In Defence of Intellectually Rigorous Youth Work?

On July 10 in Leeds Jean Spence on the platform offered an honest and provocative contribution to the ‘In Defence of Youth Work’ debate, partly based on her experience at the North-East regional, which had taken place earlier. It begins:

Clearly if we feel the need to defend youth work, we must be also feeling that it is somehow under attack. The nervousness, not to say antagonism of some of the managers of local authority services to the North East event highlighted the fact that organising to defend youth work cannot be undertaken naively – it cannot be assumed simply that defending youth work is a straightforward matter of supporting good workers who are working for the good of young people and not being appreciated. Life is more complicated than that. At the very least, if we are discussing attack and defence, we are inevitably engaging in conflict – and there is some need to understand who will be on what side in the conflict, and for what reason.

Throughout her challenging argument she poses uncomfortable questions.

  • So if we are keen to defend youth work, what do we want to defend? It really is the simple question but it is meaningless without considering what we need to build and what we need to attack and destroy. We can have no chance of answering these questions without engaging in critical and informed debate. So the second question must be:

  • How can we hope to engage in critical and informed debate if some of us continue to denigrate theory, if we do not acknowledge the value of intellectual understanding and the importance of continuous learning in what we do. So how do we challenge this tension between theory and practice? What can we do about it?

  • And linked to the need to develop a disciplinary discourse for professional youth work, is the question of where we would like our field of knowledge to reside. How do we think about the core of our practice? Is it within the disciplinary domain of social work, or education or politics or community work? Or is it worth thinking of it as different from all of these and if so, can we build a unique body of theory around its core practices drawing from the related disciplines and professions without being sucked into them as second class actors?

I’m bound to say I think it is near compulsory reading for those of us involved in the campaign. And if we are serious about our commitment to self-criticism, it ought to trigger some interesting replies! Read and ponder the whole.

Jean Spence In Defence of Youth Work Leeds 2009

And, blow me down, now we have Bernard Davies pleading guilty to starting this whole commotion. Find below Bernard’s contribution, ‘What Theory-Practice divide?’, which begins:

Though very late in this debate, I do need to own up: it was me who dared to use the word ‘hegemony’ at the Newcastle ‘In Defence of Youth Work’ meeting in June. It crept in during my presentation as part of a quote I was using to support the argument that ‘market’ thinking had become so dominant under New Labour that it had been applied largely uncritically to fields of activity – especially education and welfare – where it simply did not belong.

Hegemony Revisited – Bernard Davies


  1. Thanks for sharing this Tony. It will take more time than I’ve got right now to give a fully considered set of reflections on Jean’s excellent piece – but one core reflection is around the need to apply the same principles of facilitated discussion and careful choice of discursive methods in discussions amongst youth workers – as we might in youth engagement or youth work.

    Far too often, practitioners skilled at facilitating groups and thinking about the importance of setting, context and design of conversation, relapse into standard conference formats to talk about their own work. There is at least some value in thinking about how best to hold the conversations that will bridge us from the current antagonism between theory and practice, to some forms at least of understanding possible ways to overcome the conflict.

  2. A very engaging piece and a precious contribution. I hardly feel worthy enough to respond. However…

    …on the intellectualism of youth work. Sometimes, to intellectualise something you have to remove emotion and the passion. You remove the qualities of the environment that surround a given situation. The noise and the smell of the inside of the mini-bus when the kids are starting to get bored and they want the “happy hardcore” turning up so loud that the inadequate speakers are buzzing like flatulent rhinos. If you give your heart to your work, then it’s your heart that speaks.

    It would be a great expectation getting me to intellectualise in a public forum. I can do it here in my office on my laptop where people around me think I’m typing my monthly report. But I’m just a bloke from a background of poverty and coal-mining. I’m a product of an education system that expected very little from a raggy-arsed kid like me. And let us not forget the feminisation of education. People from my community didn’t go to college or university unless it was linked to the coal-mining industry. If you became an intellectual you moved away from “us” and moved towards “them”.

    Also, the closer you move to understanding Freire the further away you move from understanding the group of kids who are sat on your mini-bus.

    I’m just not an articulate speaker. I envy my uncles (on my father’s side) who were all prominent Union officials during the Miners strike. They were far from erudite but they spoke passionately and we all (the miners) understood what they were saying. When I speak in public, I struggle to find the right words because I grew up with a very limited vocabulary.

    You are right in what you say. Youth work involves a very complicated set of processes and principles and it is an extremely transient and ethereal concept. But sometimes, people who know nothing at all about the processes and principles seem to know how to contact, engage and move young people though natural processes with breathtaking results. I recall quite early on in my youth work career, when I had just started University (at LMU with Marion), when Jeffs and Smith were my gurus, when I began to apply my newly developed knowledge and intellect to my work. I worked in a brand new youth centre which was bursting with resources. Craft room, IT suite, recreation room with cafe, conference room and a quiet meeting room for one-to-one work. We applied our professional structures and our systems and our intelligent processes and… we found ourselves with an empty building. A five minute walk away stood a portacabin where a local volunteer opened the doors to dozens of kids 3 or 4 evenings per week. He talked to kids on a level they understood. Some evenings he would find them in the local woodland where they would light a campfire and drink cheap cider and lager and he would sit and join them. He even took one of the kids in who had been kicked out of his house. He fed him and he drove him around until he found work and accommodation.

