Graeme Tiffany is a researcher, trainer, lecturer and education consultant working in the UK, with special interests in detached and street-based youth work, youth social policy, informal education, democratic education, participation and the use of philosophical tools to support learning.
I spoke to Graeme to learn about his pioneering work in Community Philosophy, which empowers people in any context to be active citizens and to generate ideas at a grassroots level.
Graeme Tiffany. Image by Graeme TIffany.
Ciaran: So Graeme, could you tell me a bit about your personal and philosophical background?
Graeme: Sometimes I describe all this in terms of a journey. I didn't do so badly at school but I wasn't particularly happy there. I much more enjoyed being outside. It's something that's always been with me, so I have an interest in geographical ideas, like space and place, and particularly the effect different spaces have on people. So, those two points are kind of connected, in that I had a very strong sense from quite a young age that people could learn outside of schools. My mum was a teacher - I don't think she was particularly happy as a teacher but she was one. I can't talk to her about education because it's almost like she's suffering from trauma, literally trauma, from her experiences. I'm fascinated by why school has that kind of effect on people. What I did get from my mum was a sense that you don't want to dismiss education; inherently it was a valuable thing. But very quickly I worked out I was not going to be a school teacher!
I've always been an activist, I've always been involved in all sorts of stuff, and I've always enjoyed that. I've been a volunteer in my community ever since I was a teenager and I can't see that ever changing. I always had a strong sense of the value of civic society. But I always had to be interested and that's why I struggled at school really, because there was quite a lot of stuff I wasn't really interested in. I never struggled with motivation when I was interested. So I fumbled around for quite a while and I did all sorts of things and one of the things that absolutely obsessed me – and still does – is the outdoors and adventure. And I got a bit of a break when I got a job working in outdoor education. It was a bit of an odd situation because, at the time, there was a view that to work in a community you had to be in and of that community – the desire was to recruit 'indigenous workers'. There was an organisation that worked like this in Dorset but the worker, let’s say, had ran off with the money. In order to prevent the project going down the pan they had to get somebody in the post very quickly. So I, as a Yorkshireman, went to Dorset for an interview as a non-indigenous indigenous worker! I think they just wanted to keep hold of the money gifted by the Rank Foundation and they were prepared to abandon their commitment to the policy.
At the same time, there was a similar view that you could only work with kids experiencing problems with drugs if you'd had a problem yourself, that kind of thing. I was always a bit sceptical about this. Anyway, one thing I did have was the ability to talk to people. In that sense, I was a bit of a natural community worker. I started to realise that there were places where you could work in education that weren't in schools, and that's been very much my life since. I wanted to work in what I now call 'non-institutional spaces'. And yet, I didn't particularly like working in outdoor education even though I had this love of the outdoors, and I started to think, "Well, why is this?" And it was because I was meeting young people on a Monday morning and saying goodbye on a Friday. So I realised it was the relationships that mattered to me, and that these were important for learning as well.
The job in Dorset was right on the edge of town, and somebody had collected some data that found few local kids ever went there. My job was to go to the estates and get to know young people. I would have access to the outdoor kit when it was not being used by the other instructors. My boss used to refer to me as a wandering minstrel; I would literally go and talk to kids on street corners and stuff. This was the opportunity I wanted to get to know people properly, develop longer-term relationships with them, not just be an instructor.
I had been to college, one of the old ‘polys’, and I was fascinated by the diversity of everybody that was there and by the politics. These were the heady days of politics and I miss them greatly. It was at the time of the Miners’ Strike and many of us skipped classes to get involved, like raising money to feed miners’ families and stuff. Anyway, the long and the short of it, they chucked me out because I didn't go to lessons. Life seemed more interesting outside. I’m not proud of it but I can say I learnt loads. So, when I was told in Dorset that you're going to have to go to college I jumped at the chance. They sent me for a day a week and it took me, like, six years to get a degree, but it changed my life. Of course, it was a completely different degree too. I’d done Environmental Studies at the poly, only because I was a Greenie (still am), but here I did a Community Education degree. Actually, it's quite important to note, it was called 'Informal and Community Education'. It was – again – this concept of helping people to learn outside of institutions. It really had a massive effect on me.
Like all good training courses you have to do a bit of everything; you had to do psychology, you had to do sociology, and of course you to do something about values. It drives me to distraction now when you look at teacher training and the place of ethics and values: it's all just been ripped out. In my mum’s day, every single teacher had to study the philosophy of education. It's terrible now that few teachers study philosophical perspectives. I’m stretching a point but they seem to do behaviour management and curriculum, that's about it. There are around seventeen different routes into teaching now and almost all of them are fast track, so there’s little time to study, think, about education. A lot of people have written about why this is, me too; it’s to do with politics.
I got trained well, I really did, but they battered me. It wasn't so much about what we learnt but how we learnt. Some people thought it was all a bit mad; there were times when lecturers deliberately didn't turn up, as they wanted to see what we would do, whether we would try to teach ourselves. We were put in an environment where we were expected to believe that we were capable of autonomous learning. We also did a lot of practical stuff, and so on. But it was the philosophy that really got a grip on me.
Ciaran: How did you start to integrate philosophy into existing features of your work, such as being in the outdoors and in different places?
Graeme: I’d long since realized that the diversity of the environments I was in was important to me; I’d travelled to Africa, South East Asia, South America. I guess this is why, after Dorset, I found myself in the East End of London, which is as diverse as it gets. Having grown up in an almost exclusively white area, I think I wanted, needed, to go to a more diverse place.
