KERRY Young's short book is an eloquent, poetic and philosophical reassertion of the unique contribution of the youth work purpose, perfectly complementing Bernard Davies's recently published History of the Youth Service in England.
Various academics have tried to downplay the contribution of youth work to informal education, while other people have tried to make youth work a political instrument. Reduced to questions of educational methods or target groups, youth work has tended to be misperceived as a kind of remedial activity with so-called problem children. Nothing could be further from the truth: youth work is one of the most sophisticated of educational interventions within the spectrum.
The Government had forgotten the youth service in its two latest education policy documents and apparently fails to understand youth work, but Young's book provides powerful educational and philosophical ammunition to assert its importance.
This is an intellectually demanding book, but its argument is gently stated. It sets down the common ground that has underpinned a range of organisational, institutional and academic definitions of youth work and relates these to the professional experiences of a diverse group of 32 youth workers.
Bombarded by sociological categorisations of youth and a variety of political policies which have created new contexts, methods, target groups and models for youth work, practioners have been in danger of losing sight of their core purpose and values. Young reminds us that the essential purpose of youth work is to support young people and enable them to ask and answer the central questions of self: Who am I?, What kind of society do I want to live in? Political and social education remains at the heart of youth work.
Youth workers form relationships with young people which help them to learn from their experiences and develop the motivation and capacity to examine their values. These relationships also help them to consider the principles of their own moral judgement, and develop the skills and dispositions to make informed and rational choices that can be sustained through committed action.
Youth workers are concerned with young people not because they are in trouble or cause trouble, not because they are at risk, disaffected or socially excluded, but because they are people in the process of establishing their identity and the meanings and values which shape their lives and guide their actions.
The Art of Youth Work establishes the philosophical core of the work, examines its deployment in practice through relationship building and processes, and finally looks at the skills and values that sustain it. Young's description of the way in which good youth work can instil the key features of critical thinking which underpin educational attainment and the sense of citizenship is about as good as it gets in educational theory.
Youth work's neglect has often resulted from an alarm at its ability to empower young minds (in the words of the 1961 Albemarle report) to "have the liberty to question cherished ideas, attitudes and standards and if necessary to reject them".
The subordination of critical consciousness is a feature of our recent times. Let youth work flourish to conquer this.
Doug Nicholls is chief executive of the Community Youth Workers' Union.