    It was a very good lesson for me and I changed my philosophy from that period onwards. I’ve never looked back and I’ve never – in the ensuing 14 years – struggled to contact or engage the marginalised young people I work with. Go to university to understand what we do and why we do it. But as soon as you hit the streets you put away all this knowledge and professionalism and you don’t get it out again until your manager or your funders require some sort of rationale for the work you do. Discovering Paulo Freire excited me but it didn’t have any impact on my face-to-face work. It just helped me to understand why my work practice was so successful. He said things in a way that clarified my methodology. He said all the things that I wanted to say but couldn’t. I think it is possible, if not probable, that you either know how to do youth work or you don’t. If you don’t you can try to learn but it never really comes as easy.

    So I suppose I’ve kind of talked myself in and out of a debate here. Either way, I didn’t know the meaning of the word “hegemony”. I assumed it had something to do with marriage. I suppose I didn’t understand it because it’s a word I don’t use and it’s a word I don’t really hear used. However, I did automatically “seek to understand it”. I think I’ll use it in my monthly report.

    On the question of what it is I want to defend. I pretty much came to the same conclusion as you. I want to defend 14 years of successful youth work. And I don’t want to indulge the issue of professionalism in my defence of youth work. Professionalism is your ability to follow guidelines. Your ability to serve the systems and procedures that you are given. I know youth workers who are extremely professional in their approach and I also know some good youth workers. Chalk and cheese.

    What do we really offer? Yes, I can offer information and advice and I can offer something to do, somewhere to go and someone to talk to. But what I value most in this relationship is the bridge that it builds between marginalisation and the mainstream. The bridge we create is the value of our work. A young person steps on the bridge as soon as you contact them and they walk its span when you engage them in activities and it is this “distance travelled” that I cherish. It isn’t an easy process and it isn’t one that we can all take part in but when it happens it is priceless.

    Rant over. I must get this report finished…

  3. Tim

    Your core reflection seems to me profound, stretching far beyond our immediate focus on how to engage with young people or youth workers. What you describe as ‘the same principles of facilitated discussion and careful choice of discursive methods in discussions’ we’ve dubbed for a long time ‘critical dialogue’ or ‘critically chatting’ – hence the name of our small group, the Critically Chatting Collective. For better or worse I try to chat critically in most social situations and with more or less all social groups. [Obviously there are situations where small talk, boredom, a desire not to upset the apple cart mean that I mouth banalities, but we’ll leave that aside for now!]

    In this sense my starting point whether with young people, youth workers, a community group,trade union comrades, my mates or my foes is that I’m going to do my best to listen attentively and seriously to them and my best to find ways of expressing my views, which they will understand. Of course this involves using different vocabularies and differing tactics according to the situation. However I do not have some tricks up my sleeve, which will fit young people and other tricks designed for their elders. Whilst sometimes getting it wrong, a strength of trying to chat critically in a consistent and thorough way is that I get to practise it a lot. This has led in the past to people saying, ‘it’s alright for you, chatting in that way comes naturally’.To which I reply, ‘I don’t think it’s at all natural, it’s just the consequence of loads of rehearsal and many live performances’. And to say of the present, that given I’m not as involved as I used to be on a daily basis with all manner of people, that I’m under-rehearsed, I know I’m not as adept at critically chatting as I used to be. I’m a bit out of practice, but still trying.



  4. to intellectualise something you have to remove emotion and the passion
    Lenny I have just finished an essay for my MA wheerin I have said this is why I am not a good academic writer.

  5. I wrote a response directly to Jean but here are some bits from that letter;

    I have written some things recently considering the philosophy of education in the training of youth workers and how this may have shifted in recent years. My contention is that as the practice has shifted to individuation; managed through top-down institutional change, requiring workers to be mere technicians to produce pre-determined ends, so the routes by which practitioners are produced have shifted correspondingly. The necessity for youth workers, who can be decisive; creative, responsive, reflective even, has been abrogated by workplace demands of policy and procedure which lay down clinical responses to situations. The litigious context of practice is tightened to such a pitch that responses which are outside of these are punishable…but perhaps worse that that, in training there seems to be an almost sacralising process with regard to policy and procedure, which puts it beyond question.

    I note in particular two supervisory conversations I have had in the last year with workers in training. One student was writing with reference to a fight between two of her young people which she was using as evidence of her knowledge of the workplaces’ child protection policy and health & safety policy. At no point in her discussion of the issue was there a moral argument for stepping in to break up the fight. Her sole justification was that ‘the policy told me so’. When I asked her what she thought of my organisations policy that I should not physically intervene in such an altercation she was unable to debate the relative positions. The second student wrote of her decision to stop a younger volunteer playing Twister, with young people, at an open event because she was concerned what conclusions parents who were present, may draw from the physical contact inevitable in the game. Worried that parents may judge it inappropriate the game was ended. When challenged as to the basis for this decision she quoted child protection policy, Every Child Matters but was unable to engage with the suggestion that such polices were creating a society afraid of children.

