Innovation not conformity


Dr Brian Belton and ForcesWatch

Dr Brian Belton, a leading international authority on youth work, gives his thoughts on the report: What is the social impact resulting from the expenditure on cadets? He argues that, 'the modern world does not require conformity, it demands innovation'.

We approached Dr Brian Belton, a leading international authority on youth work, for his thoughts regarding this week’s publication of a report: What is the social impact resulting from the expenditure on cadets?, and the Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon’s subsequent announcement of further cadet expansion. The document is reporting interim finding after one year of a four year study by The Institute for Social Innovation & Impact at the Univeristy of Northampton.

We have previously written about the expansion of the cadet forces as a poorly thought-through policy that is part of a push to militarise education and wider society.

Dr Belton’s comments expose the euphemistic language that is employed by Fallon and the Ministry of Defence when eulogizing about the benefits of cadet forces and a ‘military ethos’ for young people. This language is reminiscent of Chomsky’s ‘manufacturing consent’ argument: (“That’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything.”)

He also unpicks and challenges the idea that the values we are told a ‘military ethos’ will instil are the epitome of desirable attributes in young people.

Dr Belton places this drive to militarise education and how it is framed for educational and social purposes within the context of two divergent youth movements, one of which is superior yet which is being lost under the weight of drives such as the Cadet Expansion Programme.

While youth work and services for young people are facing severe and damaging cuts, the initiatives receiving funding and support instead are those that fit snugly into the state’s militarisation agenda. Belton’ comments are a reminder to be mindful of the motivations behind changes to provision for young people, and they challenge the idea that such changes are always benevolent and positive.

Also see our articles Is pushing the cadets really in pupils’ best interests? and The Ministry of Defence has no place in our schools.

Dr Belton:

There’s an awful lot to criticise in this report, and Fallon’s recent ramblings in the light of the same (that are so transparently ideological as to be laughable). If you can take anything Fallon comes out with seriously, usually the most cursory analysis dissolves it as the basis for policy. For example:

“Cadets help instil values of discipline and loyalty.”

This may (or may not) be true, but discipline to do what, loyalty to whom or what? Why is straightforward loyalty a good thing generally?  ISIS fighters often seem intensely (unquestioningly/stupidly) loyal. Where is the evidence for a statement like this?  How might one measure loyalty and distinguish it for plain blind devotion? What is too much discipline; when does it become a sort of unhealthy self-restraint (or restraint on others)?  Isn’t this really about people being taught to do what they are told regardless?

He went on to claim that the Cadets,

“…develop leadership skills and confidence.”

But how much confidence?  How is this being measured?  At what point does confidence become foolish arrogance? As for leadership skills, gang leaders and drug barons have those in spades, I’d hazard a guess not too many of this cadre developed the same in the cadets. The simplistic claim to advancing leadership skills means little if anything.  Lead who towards what, for what and why? Leaders are persuasive, but almost always skilled manipulators.  Unlike managers, who transform logic into action (on a good day) leaders often appeal to irrational responses and motivations (like blind loyalty, embedded by disciplinary regimes and processes). Leaders are reliant on (indeed they are defined by) followers, and if everyone is a leader likely very little gets done.  This suggests we need some people to be cadets but not the majority, which opens a whole different can of Tory worms.

However for me, the aspect that is most irksome is that young people should be encouraged to spend their spare time in situations that are primarily underpinned by conformity and uniformity (like literally).

One ‘invests’ in youth and this means there is an expected dividend. The latter has of late been framed as potential and actual social mobility, but this is a metaphor (perhaps an euphemism) for the creation of a relatively flexible, relative skilled, relatively cheap workforce.

There are basically two seminal moments in the development of youth work. The Scouting movement was the first mass, nationally focused and organised movement looking to harness and develop young people, primarily for the benefit of the maintenance of the state (then the empire). This has been a constant project that continues up to today; one ‘invests’ in youth and this means there is an expected dividend (this is essentially a capitalist model, with colonial undertones). The latter has of late been framed as potential and actual social mobility, but this is a metaphor (perhaps an euphemism) for the creation of a relatively flexible, relative skilled, relatively cheap workforce.