Also, I've never really had a desire to tell people what to think or what to do. Which was useful in the East End because there was a lot going on that I didn’t have the faintest idea about; but I could ask. So I've always been on the side of education as being about helping people to think. A lot has been written about education as facilitation; I'm pretty much on that page. Of course there's stuff I want to teach people, but I believe in people enough to think it’s important to help them learn from one other, and I think philosophy's great for that.
I started to think of philosophy as practice, and as pedagogy. In those days, of course, as community workers, and social workers, and youth workers, we pretty much did what we wanted to do. It's not like now, where everything is prescribed. So, of course, we had colleagues who didn’t work very hard, because, I guess, they could get away with it. But the rest of us worked hard, because, I like to think, we were activists. But it did mean we had the opportunity for some experimentation.
Another thing that happened to me was that I had to do a placement. Like many of us, we studied [Paulo] Freire. Everybody liked Freire, everybody still does, but what you were always struggling to find was anybody who had ever tried to put his ideas into action. I found a book called Living Adult Education: Freire in Scotland. Of all the books I've ever read, that's probably my best thumbed book. On the very last page it said, "If you want to contact the Adult Learning Project ring this number". So I did, there and then. The guy that wrote the book picked the phone up and I said "give us a job" and he said "Yeah, come!" He never interviewed me, he didn't do anything. So I went on this placement to Edinburgh and I worked with the team there and they were absolutely fantastic. The reason I'm telling you this is because I started becoming even more interested in methodological and pedagogical approaches. I watched these guys facilitating really critical conversations amongst, you know, local people, working-class people, who had no sense of themselves as philosophers. Years later I came across [Jacques] Rancière, who said we are all philosophers, all entitled to an intellectual life. This was political education for me. I was working more with young people and I went home and wrote a paper about Friere for young adults and, my god, if there's anything I've ever written that’s been read a lot it was that; it's still doing the rounds now. Basically, what I was doing was inventing methodologies, to do this kind of practical philosophy, in community settings, and especially with young people, albeit older young people.
And then, of course, I needed to learn more, so I went and did a Masters degree, at the Institute of Education, the Values in Education course, which was just fantastic. It wasn’t so much what they taught us, it was the discussion with all the people that I loved, who were from all over the world. And, you know, we did an awful lot of arguing, but nobody thought it was a bad thing, which is just so important to me. I came from a culture where every time I chipped up to ask some kind of, I guess philosophical, or political, question, I was basically told to go stand in the corner; "We don't talk about that Graeme ". I got to the stage where I thought, "Well, what are we going to talk about?" I still get emails from one of my sisters saying "Christmas is coming, we're all getting together, here's a list of things you can't talk about!" But when I met people at the Institute they'd talk about how their parents brought them into philosophical discussion around the dinner table, you know all that kind of stuff? I remember reading about the Miliband brothers, about how their father Ralph would say "Come and join in these conversations boys". It’s not like how it was for me.
So, I was kind of desperate to find people to argue with, though I did have one. I had an uncle, Brian, he was a Scotsman, a Tory and a copper; probably the only Scots, Tory copper in the world! He loved Thatcher and I hated Thatcher, so I loved my uncle Brian coming to visit because he would take me on. He would come down for New Year’s Eve and drink a lot. He was the only one who ever took me on, so when I got to the Institute, when I did my Masters, I found people who also wanted to take me on and I just thought it was great. So, I've basically been trying to find those conversations ever since. That's why I make these references to space and place: How can we create places, and cultures within them, where it's okay to argue with one another? I guess I've just been experimenting throughout my career, with only those parameters in mind.
Then I fell upon the world of Philosophy for Children, and I thought there's something really important about this. But, saying that, I was immediately and instinctively troubled by it. I think it's great what they're doing but it was never for me. I've got pals who do all that with kids in school and it's great but I don't like it. My job's outside these places; it always has been and it always will be.
I started thinking much more critically about how these spaces worked. So I've done quite a lot of work with geographers, especially children's geographers, I've given presentations at the Royal Geographical Society about all these kind of things. I started wondering, why do all these people who want to do philosophy go off to schools? And it came to me one day that it's only because the children there are a captive audience; they're in the prison of school. So when these people turn up... I don't know: it's almost kind of unethical that we assume that these young people want to do philosophy. Because, what I know from being a community worker is, if you start thinking and acting like someone’s a captive, you aren’t going to have anybody to work with! So, you have to be really respectful, you've got to really put your work into getting to know people, building relationships. Things, possibilities, flow from that. I think some people think if you go for schools, you can simply turn up, meet these kids and start doing philosophy, simple as that. Then again, maybe they are not even thinking about this at all. But there's a price to pay. You have to deal with the effects of working in an institutional setting. Some of this is kind of cheesy, but I've collected anecdotes. Steve, a great friend of mine, talks about doing philosophy with children when the bell rang and some kid shouted: "its break time, can we carry on?" Steve asked, "Well, would you like to carry on?" And all the kids go, "Yeah! Let's carry on!" but the teacher just killed it.
So you have to remember this is a place of assumed power, power that community workers can never assume. Because, if you start assuming power in community work you just get two fingers. I have an acute feeling for this particularly as an awful lot of my youth and community work has been in the street. And when you're in the street you live by your conversational abilities. But, what you do know is that if young people are present it's because they want to be there, you can't nail their feet to the floor. Sometimes I do bits of teacher training and I say, “Imagine a classroom, and imagine the walls of the classroom fall down and the kids could walk away at any moment, as if it’s the street; would you do anything differently?” And they all go "Oh yeah, of course, we'd have to". That's what I'm interested in.