    The consequence as you state is a lack of political engagement, but I would suggest that it is also because this is how workers are being trained, to follow the policy and not to question its precepts. Once upon a time the development of youth workers was very much in the control of ‘education and training’ now it is just ‘training’

    What I feel is not that the practice/theory tension is again rearing its ugly head, but that over the last 15 years or so that it has become more polarised. Lots of factors have I feel have contributed to this and I’m afraid decisions such as Durhams, to cease JNC training are perhaps emblematic of this. Perhaps the places wherein the knowledge intellectual (what) and the knowledge practical (how) can meet have reduced. BOTH in living the increased tension between them have ignored the knowledge spiritual (why). The increasing demands of the workplace on workers time has reduced the amount of time they can give to their own reflections. As you state in your paper the workplace can be positively antagonistic to time spent in this way. The academic process can also be terribly antagonistic to the philosophical project based on practitioner observation. Co-incidentally I had re-read Patrick Turners review of The Art of Youth Work (Youth&Policy No95), just before your Leeds paper arrived.

    My own increasingly bitter experience in my current role is rooted in the demands of ‘how’, without much consideration as to ‘what’, let alone ‘why’. When my director of school tells me to f*** off, as I discuss the iron cage of bureaucracy in this organisation; is it: a) because he wants me to get on with my job, b) because he has not read Weber or c) he doesn’t value the discussion.

    So how do we challenge this tension between theory and practice? What can we do about it? I’m not sure the first question will help, as it posits the dichotomy within itself. Can we not accept the tension and discover an attitude towards it, which is not based on the self-affirming elitism of either? The latter question is the right one, and there probably is no answer other than a commitment to continue in the finding out.

  6. (Hi Themethatisme

    It’s great reading this because it substantiates so much of what I’ve been ranting and raving about that I don’t feel as isolated as I did a fortnight ago. In fact I’ve been able to cut ‘n’ paste some of my responses (in brackets) from recent posts on here and on the CYPN website).

    “..requiring workers to be mere technicians to produce pre-determined ends..”

    (I don’t want to indulge the issue of professionalism in my defence of youth work. Professionalism is your ability to follow guidelines. Your ability to serve the systems and procedures that you are given.)

    “The necessity for youth workers, who can be decisive; creative, responsive, reflective even, has been abrogated by workplace demands of policy and procedure which lay down clinical responses to situations.”

    (I think one of the main problems we now have for reclaiming effective youth work is that it has been (and still is as I type) travelling in the wrong direction at 100 mph. And to be honest, there’s nothing left to reclaim. The management structures have all been recruited and constructed on the basis of their administrative strengths. They fear innovation because innovation is unpredictable. Face-to-face youth workers seem to be judged on their ability to gather information and on how much bullshit you can fit on a monitoring sheet.)

    “The litigious context of practice is tightened to such a pitch that responses which are outside of these are punishable…but perhaps worse that that, in training there seems to be an almost sacralising process with regard to policy and procedure, which puts it beyond question.”

    (Does it sound treacherous to declare my contempt for the ECM agenda and everything it stands for? I have to be careful about this. I feel as though I’m offending some deeply religious principle of some deeply religious disciples. The last time I publicised my thoughts I destroyed all chances of ever securing employment with my local authority. Something’s gotta give. I’ve been at odds with the system for the past 15 years, in fact, we now seem to be walking in opposite directions. I’ve tried to push against it but it’s too big. I’ve even tried to ignore it but the fact is it owns the tools that I need to do my work. The system seems to have got much more aggressive over the years. It wears an imperious sneer and it keeps wasting vast amounts of money on initiatives that defy logic. And this is where I am f#ck@d because I have one of those heads that refuses to engage with the illogical. So it isn’t that I won’t play it’s more that I can’t play.)

    “When challenged as to the basis for this decision she quoted child protection policy, Every Child Matters but was unable to engage with the suggestion that such polices were creating a society afraid of children.”

    (I’ve experienced this sooo many times in the past that I am convinced that a majority of youth workers understand policy relating to various issues but they don’t understand the core principles behind the policy. I was told in my last job that I wasn’t allowed to take young people on “Lazer Quest” activities. Of course I had to challenge this – particularly because my 7 year old son had recently been invited to a Lazer Quest birthday party. Was I an unfit parent!!”? And so, at the next area team meeting I broached the subject with my area officer who very firmly agreed with the decision to ban the activity on the grounds that it depicted warlike behaviour and encouraged aggression. I was a bit disappointed that everyone else in the room – about 12 youth workers – sat and stared at their feet despite the fact that earlier in the week they had agreed with me that the decision was utterly ridiculous. So I pressed the issue further and asked if I should get rid of the plastic Jedi light sabre that my 7 year old son cherished so much? Or, on another level, whether I should persuade Josh Reynolds not to join the Army? There was a stunned silence before the Area Officer decided that we should discuss this subject in more detail at a later date – which, of course, we never did. Now it is possible that I’m wrong and that Lazer Quest is indeed ethically unsuitable for young people. But the point is that the area officer – middle class morals and university educated – hadn’t thought in any depth about why he agreed with something.)

    (I hope all this makes sense. It looked a bit messy as I was posting it)


  7. Lenny and themethatisme

    I’ve been going round in circles on my bike composing a lucid response to the range of questions you raise in your welcome submissions, but being a sloppy intellectual have not finished the composition. So for now some scattered points and a bit from a piece on ‘Radical Youth Work’ I wrote a few years ago.

