Head of a movement or arms of the state?

Thinking about our briefing paper on the Institute of Youth Work, ‘In whose interests’ I returned to an essay, ‘Historical Consciousness in Youth Work and Adult Education’. Now don’t switch off immediately! Its exploration of the dilemmas surrounding an unquestioning acceptance that professionalisation is a force for good remains utterly pertinent. To whet your appetite here are a few extracts. References to social pedagogy by the authors relate in our case to an emancipatory young person-centred and led informal education practice  in tune with IDYW’s definition of youth work. As with yesterday’s post,  click Zoom a couple of times to make the post more readable. I know I need to sort this.

There has always been a tension between professionalisation and the development of practice on the basis of voluntary commitment, especially in the sectors which are today defined as youth work and adult education. The least we can say is that professionalisation in the social-cultural field is imperfect, certainly when compared to more “traditional” sectors such as healthcare or justice, sectors we tried to emulate in the past. If this is less the case in adult education and youth work today, this is because the care component of original social pedagogical work is gradually being separated from its educational component. Professionalisation was better suited for what today is called social work. Conversely, in youth work and adult education, discussions about the status of the profession, access to the profession, the curriculum of the training courses and the definition of the fields of activity seem to be less in order. There appears to be a consensus that the profession of youth worker and adult educator is an open profession. Still, there are developments which are threatening such a consensus, for instance the “youth-work licence” in England, a movement which clearly intends to separate youth work further from adult education. There are movements in the opposite direction as well, such as social work training courses (e.g. Ghent University and University College of Ghent) which reject an excessively sharp distinction between social work, youth work and adult education and which give a broad social pedagogical definition to the concept of “social” work again, in analogy to the situation in most of Germany (Hamburger, 2003; Thole, 2005). This broad approach does not reflect an aversion to professionalisation but reminds us that this evolution is not an unequivocally positive given. Professionalisation may have resulted in a wider recognition and appreciation by society (albeit to different extents in different sectors), but it has also disrupted the unity in social pedagogical work. This makes it harder to bring to light and call into question the underlying problem definitions as well as the constant transformation of social problems into pedagogical issues (Hafeneger, 2001).

Youth work and adult education is also increasingly under pressure – from the European Commission, mostly – to adjust itself to the demands and expectations of a neo-liberal market logic. Still, this pressure is less strong than in social (care) work, which is professionalised to a higher degree It may even be an advantage that youth work and adult education are less professionalised in these times of fundamental transformations. The crisis mitigates excessively ambitious suggestions that continued professionalisation and far-reaching specialisation are the only options available to social professions if it they are to restore their autonomy and self-respect. The “incomplete” professionalisation of youth work and adult education is not a weakness but a real opportunity to reflect more fundamentally about our mandate [my emphasis]. What are our core principles and how can they be reconciled with further professional development which will not happen automatically? In what kind of agendas will youth work and adult education therefore fit in, intentionally or unintentionally? These are important questions in the current social-political climate. Reflecting on our principles is therefore crucial, and reviewing our history gives us the instruments for deepening this reflection. This involves more than a simple history of facts. Evolutions in our operational methods are not abstract, academic developments but are invariably rooted in national and cultural contexts.

Youth work and adult education have an important role to play in society. The tension between individual aspirations and social expectations emerges clearly in our work. On the one hand, we are expected to support the self-organisation of individuals and groups in their quest for identity, autonomy and authenticity. It is our task to foster social movements as a source of renewal. Beyond that, the mission of youth work and adult education is to question the established order of society time and again and thereby to “destabilise” it in a certain sense. This work is hard to organise and systematise and attempts to professionalise it risk making it an instrument at the service of adjustment and assimilation. On the other hand, youth work and adult education also play a stabilising role in our society. It is not our task to pit groups against each other. Cultivating solidarity requires an open and permanent questioning of power imbalances, not the replacement of one power imbalance by another. This stabilising role makes “social” work an instrument for those groups who approach social integration essentially from within the existing social order (Donzelot, 1984), or for a state which prioritises integration through building organisations and structures and advocates rational and systematic planning. This attitude is inconsistent with a more “organic” bottom-up method which does not reduce social integration to inclusion into the existing structures. In this stabilisation perspective, the social pedagogical mission of youth work and adult education is reduced to “social education”. People should be guided in their evolution towards becoming socially responsible citizens. Societal and collective learning processes thereby disappear.

Youth work and adult education are delicate practices which reflect the values and norms prevailing in a given society at a given time and at the same time create scope for critically calling these values and norms into question (Böhnisch et al., 2005). It has a mission which is supported by the realisation of one’s own historical relativity and which places youth work and adult education, like all other types of social work, at the centre of a dialectical field of tension on that constantly shifting polarity between life-world and system. On the one hand, this means we are asked to adjust people to the existing order of society and to what is presented as “reality”. On the other hand, our mission is founded on the realisation that innovation and progress require bottom-up spontaneity and creativity. Both poles cannot be dissociated from each other. Together they determine the social project which focuses on the pursuit of human dignity. Although this project is fraught with misunderstandings, it is also a source of cultural inspiration, an innovative social practice and a true scientific endeavour. At any rate, it is a project which is and will always remain incomplete. There are no fixed points of reference: existing boundaries and categories are constantly redefined and transcended. Remaining true to our mission clearly takes more than technical competence profiles. After all, human dignity can be achieved only in a social context. We cannot allow this to be dissolved in a technical and ultimately dehumanising process. The confrontation with our own history teaches us humility but at the same time urges us not to forsake our social pedagogical mandate.

Within the pages of the essay the authors, Lorenz, Coussee and Verschelden quote approvingly the question posed by David Maunders,’ are we at the head of a movement or are we arms of the state?’  Where does a profession stand faced with this challenge? And where does a profession sit in the light of Walter Lorenz’s inquiry?

Is social pedagogy essentially the embodiment of dominant societal interests which regard all educational projects, schools, kindergarten or adult education, as a way of taking its values to all sections of the population and of exercising more effective social control; or is social pedagogy the critical conscience of pedagogy, the thorn in the flesh of official agenda, an emancipatory programme for self-directed learning processes inside and outside the education system geared towards the transformation of society?

Read Historical Consciousness in Youth Work and Adult Education by Walter Lorenz, Filip Coussee and Griet Verschelden in full on the Social Work & Society web site.

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