When I'm teaching students about all this kind of stuff, I have a great photograph of an Italian football referee from a few World Cups ago - this bald headed guy with his yellow card and a face like The Scream - and I say that there's two kinds of cards: the hard power cards and the soft power cards. What's a hard power card in school? It's detention, its exclusion; it's all that kind of crap. In contrast, there is your ability to listen, and to negotiate, you know, to animate - animateur, that's what French youth workers are called. And, of course, if you go to work in the street you've got to work with the soft power stuff, simply because the spaces and places you work in mean you have no ‘hard’ power. So the more and more I thought about this, I'd ask, "Well, what are these skills? What are these abilities?" They're all democratically-oriented. So more and more my academic interests were driven by some kind of inquiry into what good, democratic education really looks and feels like.
Then I made the mistake of doing another Masters degree, this time in Democracy and Education. I say ‘mistake’ as I assumed, having been to the Institute of Education, and having studied philosophy, that all education departments were full of philosophers. I couldn't have been so far from the truth! Every time any kind of conversation started the lecturers seemed to move it on, in favour of the curriculum. No discussion, no dialogue; and I just spent my time in trouble - "Graeme, why do you want to ask all these questions? Just write the notes down". I started writing my essays about these kinds of issues; I was very critical of the course. So this is how I see it; you've got spaces and places where you can be kind of free as a philosopher, and all these other places where you just get into trouble.
Ciaran: That is a fascinating journey, Graeme. It’s really interesting to hear how your working practice developed over time. With all this change in the way you viewed philosophy and education and working in communities, did it also change you personally?
Graeme: Yeah, it’s very much my general outlook now. I've been a school governor for years. I once went to a governors’ conference and there was a facilitator saying "Chat to the people next to you about why you like being a governor". I said "I don't, I hate it". I said that because somebody's got to ask some basic questions, and, if you turn up at a governor's meeting and ask some half-decent questions, you tend to be asked to stand in the corner again! I mean, they say stuff like "Oh god, the meeting's gonna be long because Graeme's here". But this kind of questioning has become a big part of my work. My favourite example of this at the moment relates to the word 'resilience'; kids now have to be taught ‘resilience’ in school. So everybody just repeats the policy narratives and just starts talking this crap, cutting and pasting it into what they say, and I say "Well, let's just have two minutes discussing what we think ‘resilience’ is". I think that’s a key function of philosophy; philosophers I guess only do two things: One, they argue incessantly about what words mean. In the trade, that would be ‘concept analysis’. And, once you've worked out what the words mean, you can do the second bit, work out what we should do. Which is moral philosophy I guess. My god, if there's anything needed in the modern - well, let's not call it modern, let's say neoliberal world - it's this.
You get this all the time, these floating concepts; words that mean one thing to one and something different to another. We've had the health secretary telling us all we need to take responsibility for our health recently. I've done work with people working on health issues. They've all been going on, and on, and on about 'self-care' for a while now and, I mean, I take care of myself, I take a lot of exercise, I look after my diet, you know, all this kind of stuff. When I ask them, what happens, though, when there's a failure of self-care? It’s a case of, "Oh, we hadn't thought about that". So, philosophy is useful for troubling people, for problematising the taken for granted. I do a lot of that. But whilst some people don’t seem to want to do this, others do. Some people will try to knock your head off, but I've got confidence in my theory that actually people want to be troubled. My personal metaphor for this comes from the fact that I've been a runner all my life. When you run a marathon, you're physically exhausted. I remember coming out of a philosophy lecture absolutely exhausted, and I thought "My god, this is the first time I've used my brain!" I was in my late 20s! I was tired and I'd never felt a tired brain before so I knew that there was something going in. So, I'm continually optimistic about people who want to do this kind of stuff.
Ciaran: You’ve touched on it a bit, but I’d be interested to hear your broader thoughts on the inherent constraints as well as current challenges to the public sphere - social atomisation, or erosion of public space, for example - and how these relate to your work, especially since you have tried to encourage philosophical discussion in such an array of places.
Graeme: One thing is just the idea of interest. Aristotle said - I might be misquoting him - that only a small minority of people were interested in things. I think he was talking about politics, but allow me to suggest it applies more broadly. That might still be true, but it's not sufficient for saying we shouldn't be trying to engage folk. It's always troubled me that philosophy's been, or at least is perceived as, something that other people do. In all the projects I've done, I’ve had the aim of disputing that. This was especially so in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation sponsored Thinking Village project, where we spent three and a half years in one community. I had a team of people just doing philosophy in every space and place you might imagine. That was my aim: to dispute the idea that people don't want do this kind of stuff. I think, largely, we were able to disprove that; lots or people did get involved.
So, again we get the question of constraints. Some of the constraints are institutional, another is just how the economy works, and that’s when you get to the issue of time. Well, in the last five years I've been studying how time works in education. When people say to me "Oh, we haven't got time for a discussion, Graeme", well, sometimes it's true. But then you go to meetings where... For example, I'm the chair of an athletics club and one of my committee members was a senior manager for the local authority and he always got frustrated that our committee meetings took quite a long time, even though we only met once a month, for generally two and half hours. He said “we could do these meetings in an hour or so”, and I said, well, do you want to chair the next meeting? So he did and sure enough we finished in an hour and a half. I asked everybody what they thought about this new model, and they said it's great that we've finished an hour early but we haven't really discussed anything! That is the madness of the world.
