‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’
John Henry Newman
‘Time may change me
But I can’t trace time.’
I thought I’d write something about the ways my thinking has changed during my time as an academic. This will probably be of little interest to anybody besides me, so feel free to scroll past this post, if you find the intellectual navel-gazing of an ageing academic a less than appealing prospect. However, since I’ve always believed that one of the purposes of a blog is to provide its author with a space to work out what he or she actually thinks, I won’t be too bothered if the main (or indeed only) audience for this post is me. At the same time, I feel I owe it to the readers of this blog (and I know there are one or two, from time to time) to explain the thinking behind the things I write here: to clarify where I’m coming from intellectually, as it were.
Another reason for wanting to clear the intellectual decks, so to speak, is that I feel I’ve held back from writing about some of the things that currently interest me, for fear of alienating or alarming my (few) readers. I want to be more honest, going forward: there are some issues I want to write about here, and some debates I want to engage in more openly, which require me to come clean about my intellectual opinions and how they’ve changed over time.
So, where to begin? I was reflecting recently, in a conversation with some colleagues, that it’s an astonishing thirty-one years since I became an academic. I joined The Open University, back in January 1991, as a Lecturer in Community Education, after a decade of frontline work organising and teaching in education projects with marginalised groups and communities. Before that, I’d been a student of English Literature, first at Cambridge University and then at Manchester, with a year’s break in between doing full-time voluntary work (see this post), which, arguably, turned out to be more influential than my academic studies in determining my future career.
Paulo Freire (via en.wikipedia.org)
I came to the OU, and entered academic life, fortified by a fairly familiar amalgam of philosophical and political opinions. My work in community education had been informed by a passionate desire to extend educational opportunities to adults who, for whatever reason, had been excluded from them. I’d been inspired, at least initially, by the de-schooling philosophy of Ivan Illich and more especially by the ideas of the radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who criticised the dominant ‘banking’ model of education which regarded students as empty vessels to be filled, and proposed instead a dialogic model in which learning builds on the everyday knowledge and experience of those he called ‘the oppressed’.
However, over time I had come to believe that a purely Freirean approach was inadequate for overcoming educational exclusion. Claiming to start from where people were in their lives, in my view it risked leaving them there, rather than helping them gain access to powerful bodies of knowledge. I’d also become increasingly concerned about a trend I’d noticed in adult education, in part inspired by Freire and Illich: a move away from its historic concern with widening access to knowledge, whether of the arts, or history, or science, and towards a more process- and skills-oriented approach, one that spoke about ‘learners’ rather than students, and appeared to devalue the role of the educator: in fact, it was becoming de rigeur to talk, not about teachers or tutors, but instead about facilitators of learning.
Raymond Williams (via en.wikipedia.org)
As someone from a modest socio-economic background, whose parents had made the transition away from their working-class roots when we moved from the East End of London to suburban Essex in my childhood, and as the first person in my family to go to university, I was deeply grateful for the possibilities that education had opened up for me, and as an educator I wanted nothing more than to extend similar opportunities to others. I was concerned that the new, ‘personal development’ orientation of adult education, with its implicit hostility to bodies of knowledge, smacked somewhat of privileged educators pulling up the ladder behind them. My own educational philosophy had been inspired by the long tradition of radical adult education in Britain, and particularly by the work of the cultural theorist Raymond Williams, who had been one of my lecturers at Cambridge, with his emphasis on culture as a common heritage which should be made accessible to all.
Stuart Hall (via open.ac.uk)
One of my jobs before joining The Open University was organising an education project in Stoke Newington, a poor, multicultural borough in north London. In my lunch break I used to browse the shelves of Centerprise, the community centre and radical bookshop close to where I worked, where I first came across the writings of Stuart Hall and his Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, becoming an avid reader of his articles on contemporary politics and culture in the magazine Marxism Today. (For my later reflections on Hall’s political thinking, and my encounters with him at the OU, see here). It was through Hall that I was introduced to the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (I bought my copy of his Prison Notebooks in the Centerprise shop), whose ideas about education and its role in social change would be a major influence on my own thinking. Gramsci’s approach to education could be summed up in the title of Harold Entwistle’s classic book Antonio Gramsci: Conservative Schooling for Radical Politics. The Italian thinker pointed out that an emphasis on process and feelings had actually been a hallmark of Mussolini’s education policy and argued that the purpose of a truly radical education was rather to introduce students to the breadth of human culture and empower them to become critical contributors to it. Around this time, I also began to read the work of the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, with its emphasis on dialogue and discourse as the key to understanding social processes.
Antonio Gramsci (via en.wikipedia.org)
These influences formed part of my broader political philosophy. I’d been a ‘soft’ leftist in my youth, identifying with the Tribunite wing of the Labour Party. I didn’t read Marx properly until much later, in my late twenties, around the same time that I also began to read feminist writers like Germaine Greer. I’d always felt personally constrained by conventional gender roles, so I was a natural and enthusiastic convert to a pro-feminist worldview. At the same time, my experience of working in multicultural north London had confirmed me as an avowed anti-racist.
On joining The Open University, I found a sympathetic mentor in my colleague Andy Northedge, with whom I worked developing the OU’s first pre-degree ‘access’ courses, firstly in social sciences and then in the arts and humanities. Andy, the author of the bestselling Good Study Guide, helped me to refine and elaborate my thinking about the role of discourse in learning, introducing me to the ideas of thinkers like Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner. I distilled some of this thinking in a book chapter co-written with Andy’s partner, Ellie Chambers, in which we argued that the OU’s access model transcended the opposition between traditional ‘subject-centred’ and Freirean ‘student-centred’ models of learning, proposing instead a discourse-based model which brought ‘everyday’ and academic forms of understanding into critical dialogue.