    – I believe we all can be intellectual, that we have the ability, if nourished, to reflect critically on what is happening both to ourselves and others in society. In this sense I hope that the youth work process challenges young people to be intellectual. This is not the same as becoming an intellectual, although it might be. For myself I’m fond of Gramsci’s notion of the ‘organic intellectual’. Indeed I aspire to be such a character – a bit pompous I know! In this case being an intellectual in the service of the working class [in its widest diversity] acts as a barrier to crossing over to the other side, to becoming an intellectual in the pay of the powerful. Youth workers can be such organic intellectuals, but only if at every turn they ask themselves the question, “in whose interests is this piece of policy, this administrative task, this proposed practice etc…?” So too, as Jean illustrates, academics can be organic intellectuals if they maintain their roots, although academia itself is often none too keen.

    – For myself Lenny’s demarcation between intellect and passion, mind and body doesn’t work. My thinking and my emotions are deeply entangled, indeed inseparable. And, I don’t think discovering Freire leads necessarily to becoming distant from young people. As it is Paulo has not been important to me. However, in my opinion, my encounter with both Marxism and Anarchism in the early 70’s [on the picket line and in the smoke-filled party educational rather than the lecture hall] brought me closer to the young people I knew.

    – I have grown though to be very suspicious intellectually of Theory. This not some post-modernist fear of the grand narrative, but rather that Theory so often freezes, becomes fixed. Thence its followers impose its rules on reality, even as reality spits in their face.

    In the article, Renewing Radical Youth Work, which appeared in the Scottish community Education journal, CONCEPT in early 2008 I ventured the following:

    Theory and Practice

    However proposing the necessity of a shared sense of political purpose begs more than a few questions. It returns us to the theory-practice divide criticised caustically as ‘actionless thought’ versus ‘thoughtless action’ [Ledwith, 2007]. In pursuing this further, following Castoriadis [2005], I am inclined to be suspicious of Theory as it is usually constructed, which is not the same as being hostile to Thinking, forever thinking. In particular social and political theory is so often the imposition of an explanatory template upon the shifting complexity of social relations. This dogmatic tendency, exemplified by Leninism, but to be found in Feminism too, has played its part in weakening the vitality of the Radical Project. It is reflected in Youth Work, where the negative response of many youth workers to the ideas served up to them in Training is not as ‘anti-intellectual’ as is often suggested. In reality, faced with young people on a street corner or wherever, youth workers conclude that the theories advocated without sufficient argumentative debate in the institutions, make no better sense than that mainly conservative ragbag of ideological bits and pieces called common-sense. Toeing the Party line has damaged deeply the Radical Project. Imposing a correct professional line, informed by the pyrrhic victory of Anti-Oppressive and Anti-Discriminatory perspectives, forgetful of class, has undermined the growth of Radical Youth Work.

    In the last fifty years the Radical Project has been rejuvenated, shocked and divided by the demands of the social movements based on gender, race, sexuality and ‘disability, but has also retreated problematically from class. In the light of this contradictory experience how might we build a formidable movement of humanist solidarity, which remains ever alert and sensitive to the differently exploited and oppressed within its ranks? From the 70’s Youth Work was thrown into turmoil by the impact in particular of feminist, black, gay and ‘disabled workers. Yet the advances dissipated as the radical agenda was recuperated, alongside the system’s incorporation of some of its leading advocates. Neither the Radical Project nor Radical Youth Work require disciples of a particular theory or ideology, but rather philosophers, who interrogate ceaselessly whatever ideas or proposals are put before them, in the service not only of interpreting the world, but of changing it.

    and from another unpublished piece on Castoriadis and Youth Work:

    As early as 1964 Castoriadis was suggesting “theory as such is a making/doing, the always uncertain attempt ….to elucidate the world”, doubting the total grasp of any theoretical explanation as such. [2005:xxx] Thirty years later Castoriadis reflects that social theory rather than being a constant search for knowledge is reduced in the main to the reiteration of established beliefs. On what basis he asks does the social theorist stand outside of and contemplate the very social relations of which she is an integral part. For there are no such grounds available to the social individual. There is no elevated vantage point from which the intellectual speculates as if she is above it all. To paraphrase and perhaps abuse Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher who did not abandon his critical role, the theorist tries to stand still within and make the defining comment upon the movement of a turbulent stream, whose unpredictable currents will sweep both herself and her conclusions off their feet.

    This same tension haunts the social educator, in our case the youth worker, whose relationship to her students, if it seeks to encourage autonomy, cannot be based upon her hierarchical status or the supposed superiority of her knowledge. Her task, following Aristotle, is to play a part in educating both herself and her students to be citizens capable of governing and being governed. Indeed a radical ‘paideia’, a process of life-long learning, seeks unceasingly to undermine imposed authority, understanding that the claim to know more or better so easily masks a desire for power.

    I hope these excerpts make a bit of sense. As this discussion unfolds I’ll post the Radical Youth Work piece in its entirety.

    I’ll come back on the professional/education and training issues and more when I get back from England in a week’s time.

    Finally I’m still trying to work out if Lenny’s taking the piss about hegemony and matrimony. Matrimony the home of patriarchal hegemony!

    Thanks for the stimulus


  8. Does it sound treacherous to declare my contempt for the ECM agenda and everything it stands for?

    One mans terrorist is anothers freedom fighter. The difficulty stands in the fact that these things are sacralised to the extent they are, that it becomes impious to even ask a question…and ultimately it is about drawing lines, deciding where you are prepared to compromise, and what can be achieved within the systems. This is where the organic intellectual wins. I do stuff in my daily work which plainly horrifies some of the staff around me and occasionally management may lift an eyelid, but I don’t get too much grief. First this is because I can generally gerrymander the description of any activity to fit a proscribed set of objectives, secondly no-one really wants to get into an argument with me. They know what, they construct a how, but get a bit flustered by anyone who can ask or answer a ‘why’ question.