I'm with Michael Apple on this, I think people use time to control and constrain the time that we actually need to think properly. There's definitely something to this, like with Daniel Kahneman’s 'thinking fast, thinking slow' idea; sometimes we need time to deliberate. This is one of the things about escaping institutional society that really is so important. It's because it means we the people, we're the ones who are in control of our time. If we're having a meeting upstairs in a pub, we'll decide when we're going home, do you know what I mean; rather than the teachers or whoever else? So these things are all connected to the politics of philosophy in public settings. I argue at times that you can't really do this stuff in institutional settings, certainly not in the form that they generally exist in. Of course, I've spent lots of time, like lots of people, trying to argue for the democratisation of our educational institutions and I continue to do so. But, you know, civil society represents a place of possibility, because that's what it means. That's where I focus and it means it takes me to all sorts of places.
Recently I’ve been doing lots about ‘difficult conversations’. I've got a great project training a load folk working with young people who are working in an area where, well let’s say, bad stuff is happening often, including radicalisation, extremism, right-wing activity. The problem is they're often scared and ill-equipped to handle – to facilitate – these conversations. Kids talk about these things, they say stuff to them, and the workers don't know what to engage. So, I’m trying to help them get involved in those kinds of conversations, to give them confidence to do that.
Philosophy becomes a tool for people working in civil society and so I've spent a lot of time training people. When I run my open access courses on Community Philosophy, lots of people come out of the woodwork, all sorts of weird and wonderful people, and the only thing they've got in common is an interest in this kind of thinking. On Philosophy for Children courses, everybody's a teacher, you know what I mean? But if you come to one of my Community Philosophy courses, everybody's different. The aim then is to get them to learn from each other and use the diversity they bring. There’ll be people working in all sorts of jobs, there'll be volunteers. There'll also be people working for the public sector who are not getting the opportunities for working differently they seem to want. This group tends to breathe a sigh of relief that, actually there is a space for them to learn to do the things that they know are important, to ask questions, to really push each other. Encouraging 'caring thinking' is important. You can argue with people without knocking their heads off.
Then again, I have changed my tune about the methodology in recent times. I always thought it was kind of obvious that of the Four C's in philosophical inquiry - the critical, the creative, the collaborative and the caring - that there was a kind of intellectual hierarchy, and critical had to be the most important thing. You mentioned social atomisation in your question, what I call 'individuation'. I now say that the most important role of philosophy is actually to promote collaborative thinking. So, I've been writing some methodological stuff to encourage collaborative thinking. If it can be creative, that's all well and good and likewise critical. But there's something vital about people being in the same space together; again, it comes back to space and place and geography. I try to encourage people to say "Well, we can do these discussions here". It doesn't have to always be a full-blown inquiry into the world. Sometimes it's just, you know, a philosophically-inspired moment, putting one good question into an everyday conversation with a bunch of people.
Ciaran: I found a quote from you where you're talking about community philosophy and there's something that really stuck out for me, which is where you say:
“Community Philosophy empowers people in any context to be active citizens and to generate ideas at a grassroots level. This is about thinking together in a non-confrontational and truly democratic way. Concepts are questioned. Power shifts, minds change and preconceptions are discarded. Relationships strengthen as people come to understand one another. This is because (unlike other meetings and discussions) Community Philosophy steadfastly focuses on process – not outcomes.”
I found this last point especially interesting because it’s something that comes up when I talk to all sorts of people doing different public philosophy projects. I think a preconception some people have about philosophy, that the critical and inquiring and truth-seeking element of philosophy encapsulates it in its entirely and is always the most important thing, I think that focus can mean that they forget about these other elements, not least as you say the collaborative and procedural features.
Graeme: This particular theme has really become central to an awful lot of what I do. I’m coming to the end of my doctorate now which is about uncertainties in education. I have a visceral reaction to view that we should be focusing on outcomes, because I’ve lived through a period when this view emerged and then became orthodoxy, and has grown inexorably since. You could see it in programs in my area of work, which were first directed at places like the East End of London, which is where I was at the time. I'm talking about the ‘SRB’ - the Single Regeneration Budget - schemes. This saw the emergence of the narrative about 'outcomes'-based agendas and so on. I've written a lot about this and done lots of presentations and it seems to me that what was really under attack, and deliberately so, was process. You had all the stuff from government ministers - I've got lots of quotes and did a lot of research about this - it's ‘outcomes that matter, it's outcomes that matter’. So, of course, this affected our practice, which, for me, really, if it was stripped bare, that is, taken back to its historical roots, is very much about democratic education, in a process-sense. We had been working for a long time in these open-ended, dialogical, negotiated ways with people, young and old - negotiating curriculum - if we ever had any sense of a curriculum - everything was negotiated. And then, of course, the state started saying, "Well, we want you to do this with these people", and I'm saying "Well, what if they don't want to do it?" And it just kind of went on like that.
I would go to all these conferences about the new agenda for ‘outcomes in youth work’ and I’d be identified as a trouble-maker, on one occasion actually silenced, and on another actually asked to leave. I remember once being at a huge conference and a very animated facilitator literally jumped off the stage and went to where we we're all sitting at tables. He picked me out randomly and put his hand on my shoulder and asked me to, "Tell all these people what outcomes are". What he didn't know was that I'd already spent ten thousand hours thinking about this. I took a deep breath and said "Outcomes, are what comes out". I will go to my grave saying this. If you've got what I call ‘uncertainty appreciative practice’, one that allows the space for people to determine what happens, how can you know the outcomes? You will never know what's going to come out. Of course we've got aims, of course we've got values. But if we know what we’re going to do before we even start, we aren't going to be doing anything democratic.