Labelled as ‘informal education’ (education that is applied without those being educated knowing about it) and latterly ‘social pedagogy’ (an anglosised distortion of continental paradigms) over the last 20 or 30 years what we might know as ‘youth work’ has been devoted to this very cause.  It’s funding (or lack of funding) from central sources (directly or indirectly) has reflected the extent to which these chiefly control oriented, economic aims have been achieved.

However, the vision for post-war youth work in the mid-1940s was almost the diametrical opposite of this. The work Mass Observation included a number of appraisals of the ‘Rainbow Corner clubs’, facilities put in place for GIs on their way to, on leave or returning from the battle fields of Europe. These places that simply allowed young people to be together, with a few distractions (snooker tables, pin-ball machines, dances, milk-bars) were seen to be venues not only where young people could relax and socialize, but created environments, situations and experiences that were edifying and even healing; what has been called ‘the third place’.1. Soon British young people were doing all they could to gain entry to the Rainbow Corner clubs and Mass Observation concluded that they were a model for what a British youth service might be post-war. Indeed the Albemarle Report (1960) reflected much of this ambition.

The ethos of the Rainbow Corner clubs and Albemarle was an understanding that emerged (significantly) in a time of post-colonialism. As was the case in terms of former colonised ‘natives’, it was understood that young people did not need to be directed or shaped (unlike the basic foundation of Scouting); they had the capacity within themselves to be creative and auto-didactic in terms of learning about themselves and the world.

We have, as a nation, over the last few decades, lost sight of this type of understanding. Via a mass obsession with outcome related practice, the huge National Citizen Service project and now this report we have pinned our hopes on a sort of monstrous inflation of the most crude aspects of some of the primordial ideas associated with Scouting (like social pedagogy, the British Scouting movement was admired by the 1930s National Socialists in Germany who adapted the approach to create the Hitler Youth). There are parts of this I am grateful for. State ambitions are now obvious, they are streaking – the project of informal education (covert indoctrination) was merely ‘flashing’.

Now I am not condemning the Scouts or the Cadet forces out of hand. The former is changed much since the beady eyed Baden Powell stalked the earth (I myself earnt my woggle as a Scout leader just after the Conquest).  The Cadet forces have much to offer some young people, most of whom do not advance to military service; many are motivated to move into emergency and uniformed services, as well as outdoor education. But to sell it as a sort of general social panacea for youth is the equivalent to flogging snake oil. Fallon is pushing the same sort of empty rhetoric that lay behind the ragged and industrial schools of a more cruel and brutal era. This is the same sort of ranting that promoted thrashings and harsh words (then also seen as ‘discipline’) as somehow good for children, who should be seen and not heard.

Youth work, from Albermarle and still in a lot of places today, has sung quite a different song; children need to be heard and clearly. They have rights and these include not to be hounded and hassled by adult demands to be loyal to this or that, but to choose for themselves what they back or don’t back and change that when and if they see fit; yes, to know when to be disloyal or not to be loyal to those who would exert their discipline on others. And as Foucault enunciated well, discipline is the horse that pulls the cart of punishment.

All this aside, the modern world does not require conformity, it demands innovation. Uniformity is not the stuff on this century, we need creativity and diverse thinking. While I understand that the cadet forces offer more than a chance for everyone to dress up the same and hold a gun, social mobility does not rely on either of the latter. If we are looking for a dividend from youth robust enough to make the future, we are going to need to make an ‘investment’ in youth that is something more nuanced than militaristic line dancing.

1. See Oldenburg, Ray (1989). The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day. New York: Paragon House, (1991). The Great Good Place. New York: Marlowe & Company and (2000). Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories about the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities. New York: Marlowe & Company.

See more: cadets, ForcesWatch, youth organisations

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