| The International
Child and Youth
MARK SMITH FROM SCOTLAND
As one whose first degree is in history I suppose I would be expected to say the things I’m about to.
We don’t pay enough attention to history and that’s worrying. Here in Scotland, there are proposals to drop history as a compulsory subject in school curricula. This seems to be part and parcel of a wider denigration of history in political and professional circles, based on an arrogance that we somehow have it right and don’t have much to learn from looking backwards.
Why does this concern me? Well, fundamentally it’s about identity. As individuals we all need to know who we are and to do this we need to have some idea of where we’ve come from. The experiences of survivors of the concentration camps suggest that, cut off from their pasts and unsure of whether they had a future, they could only live in the present. And living only in the present, there are few constraints, few reasons to be good or hopeful.
Living only in the present is what many of the kids we work with do. They don’t want to look back because their pasts are generally pretty painful and disconnected. Most, if you talk to them, have some notion of what they’d like the future to be but it’s usually, perhaps deliberately unrealistic because they don’t really believe they’re going to get there anyway. So they live in the present and do daft things; things that from our perspectives don’t make sense, things that we label self-destructive or dangerous or irrational. But hey, what the hell, they’ve nothing to lose anyway. That’s why it’s so important that one of the things we do in child and youth care is to help kids reconnect past, present and future.
If connecting past, present and future is important at a personal level it’s similarly so professionally. To function as effective professionals we need to know who we are and where we’ve come from. We need to know our forebears in the field were and what they said and did to get us to the place where we can say, ‘I am a child and youth care worker’ or ‘I am a social worker’. In Scotland, we seem to have lost sight of this. A major review of social work has just concluded. It’s a shiny, happy document, as government documents increasingly are, but looking behind the nice pictures and layout to try and ascertain where the document is coming from, I’m left wanting. There’s no sense of connection to the past. It’s as if our historical and cultural traditions of practice have been written out.
Of course, I can anticipate the retorts of the ‘modernisers’. We can’t look back, we’ve got to be forward facing, future oriented … I’ve done the courses. I know the buzzwords and phrases. But they make me feel uneasy. Why? Because when we start to see policy developments devoid of historical context we start to conceptualise our care task as being merely about what we do in the here and now and about trying to become more proficient in doing it. We conceptualise the task as a technical one rather than the moral one it inevitably is. We strive to become more efficient and effective but we’re not sure what it is we’ve to become more efficient or effective at, or why it matters. We start to do things that don’t actually connect with a wider historical and moral call to care. As I suggested in last month’s column, we have generations of social workers and care workers with a ‘trained incapacity’ to do what they came into the job to do, because, like the kids they work with, they fail to see the profession in wider historical context. They live only in the present, attempting to get through today’s shift, to complete today’s set of forms.
In this de-contextualised ‘modern’ world we can start to believe that we know it all; that current ‘best practice’ is indeed ‘best practice’ and that it’s somehow, self-evidently, better than what went before. The ‘unbelievers’ amongst us are deemed to get in the way of progress, portrayed as awkward, weak, not up to the job, not ‘one of us’…. In fact it would be far easier if we could just get rid of them. Then we could really get on with the job in hand. How many people recognise that dynamic from their own agency experiences?
As for me, I have only recently inherited my daughter’s old mobile phone, on which she’s installed ‘Chitty Chitty Bang, Bang’ as a ring tone, knowing that I’ve not worked out how to change it; I still think that blackberries are things that you pick from bushes and put into pies… but I can’t help thinking that some of what went before is worth hanging on to. I’d go as far as to suggest that, despite the managerial refrain of continual improvement, the care we offered 20 years ago was every bit as good as it is today; it was different because it reflected different cultural mores about how to bring up kids, but no less good. But of course you’d need a sense of history to be able to say that. I know it’s probably not a good career move in today’s climate but we’d do well to look backwards occasionally.