In this sense, I'm a Deweyian. If you read Dewey’s Democracy and Education its right at the back of that book, you know, democracy is an uncertain process. So I'm trying to really do whatever I can to say to people, "Don't give uncertainty a bad time". Create spaces and places for people to determine their own futures and, if we can encourage people to come together to make those decisions, so much the better; uncertainty is not something to be worried about, it's actually a good thing - democracy relies on it.
Then I ended up realising that the world has become much more, at least for those who have power over it, fixated on being certain. For example, my most recent endeavours have really tried to encourage people to start thinking about how data systems work. 'Big Data' - and I know that's a broad concept - has now got to a point where those who run our country think they can pretty much dispense with democracy. The data's going to tell them what they need to know, everything's about predictive analytics. So for those of us who work in community and youth work, they say "This kid's still in the womb but he's going to go to jail", you know what I mean? This is truly what's happening. I've studied what's been happening in America with this too. Now, there are lots of people pointing out the social injustice of this; Cathy O'Neill's one of them, and Virginia Eubanks another. They write about the social injustices perpetrated by Big Data systems and I'm with them, but what I'm writing about is that democracy is also a casualty of the ever greater interest policymakers have in the algorithm. All algorithms are informed by the values of the people who create them, so if ever there was a great threat to democracy it's this, it really is. We end up with a world where systems, and those in control of those systems, make decisions, and not ordinary people, even about their own lives, or at least where they interact with the state.
So, the more we can, at least, retain spaces and places where people can come together to argue, to look at, and consider the evidence, the better. Here, again, you have the Deweyian idea of democracy as ‘associational life’ rather than, say, the House of Commons, or whatever. It is participation in its philosophically ‘thick’ sense: Where decisions affect people's lives, they have a right to be involved in making those decisions. I've a lecture coming up about participatory democracy, and it's a simple argument. Yes, we all know – as we've got so many people – that we can't all go to the city square to make decisions; but there are all sorts of places and spaces that are on a scale where we should at least be trying to do this. These ideas about political participation, about representativeness – as distinct from representation – in politics, are absolutely of their time. I often work with people who don't go to community meetings, largely because they're disenfranchised from the processes we use to make decisions. And yet they've got things to say, everybody's got things to say. I once heard someone say the public meeting is the last great bloodsport, you know, and I think it's true because they are so often controlled by the people in power; they all sit at the top table, all the chairs are in lines, all the big mouths are at the front and a few drunks are at the back. It’s not a good model for making decisions, for promoting democracy, at the grass roots level.
I guess I've been trying to subvert these kinds of community meetings and use philosophical methodologies to do that. I've got great stories from organising meetings as part of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation project. I had one where we put all the chairs in this huge circle and some guy came in and said, "What's going on, where's the front row?" I had to tell him, "Well, we're going to try to do things a little differently today". I had a woman come up to me at the end of that evening and she was almost in tears. She said to me, "I've been coming to these meetings for ten years and I’ve never said a word, this is the first time I've ever said anything". This was testament to changing the methodology.
It’s so important to understand how spaces work, and the distinction between space and place... I call it the methodological turn. People can use philosophy to promote this methodological turn in terms of how we do public participation. We've just got to do more and more of it, and perhaps democratise algorithm-making too. I’m sure there are some good projects doing this, you know, with the public creating their own algorithms. But even then we would still have to use philosophy to test them, to investigate the ethics behind them, and so on.
Another anecdote is relevant here. I’d never had so many people come to a public meeting, when I said it was going to be about antisocial behaviour. Many just wanted to come and shout at the local kids and tell the Police they weren't doing a proper job. And yet, they found themselves in a discussion about, not those things, but what antisocial behaviour actually was, what did it mean, and not one person appeared to have ever thought about what it meant conceptually. It was absolutely fascinating and out of that came a whole series of subsequent conversations – and this is the other point I wanted to make about Philosophy for children and Community Philosophy – what I took from my Freire-inspired work was a process that could inform social action. Now, I'm not saying we always have to do something like that, but whenever I get any opportunity I say, "Okay, now we've had all these really interesting discussions, let's discuss how this might inform what we do". And if we choose not to do anything that's fine also, but when people say, "Well, we thought we needed to do this but now we reckon we need to do that", I just think it's great. I have a chapter in a book about Community Philosophy and social action coming out very soon; it’s about this.
Keiko Higashi, (far left), convening a meeting for the Powell-Cotton museum in Kent, employing Graeme's techniques
Ciaran: That’s an interesting idea, that there’s a potential for action in community philosophy that isn’t as present perhaps in traditional pedagogical, or at least institutional, philosophical discussion settings. What happened next in this project?
Graeme: So, the community started realising that if ever the problems they were experiencing (or imagined) were ever going to change, they would need to get involved. Many of these people had voted, vociferously, for the use of Dispersal Orders as a means to counteract anti-social behaviour, which meant certain areas were delineated and if groups congregated within them they could be forced to move on. And then, over time, after a series of philosophical inquiries, they said, "We need to get rid of this, it's making things worse", and they started campaigning to get rid of it.
