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Unifying values and practice in child and youth care programmes

Opening Address to NACCW's 1991 Biennial Conference by Prof. Herbert W. Vilakazi

I must first thank the organisers of this conference for inviting me to be here amongst you on the opening day of the conference. They have, of course, in addition, laid a heavy and challenging responsibility upon me, by requesting me to deliver the Opening Address! I shall try as much as possible to stay close to my topic, although I am not a specialist in child and youth care. I am approaching this topic as a scholar of human societies and human history. I have come across the topic of children, and of youth, in my studies in anthropology, sociology, psychology, and history, as well, of course, as in art and literature.

Children, art and literature
Indeed, one can draw a parallel between children, on one hand, and art and literature, on the other hand. Art and literature are endeavours of human beings to express their feelings and innermost longings. At the same time, through art and literature, human beings are attempting to mould, or to remould, our feelings and longings in a certain direction. Through art, human beings attempt to affirm the essence of their humanity.

How does art affirm the essence of our humanity? A good work of art is like a good scrub, scrubbing our emotions. It scrubs away the dirt that accumulates upon our emotions. If it is genuine art, it leaves us cleaner, emotionally, than we were before encountering it. Being exposed to a good work of art is like taking a bath. Artists, then, are the scrub-men and scrub-women of humanity. A genuine work of art, therefore, is, by its very nature, anti-dirt: it is against dirt on our emotions and minds which come from various circumstances of life, social, political, economic, etc. True art, then, is against everything that is anti-human. It expresses revulsion against cruelty to human beings, even against cruelty to animals and to nature itself. The measure of success in this endeavour is what we call beauty; beauty emanates out of this endeavour; hence, African-Americans will refer to a certain individual as “a beautiful person".

The child
Now, let us turn to the child. A child is an embodiment and expression of beauty itself. Africans in Southern Africa say, “Ukuzala ukuzelula amathambo." To translate this saying into English is not easy at all – in fact it is impossible. One can only describe the contents within the proverb. The literal translation is, “Through procreation, one is stretching one’s bones." Involved here is more than just the physiological process. Through having children, one enlarges and extends one’s connection with humanity; one enlarges and releases one’s spirit; indeed, one’s being is enriched and ennobled. The mere sight of a child touches the very essence of our humanity. A child draws from within us the inclination and instinct for kindness and gentleness and generosity and love. The child is a miracle of human nature, drawing out of us our sense of wonder.

Accordingly, there is nothing more revolting to the essence of our humanity than the sight of, and knowledge of, the existence of, cruelty to children. Hence child care workers! The child, then, by its very nature, is an embodiment of “unifying values and practices" throughout the world. This does not mean, however, that children throughout the world are treated equally well; and the situation actually gets worse with youth, particularly in industrialising and in industrial societies, in which the abuse of children and of youth seems embedded in the very structural features of such societies. It is in the context of this tearing asunder of human ties, by the industrialising process, and in industrial societies, that there commences a new search for “unifying values and practice in child and youth care programmes". Hence research in these areas of human life.

I always call the special attention of students to the word “research". I ask them to notice that there are two parts to the word. There is, first, the prefix “re" which is then affixed to “search". In research, then, we are looking, again, for the truths which have been eluding us, so far. Some of these truths are truths we knew, at one time, and somehow, subsequently, forgot or lost sight of.

There is one gigantic, tragic mistake which was made in the history of modern science, the modern science which is the characteristic feature of industrial societies. What mistake is this? It is the prejudiced assumption, which was lodged right at the heart of modern science, that all people and societies, before the industrial revolution, lived in ignorance, darkness, and superstition; that, save the major world religions of Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, and classical art, there is nothing upon which modern science could build and develop. We have here an amazing phenomenon: all the knowledge acquired by human beings, during the pre-industrial epoch, the longest stretch of the life of humanity on this earth, amounting to a hundred thousand years – all this knowledge was classified useless, from the standpoint of the development of modern science. So, scientists of the industrial epoch were to start from scratch. It is as if the hundreds of millions of men, women and children, who inhabited the earth, until about three centuries ago, were congenital idiots and fools. I repeat: the assumption and actual practice, was that the development of scientific knowledge was to begin from scratch; there was nothing that could be taken from the past, and incorporated into modern science. We were all to start with a clean slate.

I still cannot get over the enormity of the insult contained in this assumption to hundreds of millions of people who lived before the modern era. We have also made our search for the truth about diseases, nature, and particularly about human nature and human psychology all the more difficult and incomplete. A large part of the darkness still remaining in our search for the truth about human nature, human psychology, and about diseases, consists of truths from the pre-industrial world, which we have rejected out of our prejudices about pre-industrial people, in particular out of our prejudices about African, or dark-skinned, people.

Child psychology
Let me illustrate this point with regard to the discipline of psychology, particularly the sub-discipline of child psychology. At universities, when study psychology, we only study works and theories produced by Freud, Piaget, Watson, Pavlov, and hundreds of other psychologists who wrote their findings and thoughts on paper. The working assumption here is that the hundreds of millions of people who did not live their thoughts and findings on paper did not, in fact, have psychological theories; the assumption here is that pre-industrial people, in our case particularly African people, did not have serious theories of child psychology. Yet, I know of no people more concerned about child psychology, and very meticulous and systematic in their consideration of children, than pre-industrial peasants. The old African men and women, particularly the old women, were consummate child psychologists. Contained in the attitude of the old towards children, and treatment of children, in peasant cultures, was, and is, a very elaborate, developed, comprehensive, and systematic, psychological and psychoanalytical theory of childhood.

