New theories and old
Nearly thirty years ago, Ex-Head wonders whether it's the theories or the people who make child and youth care what it is
I want to look at some of the effects of new theories for we are today very theory conscious. Human beings have an innate need to see things neatly classified and labelled. Something seems valuable and useful until a new theory comes along which calls it into question; then without proper consideration it is swept away or perhaps given a new label. This must to some extent reflect the uncertainty we feel about the validity of our practices. Julius Carlebach has emphasised that leadership must have the knowledge and ability to discriminate between innovation and well tried formulae, between meaningful change and superficial alteration, between real needs and assumed ones. Despite his cautionary words it seldom has.
There is now so much confusion, both in revamping organisations and adapting to new theoretical and legislative patterns, that we have obscured the real target, which is to do a better job. The quality of the job, without doubt, has deteriorated. This cannot be progress in any sense.
Now this is not an argument for having a closed mind and being anachronistic. The trouble is that we lurch into change, without being properly prepared for it, and then become overwhelmed, at the expense of a lot of people with particularly pressing needs. We are vulnerable to the evocative phrase, though the principle may be naive, and the operation impracticable. We tear away the old and rush to embrace the new before having completed a proper evaluation. If the call sounds right and touches some simplistic dogma, then that is enough to start us moving.
There was reputedly a man called Petronius Arbiter in 60 A.D. who said something like this:
We trained hard
Those organisations can be deemed good in which people interact successfully with those they serve; the quality and effectiveness of this liaison is the important thing. What matters is leadership, that people are caught up and galvanised into unrelenting effort in the application of valid techniques built on enduring values and illuminated by the flame of steadfast purpose. We remain suckers for the shibboleth. I am reminded here of the remark quoted by Maurice Bridgeland of David Wills:
If you have a boundless faith in what you are doing and that faith is based on the eternal verities then you will survive. But if your confidence in what you do is based on some pragmatic assessment of its value, measured against the yardstick of some human scientific concept, then I advise you to keep bees or become a business tycoon.
I have a personal stake in this. Not much of what I have to say is really new, but it comes out of experience which has been successfully applied, and I do not see why this should be lightly swept aside. The secret perhaps is to be watchful and adaptable to change, but equally concerned to preserve valuable lessons learned, with pain, over many years. I have always felt that not to be questing for better ways of doing the job leads to an attitude of mind that is complacent and tends towards regression in techniques. At the same time, when things become unfashionable and new vogues are abroad, it is crucial that we are not swayed by an ephemeral squall of public or professional opinion into the wholesale discarding of techniques which have proven validity. Integrity and job commitment both flavour the old in conjunction with the new. Everything I personally have observed over the past twenty-five years cries out in testimony of the truth that to shatter the mould and start again is less genuinely progressive despite the sneers and derogation of the avant garde than is a quiet and persistent dedication to improvement without revolution. Panaceas are usually quackery. When we get caught up in some strident impulsion to change, the ensuing period of repentance is a long one. Truth in operation has a timeless quality about it.
I have seen and read of many
experimental regimes. Most have dazzled and sparkled for a couple of
years, only to meet adversity and fizzle out fitfully. The only thing
left to the protagonists was to write a book, which they usually did.
Any regime must have within it the resilience to ride the bumps and go
on functioning. Of all the clever material that has been written, only
Lyward, Neill and Otto Shaw come to mind as successful evangelists.5
What they built stood the test of time, and in each case the
rationale is elusive because it is rooted in their own personalities and
convictions. Unhappily Lyward and Neill are gone, but the message they
have left behind (for me) is that in the residential scene people and
what they stand for are more important than methodologies. In this
scientific age we feel the need to reduce their successful strategies to
formulations on a punch card for a computer. This we cannot do, because
it is the stuff of humanity, warm and caring and tolerant, yet shot
through with unshatterable faith in the nature of the human animal. The
work of the successful practitioner will always have about it an element
of mystique, compounded out of his own personality. It is wise to
Bridgeland, M. (1971) Pioneer work
with maladjusted children. London: Staples Press