This question of how philosophy might inform social action is important to me, but I can see the constraints to taking action. I do worry that when young people doing Philosophy for Children come to various conclusions in school, and when others in institutional settings do the same, we all say "that's very nice" and then either the bell rings in school or someone says, ‘now, you’ve had your fun, get back to work’ we end up carrying on as we left off, doing the same. I am troubled by that and, though I know that's a bit of a characterisation, I do want to ask the question: Can we be respectful enough of the conclusions that people draw such that we at least discuss how they might be turned into action? This has to be part of the process. I'm just as happy saying, “Well, even if we don't know what we want to change, let's just have a proper argument, generate some ideas, some questions, and out of these might come some practical things we might do. And then we can see how we go, and we can use philosophy to test the value of these ideas too.”
I'm also talking much more nowadays about philosophy as a research methodology. Several of the people who’ve done the training course in Community Philosophy have said "I used it for my research and it generated some extraordinary outcomes that we never anticipated". Still, there were huge challenges when I first got funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation for the Thinking Village project. I remember going to the interview which was likely to seal it, and I just knew I was going to get the question of, "What outcomes are we going to get Graeme?" So I prepared myself for this and I said, "This is philosophy, how do I know? Next question" and I got away with it! I wasn't disrespectful of the question, though. With everything we did we documented what happened; right from the first conversations; documentary evidence of the process. So by the end of it we had got lots of data - if you want to call it that - and qualitative data about what's happened and, indeed, what the outcomes were. Funnily enough, that's often the problem with outcomes-based evaluation: nobody evaluates the processes, only the ends! It's absolutely insane, as there's so much process learning to be had. And so it becomes unlike an evaluation at all. In fact, I did some research for the European Union; an evaluation of social street workers’ evaluation practices, and what became clear was that very, very, few of them were doing evaluations. There's a clue in the word, isn't there? E-valu-ation; working out if there’s something of value. Few are doing it, so it becomes a dead concept. Philosophy and philosophers have to remind people that evaluation is a philosophical concept. Do we need to monitor? Of course we do. Do we need to collect quantitative data? Of course we do. But we need to think about values as well.
So there's are an awful lot of interesting places and spaces where anybody who's got any kind of philosophical inclinations and a few skills can really do interesting stuff. I know I've been going on a lot about this but I've got another recent example of this, of engaging with these floating, sometimes dying concepts. ‘Risk' has been a big word for me for several years and I've started to realise that, well, first of all you have to understand risk for what it really means; it's about probability. If I ask people these days what risk is they almost always treat it like a negative concept. In David Spiegelhalter's book, The Norm Chronicles, he talks about how when a public narrative exists, in which there are references to risk, not least in terms of terrorism and whatever else, on a daily basis, it becomes absolutely essential that a democratically literate population are able to think critically about the concept of risk; how likely is it that something will happen? I find myself studying the teaching of mathematics, you know, and how do you teach probability theory, in a broader, social, sense. When maths teachers teach probability to kids it's all so, well, scientific, mathematical, but the very concept of probability... If there's anything we need to be able to do it's understand how it applies to everyday life. Think about the debate about Stop and Search. I lived through when it was really terrible; when it had serious negative effects on relationships between the police and communities. There's no data which would advocate bringing it back, but what they do is they use the language of risk and it's mitigation to validate the thing.
So, there has to be people who say, "Well, hang on a minute, let's have a discussion about this". In my work I try to dig out a little bit of time to say, "Well, what does this word mean?" One of my earliest examples was sitting on a youth crime prevention panel and everybody was going on about their ideas about how to prevent youth crime. I’m there as a street-based social worker and a senior police officer said, "Well, we need to get the kids off the streets" and I thought, well, that's me out of a job, you know what I mean! And I sort of lost it a bit, but in a tactical way. I said, "Well, if we get them all off the street we could make damn sure they weren't committing crime if we just put them in prison". Then I, let’s say theatrically, added, "Actually, I’ve read in the paper that prisons are expensive, so why don't we just kill them all?" And he said, "Are you taking the mickey?" And I said "Kind of, I'm just trying to illustrate that when you say 'prevention' you mean something different from me". He asked, "Alright, what does prevention mean to you then?" And I spoke about Aristotle who said a good education's a form of crime prevention. So he wanted to get them locked up and I wanted to get them educated. This is a story I tell to illustrate this idea of ‘floating concepts’ and how power can suggest to us how we ought to interpret words, when actually we might see them, understand them, in many different ways. Which is why it’s all the more important to give some time to discussing what we think words mean.
So where's this kind of discussion in relation to serious youth violence in London at the moment, for example? It has to be a part of it. There have to be some philosophical interventions into this question. I spent three years involved in research on youth violence, using philosophical methodologies as research tools. This was with young people, many of whom had been in and out of the criminal justice system for years; people who have been hurt and who had hurt others. Victims and perpetrators; and we should remember they are often one and the same. So I said to them "What is violence?" And they said, "We've been in and out of this system and you're the first person who ever asked us what it was". I said "this is philosophy, ‘conceptual analysis’, can you tell me what the word ‘violence’ means to you?" They’d never even thought about it. How are you going to work with those kids if you don't give them the space to discuss the very concepts everybody's banging on about? So there are great opportunities for all this kind of stuff. Risk, probability... I mean, how do we interact with ‘fake news’? Consider the hysteria about measles. You know, can we think: is that probable what's being said?
Ciaran: You have, from early on in your work, engaged with the academic and the public sides of philosophy. What do you think of largely academic philosophers making a greater effort to engage in public life?