    The problem with ECM is that its tenets are quintessentially a moral good and the powers that be did such a good job spinning it, that anyone who says anything critical is automatically a child abuser. Lots of stuff about media pressure involved here but also more general perceptions of childhood tied up with a load of Platonic pictures of an ideal. Over 2000 years and the bloke is still a major influence. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has a chapter called ‘Exorcising Plato’s Ghost’ in his book the Dignity of Difference which is most instructive. Peter Singers – Rethinking Life and Death, is also a polemical look at the values which underpin our attitudes to children and young people.

    The real potential for the organic intellectual is that the mantra of compliance is I feel, building up a strength of resentment which will break eventually. I have been inveigled to join my organisations equality and diversity staff consultative group, and this is proving a real focus for this tension. Chaired by ‘The Compliance Officer’, he is having a really tough time with a group who are all actually passionate about culture change. Yes we have something called a compliance officer! Can you imagine. It is only a matter of time before we are getting e-mails about obeying orders at all costs.

    If it’s too big to push against, burrow under, it will fall to bits eventually. Vive la revolution!!!

  9. Hi Tony

    Was it the impact of your rhetoric or the impact of my reluctant return to work after my brief but welcome holiday that stunned me into a week-long silence? A combination of the two I think. I browsed your response reluctantly because it had the appearance of some dense and knotted cleverness that I would have to work hard to understand and to contextualise. I must admit that it was difficult to digest and throughout my subsequent bout of indigestion I did indeed struggle to put it into context with my own experience and perspective. I think it is possible/probable that we have a different political appetite despite the mutual route we share. My own perspective tends to base itself on more empirical foundations. I value my own observation and experience. They are rooted in the reality of the world I have chosen to work in. Has Castoriadis ever even been to Barnsley? Well there you go!

    I’m not comfortable about brandishing the term “intellectualise” within the context of youth work practice. It’s a term that only seems to describe one level of intelligence – the level that consumes literature and shits quotes (so says the man who is about to quote one of the most pretentious theorists in education). My empirical research informs me that you’re either an intellectual or you’re not. Do you need the ability to intellectualise your methodology to be an effective youth worker? God, I hope not!

    I suppose that with it being Friday and all I’m being a little frivolous and impolite in the shadow of my current favourite guru and I’m sure that on Monday morning I’ll regret my actions. Hey ho!

    “[T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”
    — Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

    “In a discussion about fish and chips I don’t really need to know about the genetic details of the Solanum tuberosum.”
    – Lenny (In Defence of…)

  10. Hi themethatisme

    What can you do when the enemy wears righteousness as armour?

    I’ll check out the suggested reading, which looks fascinating.



  11. Keep chucking rocks at it.

    I’ve had a bit of a rant on m’blog today in respect of this mornings news stuff about Safeguarding.

    Generally I prefer eating Fish&chips to discussing them, but I know they are only a vehicle for the sodium chloride and dilute acetic acid which I crave.

  12. Hi Lenny

    Call me a middle class intellectual but how can you transform something that you haven’t intellectualised? How could you be sure that the aim of the transformation would be correct/appropriate?


  13. Lenny

    At the risk of being seen even more as ‘a clever bastard’ [Ian Dury], I’ll quote Shakespeare and say, ‘methinks you protest too much’! I accept that some of my writing is in danger of being pretentious rhetoric. I’m forever struggling with this failing. On the other hand it’s a bit rough to be charged with the appearance of being dense and knotted before you’ve even read a word! Leave aside the two problematic extracts I copied and pasted, the rest of my last comment was no more difficult or indeed cleverer than your own or themeisme’s contributions.

    I’m moved to ask:

    – isn’t talking about the empirical a touch knotted? Or do folk in Barnsley often use the word?
    – what evidence is there that I don’t value my observation and experience?
    – why does Castoriadis have to have visited Barnsley or Wigan for that matter? He was a refugee from Turkey, fought against the Fascists in Greece was an illegal immigrant in France for 15 years, was a key influence on the 1968 events in France, but fair enough he did write some difficult bollocks.
    – This said, not being a car mechanic, all car manuals are pretentious bollocks to an impractical soul like me.

    For what it’s worth I think simply that an intellectual is someone who thinks about and reflects critically upon what he or she is doing in life and indeed what others are up to. Its nowt to do with literature and quotes. Like it or not, Lenny you are an intellectual, which is why we’re having this argument, which I hope will continue.

    And as you acknowledge and chuckle, how come Freire can be pompous and clever and I can’t?

    As for fish and chips, I’m a Wigginer so I eat meat and potato pies.



  14. Hi Tony

    It’s not the boot-sized bruise on my arse but more the constant chuckling of my wife after she read your response that hurts the most. I intended to sulk for a week but as she quite smugly pointed out, it was well deserved. Still let us continue and I’ll turn the other cheek…

    [“isn’t talking about the empirical a touch knotted? Or do folk in Barnsley often use the word?”]