The disintegration of this theory, and disrespect for this theory, in modern industrial cultures, and emergence of the specialist “child psychologist", had, in totality, not acutally meant a step forward in the psychological well-being of the child, or in our general knowledge of the psychology of the child. No, the emergence of the specialist “child psychologist" simply represents the modern attempt to re-build a neglected, vandalised, and destroyed dwelling.

We are not further along, than peasant culture, in our knowledge of child psychology. What we should do, in our efforts to increase and improve our knowledge of child psychology, is not only to study what our specialists child psychologists have written, but also to go out to learn, and collect, and record, and collate carefully, the psychological and psychoanalytic theory of childhood contained in peasant cultures, and to integrate or synthesise the two. This applies to all spheres of knowledge.

Illness and treatment
It is becoming increasingly clear, for instance, that scientific medicine did not begin with modern science. Here are some interesting remarks, by a microbiologist, on the history of penicillin: “Soon after the appearance of penicillin medical historians began a search of the early medical literature and beyond to see if records of the use of this antibiotic could be found which pre-dated Fleming’s original discovery in 1928. These searches soon showed that moulds had been widely used as curatives in folk medicine stretching back into antiquity." It is also becoming increasingly clear that most diseases have their roots in social factors, rather than in biology as such, hence the growing importance of community and preventative medicine. We are also becoming increasingly aware of the crucial link between human psychology and biology. This insight was underlined in the indictment of modern Western medicine, which was uttered by an old American Indian: “the white man only cures the illness; we cure the person."

Community responsibility for children
As far as children and youth are concerned, our problem started when the overall raising of the child became the private responsibility of a private individual, the mother or father, or of private individuals. The mother and the father; and other mothers and fathers lost interest in the raising and correct socialisation of children, save their own individual, privately held children. The success or failure of the socialisation of the child, and the feeding and nurturing of the child, depend almost entirely on the individual parent, or on the mother and father. The same applies, of course, to the failure or success of marriage; it now depends wholly on the individuals concerned.

People in pre-industrial societies knew too well that the minds and souls and powers of two individuals, or of one person, are not broad and deep and enormous enough to successfully raise a human being, or to maintain a marriage. Community members, in general, had a pivotal role to play in this responsibility. But this responsibility cannot be fulfilled by members of a community torn apart by the paramount spirit of individualism and egotism, by mutual suspicion, competition, bitterness and hatred born out of poverty and oppression amidst plenty. We also have to realise another big difference between modern industrial societies, on one hand, and pre-industrial societies, on the other hand, with respect to childhood and youth. In pre-industrial societies, childhood and youth, in general, was a considerably shorter period than it has become in industrial societies. I am talking here about a period, early in life, when one is not making any useful contribution to the material survival of society; a period, in fact, of uselessness to society as a whole.

In pre-industrial societies, older children already assumed specific tasks, in the household: this is especially so in the period of youth. By the time boys and girls are ten or fourteen years old, they already are playing a recognisable, acknowledged, vital role in economic production along with adults. Accordingly, their sense of self-worth is considerably enhanced and strengthened, as well as their level of maturity. They become a contributing factor to the survival of society; and are, thus, spared that nihilistic, destructive attitude towards the very society they live in.

In industrial societies, the period when young people are useless, i.e., when they are not playing any recognised, vital role for the survival of society, is considerably longer. As the sphere of economic production, and of education, left the household, and the economy became more sophisticated, youth began to spend a considerably longer time than before, engaged purely in education, divorced from the sphere of the economy. Nowadays, the average young person may have to spend the years of elementary school, high school, and university, amounting to about twenty years, before beginning to be involved in productive labour, or in income-generating labour activities. This long period of economic, political and social uselessness must generate feelings of frustration, and even nihilistic, destructive tendencies, among modern youth, as well as possible addiction to the coarse appetites of drink, smoke, sex, and wanton pleasure-seeking.

The problems of children and of youth, giving rise to child and youth care programmes, can only begin to be solved in that society of humankind's dream; a more collective-oriented society than at present, when the father of the child shall be every man as old as the child's father; when the mother of the child shall be every woman as old as the child's mother; a society of responsibility of the entire community; a society without poverty; without the inequalities of society members, based upon race, class, or sex; a society without the use of violence against other members of society; a society without any exploitation and oppression of any group by any other group; a society of equals; a thoroughly democratic society; last, but not least a society that shall have, once more, incorporated productive labour into the educational process. I do not think we can ever talk about the tendency towards unifying values and practice in child and youth care programmes, outside the context of the effort to create the type of society outlined above.

This feature: Vilakazi, H. (1991). Unifying values and practice in child and youth care programmes, in Gannon, B (ed.) Old Limitations, New Challenges: Towards unifying values and practice in child and youth care programmes. Cape Town: National Association of Child Care Workers, pp 1-5

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