Graeme: I see them, and I go and I support them when they talk to the public and answer their questions. But that's not, you know, process-oriented; that's not supporting public debate, that's just giving another lecture. In America there are those who identify as 'field philosophers', philosophers who go out and work in the field, if you like. But they return to the university. I’m interested in this, but the sceptic in me asks if it's been prompted by neoliberalism; you've got to show your public worth, social impact, so the university philosopher is thinking, "Oh god, I have to go outside the university and talk to some people", and that's what they are kind of forced to do, they just give a little talk and then go home. Others are much keener, those interested in promoting the public understanding of philosophy for example. But again, perhaps not unreasonably, they ‘go back’.
The question then becomes: can we have people who are present, on an on-going basis, in communities, helping people to learn how to use philosophy in their own spaces and places? They don’t need to be academics and it might even be better for this kind of work if they’re not. I have this idea, which I’ve been trying to put into practice for years now, of building a national network of people who've got the skills to get on with doing philosophy where they are, in all their different spaces and places, and it's a great joy to keep in contact with those I’ve trained who have gone on to do that.
"Can we have people who are present, on an ongoing basis, in communities, helping people to learn how to use philosophy in their own spaces and places?"
Ciaran: I read another quote from you where someone you'd done some training with talked about how afterwards they carried on reading, they carried on having their meetings, they carried on creating this kind of forum to have these conversations. What struck me is, more people are talking about how do we do public philosophy, but maybe not enough are talking about how you create longevity. I'm interested to know, from staying in contact with these people, are there things which people have mentioned help in this respect?
Graeme: You know, I changed all my training courses to include this as a substantive element. Towards the end of the training, I say to people "Right, what are you going to need to carry on? What kind of support systems can we put in place? How can you help each other?" Last year I was in Dublin with Aislinn O'Donnell, she's great - and the networks she’s involved with and helped to create started to meet in her house on a reasonably regular basis, which is just fantastic. It's become this, sort of, civil society type of network that’s so important. It's very loose and in the early stages I said what you need to do is at least buddy people up. It's hard enough facilitating this kind of stuff, so, for example, you two are not so far from each other, go and sit next to each other, work together, help each other, and, when your pal's struggling, chip in a bit, and then reciprocate. You've got to build all these informal alliances between people.
I've got training courses at the moment and I've managed to get some funding for support groups, but also for some mentoring as well, because the challenge of doing this work is great. In that project I've sculpted the training because it's a particular, defined geographical area with a lot of problems. But right from the beginning my narrative has been, you know, we're going to do these things and put these support systems in place but, ultimately, we have to keep these people connected so that they continue to come together. Elsewhere, people I’ve worked with continue to meet, not regularly, but enough to keep themselves engaged and connected. Social media's useful for this kind of stuff and I try to respond to people who ask me "Well, what about this and what about that?" But, you know, it's only how civil society networks work anyway. They're always a bit shaky - if they weren't it wouldn't be civil society! You just, kind of, have to believe that there are enough good people around to keep it moving along.
Some of it is just about creating awareness of working differently and the various possibilities of working differently. Some people they just absolutely get it and get on with it, others learn it, and a few people just don't like it because, well, philosophy takes a hard line, asking for reasons and so on; it can be challenging, and some folk don’t like that. And that takes you back to some fundamental questions about philosophy. Like when I said I didn't like being a governor. But I've got a capacity and the responsibility I think to be in places where I can encourage people to think about these things, even if they're going to call me out for doing it. In one school, it took me years of arguing about it - but I got them to change how they think about the concept of ability. I kept going on about how they kept writing about kids being – as if definitively – 'able' and 'less able' and 'averagely able', and ‘low ability’ - what does that mean? You can't have ability as a definitive concept. And that changed the culture, only a little bit, but in an important way. It's really difficult. But, you know, other organisations are involved in this, there are some really philosophical organisations now, or should I say organisations that are philosophical. The Street Workers Networks I've been involved in for more than twenty years, they're so good now. Even my athletics club committee is better!
One thing to be wary of, of course, is being co-opted. I attended a conference recently where there was a session on working with the prevention of violent extremism and radicalisation agenda. I lived and worked in those areas that were first targeted under PREVENT. A lot of people didn't think critically about PREVENT and I'm not here to say you should or you shouldn't have such a policy, but I am here to say we need to think carefully, and critically, about this. I never got involved in it personally but I've been doing some stuff recently, that's kind of connected, the so-called ‘Building a Stronger Britain Together’ initiative. I had a long set of conversations with the people who wanted me to be involved in this, because they'd picked up work I'd been doing around helping people work with difficult conversations. I said to myself, I needed to fight my corner for how I think this work is best done, and if I don't win then I won't do it. I was influenced by colleagues in Scandinavian countries, especially Norway. They've got this wonderful narrative about what they call 'democratic competencies'. So rather than having a language of 'prevent', which has got this connotation of stopping things, you can have a language that's asset-based, treating people respectfully as citizens, seeing them not as vulnerable, but as people capable of critiquing and responding to the messages they receive.
I've argued and argued that the way to prevent radicalisation in all its forms is to help these young people develop a half-decent ‘bullshit detector’, and they're not really getting that from their formal education, in my opinion. I enjoy doing this stuff and when kids do argue with me I love it. They always say, "Oh god Graeme's here, we'll have to argue", but they're finding their voice, they're saying what they think, and they don't routinely get that, especially in working-class communities. I don't want to have a pop at working-class communities but, you know, if it's anything like how it was for me, well, you’ll hear, "go stand in the corner". But they're present in these spaces and that's one of the other ironies about a lot of people interested in philosophy, they don't spend much time in these spaces, you know, perhaps they don't like them, but I do - I like all the tough places. I spent the best part of a decade in the East End of London and I loved it, I really did. The reason why those kids are doing so well at school now is because they learned to learn from each other and listen to each other; they used their diversity as a stimulus for thinking.