    I suppose, in a different context folk in Barnsley do often use the word ‘knotted’ (eg “Get knotted yer daft ‘aypeth”). But I meant ‘knotted’ as in ‘tangled’ and ‘complicated’ as the context of your debate seemed to be moving inwards – away from the target (or rather, what I see as the target). I think I’m just getting impatient, Tony. I’ve hung around and watched and listened to people theorise and debate and I’ve theorised and debated myself to the point where I think we really should know what our belly-buttons look like by now. But don’t get me wrong here, I think it is great to debate and theorise. I love it! And having read and reread your piece I did enjoy the gems of wisdom that unfolded from the knots. However, if we do indeed believe that youth work is under attack then where is the sense of urgency in this depth of reflection? Aren’t we validating Castoriadis by ‘reiterating established beliefs’? And by the time we’ve stood still to quote Heraclitus hasn’t anyone noticed that the water has risen to chin height? Isn’t this the stage where we talk in more unsophisticated debate so that we engage broader participation? I mean, look at me now. I’ve sat in my office ‘reflecting critically’ for the last 2 hours when I should be constructing and printing out parental consent forms so that I can engage my class-burdened, disaffected youth in some emancipatory youthwork activity.

    [“…what evidence is there that I don’t value my observation and experience?”]

    I’m sure you do, Tony. It just wasn’t reflected in this particular piece.

    [“…why does Castoriadis have to have visited Barnsley or Wigan for that matter? He was a refugee from Turkey, fought against the Fascists in Greece was an illegal immigrant in France for 15 years, was a key influence on the 1968 events in France, but fair enough he did write some difficult bollocks.”]

    Working class Barnsley folk(or indeed the working class English) don’t have the stomach for revolution. We’re far too comfortable with our position of subservience. Castoriadis would just be wasting his time encouraging riots and strikes. We’ve dabbled now and then but we’re just not very good at it. On our best attempt we (the English not the Barnsleyites) overthrew the country and then tripped over ourselves bowing and groveling as soon as the acned, teenage king turned up.

    [“And as you acknowledge and chuckle, how come Freire can be pompous and clever and I can’t?”]

    You’d expect a Brazillian called Paulo Friere to be pretentious, pompous and clever. Especially after being imprisoned and exiled. You’re from Wigan and you eat meat and potato pies!

  15. [“Call me a middle class intellectual but how can you transform something that you haven’t intellectualised? How could you be sure that the aim of the transformation would be correct/appropriate?”]

    Jane, you’re such a middle-class intellectual!

    You can transform something without intellectualising it. Think of all the voluntary, community-based organisations and individuals who we’ve come across who achieve great things without ever critically reflecting on their actions. There are thousands of junior football teams which are developed by well-meaning volunteers who run the activities simply because they like football. I started talking to one of the organisers at a presentation event about how the football league was a brilliant way of engaging young people in positive activities. How good it was at inspiring young people to achieve and how it encouraged a sense of citizenship. How it was a perfect vehicle for developing team skills, listening skills and how all this exposure to structured recreation and good adult role models (except for the nutter who keeps calling the ref a blind twat) provided a healthy respect for the rules of the community and society in general. Well, he looked at me as if I was mental and said, “it’s just a football team mate”.

    But of course you’re right and I’m wrong. As you succinctly but beautifully point out, you can’t trust a non-intellectual to do the right thing for the right reason. However, as Paulo illustrates we must beware of the intellectuals assuming the role of “executors of the transformation”…

    “…the fact that certain members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, thus moving from one pole of the contradiction to the other… Theirs is a fundamental role, and has been throughout the history of this struggle. It happens, however, that as they cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin: their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know. Accordingly, these adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors. The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity. Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.”
    — Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

  16. Child and Youth worker

    Glad to see you’re finding the debate useful. Sometime along it would be great to hear from you about the state of Youth Work in Canada.

    Best wishes


  17. Had Castoriadis visited Barnsley, how different world history may have been!
    But strangely enough I don’t recall anywhere telling me that Freire had been there either. I have. It was the first place I thought of when the BBC Radio news reader reporting on the advance of North Koreas nuclear programme, inadvertently said North Yorkshire instead of North Korea.

    Speaking of which, a nuclear event is transformative without being at all intellectual about it. It does however introduce the question of ethics into the nature of our debate. Jane, my personal commitment,is the transformative action not a specified outcome. A directed outcome can only ever be subject to the control of A.N.Other and not the individual engaged in learning. Correctness or Appropriateness always has an agenda attached to it. Transformation is of definition open ended, otherwise it would be transmutation or transmogrification perhaps. (Ones sesquipedalian tendency begins to run riot.) Is it ethical for us to have a proscribed model young citizen as the outcome of youth work? What does this being look like? If not then is it some universal ethic or moral that is the intended outcome? If there is a necessity for intellectualism it is as a dialectical with practice to help in dealing with these kinds of questions which I feel are at the heart of this debate… and it is not about the elites in practice or in academia enforcing their own hegemony but realising their interdependency, creating appropriate vehicles for furthering that. The academic and the practitioner alike are both engaged in creative acts (Gramsci). In our profession, both have become subject to the whims of policies which have had the effect of dividing the two and consequently weakening the corporate voice of the field. The ministerial conferences (late 80’s early 90’s)failed in a crude analysis, because both practitioners and academics essentially told the government to bugger off. The current chaps in charge won, by flattering us that youth work was such a wonderful thing that all it needed was ‘transforming’ which it promised to do with all kinds of loose lipped commitments which have never seen the light of day other than in tighter and increasingly inflexible controls.

