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126 AUGUST 2009
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Just curious

Mark Smith

One of the reasons I haven’t got round to writing a column for the past couple of months is that I have finally embarked on fieldwork for a PhD. In it I am considering changing discourses of care in Scottish residential schools, garnered through the stories of those who worked in the schools over a long number of years. As I anticipated, the picture emerging is very different from the one of unreflective, punitive and oppressive establishments that is often painted. One of the words that has cropped up a few times already is that of curiosity. In the 1960s and 70s the schools attracted a number of bright idealists, driven by social conscience, but also by a spirit of wanting to understand why kids behaved in the ways they did rather than just responding to these behaviours. They had little to draw upon “psychological understandings were in their infancy, at least when applied to the practice of care and education. But they were curious. That curiosity led them to innovate, to experiment with different approaches; there was something of a pioneering spirit around and several respondents have identified their involvement in new ventures as among the most rewarding experiences in their professional lives.

Of course in those days there was a climate of optimism, a belief that we could understand and improve things. People felt able to go with their hunch and to try things out. But they weren’t driven by dogma; they were pragmatic and if things didn’t work they could try something else. But there was no sense that they would be hung out to dry if things didn’t work out. This spirit of optimism is in stark contrast to the kind of climates of fear that now permeate Child and Youth Care nowadays, a climate in which there is a sense that no initiative is likely to go unpunished. Such a climate in some respects is premised on a belief that we have moved beyond curiosity to knowledge; we now know what works, we call it “best practice” or “evidence” or some such buzzword. In fact we are so sure of what works that we reify it in various practice standards and regulatory regimes, where compliance and conformity are all.

This is a dangerous position. One of the most insightful sayings I find myself falling back on, I picked up from Frances Ricks et al’s book Creating a Social Capital Mosaic. In it they talk about knowing as being a learning disability. When we think we know something it closes us to other possibilities. We also become lazy; we keep doing the same thing over and over again because it is written down somewhere and because someone has told us that it is “best practice” or is set down in some code somewhere. When applied to those we work the quest to move beyond curiosity to knowing is manifest in systems of assessment, classification and categorisation. In so doing we may pretend that we draw upon some objective psychological framework to justify the boxes we put kids and their families into. Actually, the only way we seek to know them is to impose on them an image of ourselves, replete with our own values and prejudices. In so doing we deny them their uniqueness, or what the philosopher Levinas calls their alterity “their ultimate unknowability.

When I was in practice the curiosity that sought to know more but at the same time recognised that I would never really know those I worked with and the openness to surprise that accompanied such a position was one of the real attractions of Child and Youth Care. It ensured that nothing was ever dull, ever routine. It is such a spirit of curiosity that leads us to try different things, to take things to the next level. Einstein is reputed to have said “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” His curiosity served him well enough. But forget nuclear fusion. In the present climate of Child and Youth Care it can feel dangerous to be curious, to ask awkward questions, to posit contrary views. Curiosity we are led to believe killed the cat. I would argue that a lack of curiosity is strangling child care.

Ricks, F.; Charlesworth, J.; Bellefeuille, G. and Field, A. (1999). Creating a Social Capital Mosaic. Vanier Institute of the Family.

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