Ciaran: Aside from certain topics, such as around radicalisation, are there new spaces you have taken your community philosophy recently?
Graeme: In recent years, I've been doing things that revisit my outdoor learning background. I have these great things called 'philosophy walks' now, where I walk and talk with people. Nietzsche said: “I go for a walk to clear my mind”, which is the kind of thing lots of people say, including my mum. But Nietzsche added, “so new thoughts can become present.” He wrote wonderfully about walking. Which I like. Lots of others folk have said, and written, ‘when we walk we talk’.
For a lot of the people who come on these walks, they've told me they've been quite emotional experiences, because they've struggled to find spaces and places where they can talk about the things that they want to talk about, or simply to think differently about the world. I don't want to say philosophy is therapeutic, but there are plenty of people who want to do this and who want to get together with others without fear of being ridiculed for having philosophical inclinations, so we need to support them as well. And if they're more confident they'll drag even more people in. So then these things start all getting connected again. I've got a project in Kirklees, designed to get people from so-called 'segregated communities' walking together and talking together, you know, why not? There’s a common, cross-community, interest in walking, most people are connected to the idea of walking in some form or another. Folk from Asian communities often relate to familial histories of walking in rural areas. And generally folk have the ability to walk, its low tech... pretty easy. And the conversations that exist on footpaths, including in urban areas, you know, and in the urban fringe, and in the hills, are often very different to when we put people in a room, so let's see how we get on with that.
Ciaran: You've talked a number of times about the role of space here, but I guess in a transitory context like a walk, that's a whole other kettle of fish. You're creating a space, there's still a process going on, but the space is changing, you know, it is quite literally changing!
Graeme: But then you can employ the thinking that comes out of it to reflect again on schooling. The thing that's rarely negotiable when you do philosophy with children is it taking place in the classroom. We are not short of commentators who have questioned the focus on a single building. Twenty years ago I wrote a chapter on 'Environment and Dialogue' for a book. I'd been working with young people who were homeless, who lived in squats and places like that and I'd been having the most amazing conversations. I realised that – just as there are those who define education as the management of the environment – what young people say to you in one place, they'll tell you something completely different in another, and I think that's really interesting.
Then there’s the idea of time and temporality, as changeable concepts. The Time Studies people I've been hanging out with for a few years now, many are interested in utopian perspectives - utopia is a temporal concept after all. You've got the Utopian Schools Network, people interested in ‘Incremental Utopias’, and ‘Process Utopias’. All are important, new ways of looking at education. I'll probably be dead by the time we get education to be more uncertainty – and temporally – appreciative. But you can take a Marxist view: If you think the revolution's going to happen in your lifetime, you're probably no good for it! But that's why process is important, just crack on with it, don't worry too much about whether it's going to happen. And yet it probably is because you are at least having a go.
Another change for me is realising that I ought to speak the language of others as well. I've started using words that troubled me for a long time, words like efficiency and effectiveness, which are perhaps neoliberal words. What I started thinking was, well, what I'd seen, was that we were giving up words that we held dearly, because they'd been incorporated into neoliberal policy language. 'Big Society' was a good example of that. Lots of activists were working hard to realise a big, or at least good, society. I started making quizzes for community workers, using quotes from famous people, separating out the quote from the person, and asking them to match them up. And they couldn't tell the difference between Gandhi and [David] Cameron! Honestly, it's the incorporation of language. You've got to fight for language and the interpretation of words, and that's philosophy again. Words matter, a lot, which we can take from Foucault, and Bourdieu and so many others. So, just digging out a bit of space for people to think about what words mean is really important, and I truly believe people want to do this.
Here in Leeds we've got all sorts of spaces and places, we've got this thing called the Leeds Salon, and something called The Summat, you know, it's a play on a Yorkshire-ism, suggesting 'summit'. Which is an interesting word also, and connects to walking; people, important people, used to walk up a hill to a summit, to look down, to try to get a different perspective on their conversations, on their decision-making. Hence ‘summit’.
I love all these kind of things but I am trying to nudge the way they are run into being a bit more collaborative, because generally someone speaks a bit then there's a conversation with the audience and it sounds like a kind of a dialogue, but you know, if you were to map the conversations, all the lines go forward and backward from the people at the front. I try to subvert this by asking, "So what do you, on the back row, think about what someone on the front row is saying?" Cut the speakers out for a while; that's the way to move into a kind of collaborative thinking. That's a methodological move that might just make it spin in a different direction.
Graeme leading a Philosophy Walk
Ciaran: Thank you for the chat, Graeme, it’s been fascinating. What do you want people to takeaway from it?
Graeme: I would add that so much seems to be about power. How spaces and places work, hierarchies within them, how time works in relation to all this, as I mentioned earlier. I always seem to go back to Dewey’s ideas of an associational life as essential for democracy. I think our institutions have to get to grips with some of the questions we've been discussing. And yet they can be a bit tricky to try to grapple with within these institutions, which is probably to do with the external ideologies that affect them. I've got great sympathy with teachers and lecturers and others, but I prefer to work on an independent basis, as autonomy is important to me. But I think it is important for us all; we just need to find ways of working that are ‘autonomy-enhancing’, and remember that autonomy is a social practice as much as anything.