Forty Years and Counting - Communicating Probation
The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself as a product of the historical processes to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. —Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (1929—1935)
Towards a Career
It is tempting to impose order on a career when looking back over a period spanning upwards of 40 years. In fact outcomes are rarely as clearly planned. I attended York University in the early 1970s. Much of the spirit of the 1960s was still around in those years, though when I left
P. Senior (*)
© The Author(s) 2016
M. Vanstone, P. Priestley (eds.), Probation and Politics, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-59557-7_14
higher education (HE) 6 years later in 1977, strikes, inflation, punks, soccer hooligans and a sense of national decline hung heavily over Britain, Thatcher was just around the corner. I had gone intending to be a secondary school teacher, studying history and education. I had begun an intellectual awakening in my sixth form where I had first discovered the liberating experience of reading literature and poetry. For the first time I was moving beyond what Freire calls the ‘banking’ experience of education. This continued with my exposure to intellectual history and in the debates surrounding the ‘de schooling’ movement. I was influenced by Marx, Gramsci, Orwell, Freire, Illich, AS Neil, Montessori and many others. I had not thought of this intellectual legacy until I began to ask where my basic intellectual instincts had first emerged which took me from a career in secondary teaching to probation practice and policy and a lifetime in and around probation. As I look back at this intellectual springboard I can see three persistent themes:
• Always look beyond what you see for meaning and interpretation
‘I hate the indifferent. I believe that living means taking sides. Those who really live cannot help being a citizen and a partisan. Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life. That is why I hate the indifferent.’ (Gramsci in Hoare and Smith 1971)
• Always link practice and reflection
‘For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.’ (Freire 2000)
• Stay linked to the real world and pass on ideas and share knowledge ‘The insistence that the oppressed engage in reflection on their concrete situation is not a call to armchair revolution. On the contrary, reflection - true reflection - leads to action.’ (Freire 2000, p. 66)
Having dismissed schools as a career I had to dig deep to find what really interested me. I had learnt that teaching history to 12-year-olds was not for me but the youth work I did really grabbed my attention. The same kids who presented as difficult and disinterested in class emerged as more rounded, if at times troubled, young people in the evenings. Even when my teaching practice had finished I returned to the youth club fascinated by their difficult lives. I decided I wanted to do social or youth work, to engage these young people and hopefully encourage them to break out of their confines. A lofty aim and I did not fully appreciate how difficult that might prove to be.
This eclectic mix of ideas and experiences has given me an orientation which has shaped my career. What label can I put on this orientation? Is it the ‘organic intellectual’ of Gramsci, the ‘embedded criminologist’ which Petersilia (2008) describes or Loader and Sparks suggest: ‘scientific expert, policy advisor, observer-turned-player, social movement theorist/activist and lonely prophet’ (Loader and Sparks 2011, p. 28), offering the ‘democratic under-labourer’ (Loader and Sparks 2011, pp. 115—147) as their preferred role.
Most of these roles describe a disciplinary commitment — in these cases criminology — then seeking to impact on policy and practice from that discipline. In contrast Gramsci’s concept is more endemic to a whole system approach and is at the core of his notion of counterhegemony. He argues that whatever job an individual assumes they should seek to undertake this with a commitment to use their knowledges and influence, to seek to be what Gramsci called ‘organic intellectuals’: ‘the mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence ... but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, “permanent persuader” and not just a simple orator... ’ (Hoare and Smith 1971, p. 10).
This approach eschews a particular discipline allegiance. I have found myself in different worlds with their own knowledges and I have adapted and used propositional knowledge from whatever discipline I have needed, be it sociology, criminology, psychology, policy science, learning theory, social work and more. I do not possess an overarching disciplinary commitment which prescribes how I respond. I will return to this after I have examined the nuts and bolts of my approach to work in the probation sector which started in