Alternatively, we might define workers by the methods they use, e.g. informal education (see Chapter 7), or the forms they work with, e.g. the everyday. Having already sounded the death knell for the Youth Service, we could extend the peel to the appellation ‘youth work’. Yet that would be premature; such titles are not wholly matters of logic. They are expressive of certain traditions of thinking and acting. The title may change as those change and, for the moment, there would appear to be a strong allegiance to ‘youth work’, particularly within the central, popular traditions of the work. For this reason we may as well stay with youth work, but do so knowing that as practitioners develop their understandings and identity, they may wish to construct a new vocabulary and rename themselves.


Consult the full bibliography

© Mark Smith 1988

Reproduced from Developing Youth Work. Informal education, mutual aid and popular practice, Milton: Keynes: Open University Press.

First placed in the Archives in April 2001. Refreshed July 2019

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