    Enough rant for now.
    A question occurs about the difference between intellectualism and educational qualification. Of the 25 Ersatzgruppen leaders who began the systematic killing of Jews in WWII, 15 were holders of PhD’s.

  18. “Jane, my personal commitment,is the transformative action not a specified outcome. A directed outcome can only ever be subject to the control of A.N.Other and not the individual engaged in learning. Correctness or Appropriateness always has an agenda attached to it.”

    A completely deserved response to an ill-thought out post in aid of poking my husband a bit. However, my limited perspective tells me that if we don’t have an aim then we have nothing to guide us. By that, I don’t mean a definite or pre-decided outcome but more the intellectual understanding of what can be positively achieved in any situation. For instance, we know when we work with a ‘marginalised’ young person that the aim is some kind of reintegration but that will be mean something different for each individual. I completely accept your points about correctness and appropriateness and, again, kick myself for resorting to predictable and uptight jargony nonsense. Although I do desire to intellectualise everything I do, the truth is that I’m far from an expert in youth work and can’t really do your response justice. I might still jump in with the odd ill-conceived comment though because the intellectualising debate is interesting generally to me.


  19. Aha! Marital things a going on, I see.

    Thank you for replying and do not worry about your relative experience of youth work. I’m sure Tony would agree that the debate enjoined about youth work is symptomatic of what we see as wider problems in our society at the moment…so it needs to engage other professions and others from outside the sometimes closed little circle that youth work can become.

  20. “Had Castoriadis visited Barnsley, how different world history may have been!
    But strangely enough I don’t recall anywhere telling me that Freire had been there either.”

    Too true. There’s only room for one revolutionary in Barnsley. Although our homegrown revolutionary was indeed an anachronism himself. Poor old Scargill. Right ethos, wrong century.

  21. “So for practitioners who say ‘we’re not “academics”’, or ‘”theory” is not for us – we are the “doers”’, I have some questions:
    • Are you really suggesting that your minds go blank, your intellects go to sleep, when you are face-to-face with a group of young people?
    • Are you really working within a vacuum of ideas, intentions, interpretations, understandings (and sometimes misunderstandings) of what is going on?
    • Are you never responding to the actual young people you meet at least some of the time on the basis of your understanding of the wider forces bearing down on their lives – of ‘the context’ of their situation?
    Is it really only your feelings, your gut, which drive your responses? “ –
    Bernard Davies
    September 2009

    I would say that in my own youth work ethos and practice that intellect drives my actions and my method and my language but it does not present unless it is appropriate and required. I suppose for me personally this is an issue of semantics and cultural perceptions. Intellectuals and academics sit around in leather chesterfield chairs in tweed jackets, smoking pipes and stroking beards speaking in a language too technical for my own modest grasp. Whenever I’m called an intellectual I make a hasty denial in an attempt to defend… what is it I’m defending? Is it my working class identity or maybe subconsciously my working class masculinity? But either way, if I’m perceived to be an academic by my target groups then I’m doomed.

    I do think a lot during face-to-face work but it does always seem to be an automated ride. Maybe I’m just not aware that I’m intellectualising but I feel more like I’m working on instinct. It’s a bit like driving a car full of kids in adverse weather conditions on a busy motorway. It takes a lot of attention and uses a lot of analytical thought processes but do we drive cars intellectually? When I’m running a youth club night or a residential activity I am entirely consumed by the environment around me. (I always need to make it clear to my workers/volunteers not to even attempt to engage me chit-chat during a session or activity – it makes me very anxious when I’m being distracted). All my senses are focused on group dynamics, moods, behaviour, language. Partly, I suppose, as a way of exploring opportunities for effective interaction and partly so that I can predict any possible aggravation. This is probably why I’m so exhausted when I get home from a residential activity. But that is when the intellectualising really starts for me – before and after the sessions. That’s the point when the analysis kicks in and it’s also a great boost to my insomnia. Many is the time when I’ve jumped out of bed at 3am to write something down about the next exciting initiative.

    But I don’t think my own gripe was specifically about taking intellect out on the streets with you. It was more about using a more direct, accessible and immediate language in the open debate about ‘defending youth work’ – so that maybe we can all join in. A debate that moves ‘outwards’ and not ‘inwards’. I think it is so easy to become detached from reality/practice when you’re not immersed in it on a day to day basis. I generally find that people who immerse themselves in theory tend to create theoretical solutions and become (accidental) idealists.

    And is this really an ‘open’ debate? I’m finding the broad debate quite compartmentalised. It seems a ridiculous concept now that I point it out to myself but I don’t really know who I’m addressing this response to. It was really a response to Bernard’s piece but will he even see it? Will Jean Spence see the response I made to her piece? I shouldn’t complain, I’m enjoying the cathartic effect of emptying my head but the debates seem to be scattered all over the place and also seem to lack any solid resolution. It is like finding a fairground packed with your favourite rides where you put 50p in the slot… it spins for 10 seconds and then dies to a silent standstill. Each and every ride does the same thing. If you try to run between rides you can achieve some sense of momentum but eventually your legs give way.

    • Themeisme

      I was quite impressed and left a comment, but the atmosphere of free inquiry was somewhat undermined by the apparent undercurrent of ‘traditional’ responses to feminism and homosexuality to be found on the Ugley vicar’s blog

      • Forgive me I didn’t intend in any way to suggest that you endorsed the totality of the Ugley Vicar’s perspective. And, despite my misgivings about some of his views, I agree that the piece was stimulating.

  22. I’ve really enjoyed reading the debate but have thought long and hard about whether to post my comments on this one. Anyway, here we go…

    1) The relationship between theory and practice is a difficult one that I often think is often simplified in youth work discussions. Because they inevitably have a close relationship it is too easy to state that they are “dialectical”, a viewpoint best summed up in Tony’s position that “an intellectual is someone who thinks about and reflects critically upon what he or she is doing in life and indeed what others are up to”. To my mind that type of reflection on activity is necessary but not sufficient – Tony is totally right that we need to constantly review and reassess our action, but is this enough? I would argue that this approach merely leaves our thinking forever circling around our activity (effectively putting practice prior to theory and leading to a paucity of practice) and tends to be a lot more conservative than it makes out.

    Although it is clearly impossible to separate intellectual activity from practical action (as the two are interrelated) I would suggest it is vital to ensure that, as a first step, our intellectual activity must first be done with little connection to the minutiae of our daily practice. Without this, simply reflecting on your and others practice is insufficiently radical as it tends to leave the fundamental rationale or theoretical assumptions behind practice unquestioned. As a result, it is only (paradoxically) by initially prioritising theory that we can ensure that practice is fully interrogated. I would stress, however, that this should not be beyond youth workers (or anyone else).

    2) Tim rightly raises the question of facilitation not being used enough in more “academic” discussion regarding youth work. I agree to an extent, but, as a relatively junior worker who attends few of these type of debates, the far greater problem seems to be the amount of training for grassroots staff that is dumbed-down and filled with ice-breakers, games and activities that are suitable for 11-14 year-olds but not for adults. Exaggerating somewhat, it’s sometimes as if people feel that if they don’t get a chance to express their opinion at an event and have other people listen to them that the event is a waste of time and they can’t learn anything. Sure, work in small groups and taking part in “carousels” can be really useful and I’ve found them very helpful in a number of events – however, sometimes sitting and listening to a couple of people who are experts expound or debate on a subject can be equally, if not more, useful.

  23. MrLeam

    I agree that reflective practice, which circulates in a shared pool of pragmatic ignorance, is deeply problematic. The reflective practice has to be grounded in our theorising of the wider social and political context. However, and this may be a product of the break with my former Marxist orthodoxy, I am suspicious of any version of Lenin’s famous prescription, ‘without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary practice’. I say this because the practical outcome of this way of putting things was to elevate theory and the theoreticians. It creates a division between supposed thinkers, the experts and the doers, the followers.

    For what it’s worth the formulation can be turned round. In our case ‘without radical practice there can be no radical theory’. I realise you are rightly suspicious of the easy, but clever sounding way of explaining the relationship between theory and practice as ‘dialectical. But in my experience theory [or thinking] and practice are inextricably intertwined. Sometimes a radical piece of improvised practice leads to a rethinking of theory and vice-versa. Thinking and practice constantly react to one another.
    None of this means that I am against lots of moments when we might have a more theoretically inclined dialogue as we try to take a breath away from the hurly-burly of practice.

    Hope this makes a bit of sense even if, of course, you disagree.

    2.As for your second point I agree wholeheartedly and to recycle my comment from above I have wallowed in too many youth circles of pooled ignorance and played far too many time-consuming exercises. Experiences need to be shared,need to be extended beyond a sound-bite and also analysed. And I must own up to a weakness for the stimulating and thoughtful speaker – but perhaps only one, not the crazy notion of having three speakers on a platform often talking in succession about different issues!!

    Best Wishes


  24. Just read this section and found it interesting but hard to grasp.
    As someone who prefers to theorise and/or discuss rather than do I suppose this makes me an intellectual.
    Although I have practiced youth work full-time for 20 years and I experience daily a lack of interest in dialogue about practice in favour of doing whether to help `poor` young people, meet aims/targets – service or personal, etc. etc. Reflection as a good practitioner`s practice is dead long live the doer!
    The success of capitalism and its practices of marketisation, branding, appealing to the individual consumer have been embedded in the ethos of public services – youth work cannot avoid being tainted.
    So being critical and defending a youth work practice of woolly liberalism is mucho difficult.

    The point is not to understand it, it is to change it – some misquoted quote from a would be intellectual.

    The confidence to dare to suggest that we discuss, let alone oppose, the prevailing ethos (hegemony)seems to be very low or possibly non-existant. This leads to low morale and a subservient workforce. The seeds of dissent are hidden behind the fear of management and their masters, a lack of understanding of an alternative and going with the flow (no thinking just doing). Maybe I should pick and choose my battles so as to protect my interests whilst challenging. This compromise is not my nature. The whole ethos is flawed and it needs exposing for its failings and class interests. M.P.`s fiddling, bankers cashing in, millionaires making more (due to our subservience) – the X factor. This can be portrayed as jealousy but I believe charity alone will not save the poor (working class). As for aspirations of being that breed of wealthy and elitist trash – only hierarchy, competition and inequality will prevail and this hegemony is not for me.

    • Yes, it is damned difficult and there will always be personal sacrifice to attain anything that is damned difficult. This is your choice.

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