When the OU’s community education programme was eventually wound up, and we were absorbed into our sister department of health and social care, I felt a need to re-equip myself intellectually for my new role, so I began studying psychology via the OU’s own courses in my spare time, working first for an Advanced Diploma in Child Development and then for a Masters degree in Psychology. Via the latter, I became interested in critical social psychology, and particularly in discourse analysis: it helped that one of the doyennes of the subject, Margaret Wetherell, was a professor of psychology at the OU at this time.
Margaret Wetherell (via theoryculturesociety.org)
It’s perhaps not surprising that someone whose original academic training was in English Literature should be attracted to a form of psychology that foregrounded language: engaging in discourse analysis did occasionally remind me of doing literary criticism as an undergraduate. However, my interest in discourse was also part of the generally social constructionist view of the world that I held at the time. I drew on these perspectives as I started working on courses designed for people working in health and social care, developing a particular focus on work with children and young people. At the same time, I began to develop my own research interests in men, masculinity and care, rooted both in my intellectual commitment to gender equality, and in my personal experience as a new, ‘hands on’ father. My first, small-scale research project involved interviewing men working in childcare, and was informed by a Foucauldian interest in how social discourses around masculinity and care framed these men’s experiences. I used a similar approach in my second study, interviewing ‘involved’ fathers about their care for their children. Over time, my research interests expanded to include the processes that led to men opting to be involved in ‘care’, which then prompted an interest in the shaping of young masculine identities. I led a team that undertook a major study of the role of gender in work with young men using social care services, and on the back of that, was invited to lead the UK strand of a three-country study of young men, masculinity and wellbeing.
During the time that I was working on these research studies, my thinking was informed by the ground-breaking work on masculinities of writers like Raewyn Connell, and on gender more generally by theorists such as Judith Butler. I don’t think I was ever a fully paid-up poststructuralist, however. This was partly because my left-wing politics retained a humanist core and I was sceptical about what I saw as the anti-humanism of poststructuralism. To the extent that I was a Marxist, it was the humanist early Marx that I was drawn to, and the historian E. P. Thompson’s classic critique of Louis Althusser and his school, in The Poverty of Theory, remained an intellectual touchstone for me.
Over time, I became increasingly dissatisfied with discourse analysis as a tool for making sense of the data from my research. Around this time, in the early 2000s, there were some fascinating debates at the OU between Margie Wetherell and another professor of psychology, Wendy Hollway, whose own work had moved from an early emphasis on social discourses to a position increasingly informed by psychoanalysis. I recall conversations with Wendy in which she argued that it was important to understand what motivated particular individuals to invest in specific social discourses. For her the missing link was the work of psychoanalytic feminists such as Jessica Benjamin. Influenced by Wendy, I began to read and draw on Benjamin’s ideas, and my shift to a psychosocial perspective was further enhanced by working with other Open University colleagues like Mary Jane Kehily and Peter Redman, whose research adopted a similar approach. Although I’ve since become more sceptical about the claims of psychoanalysis, Wendy Hollway’s book The Capacity to Care: Gender and Ethical Subjectivity remains a key influence.
Wendy Hollway (via open.ac.uk)
At the same time, my disillusionment with poststructuralism and move away from the relativism of social constructionism was part of a wider shift in my political outlook. I was becoming uneasy with some of the directions being taken by the contemporary Left, which in my view were inextricable from the influence of postmodernism. Two egregious examples were Michel Foucault’s lauding of the autocratic mullahs’ regime in Iran, and Judith Butler’s notorious claim that the misogynist, antisemitic terrorist group Hamas was part of the ‘global Left’. At the party political level, I had become disillusioned during the 1980s with the dogmatism and diehard oppositionalism of the Bennite ‘hard’ left, which I had once supported. I welcomed the election of Tony Blair as Labour leader: in fact, it prompted me to re-join the party, having allowed my membership to lapse during the long years of intra-party factionalism. I was a critical supporter of Blair’s ‘New Labour’, praising its attempts to make Labour electable again and relevant to the changed social and economic realities of the ‘New Times’ so accurately described by Stuart Hall and other reformists on the Left, though I was less enthusiastic about some aspects of Blairite social policy.
Norman Geras (via theguardian.com)
I had also grown wary, particularly after the events of September 11th 2001, of the radical Left’s embrace of a kneejerk anti-Americanism and naive ‘anti-imperialism‘ which seemed to view authoritarian regimes elsewhere as preferable to our own admittedly flawed democracies: a perspective that would eventually go mainstream when one of its leading proponents, Jeremy Corbyn, became leader of the Labour Party. In 2007 I started a political blog, Martin In The Margins, and became part of a group of bloggers that gathered around the late Norman Geras, a retired Marxist professor and pioneering political blogger, who developed cogent arguments for an anti-totalitarian leftism which eventually coalesced into the Euston Manifesto, and also found expression in the short-lived online journal Democratiya.
However, this post wasn’t supposed to be about politics, except as an adjunct to explaining the shifts in my intellectual position. For those who are interested, I’ve written more extensively about my personal political journey elsewhere. But perhaps I should bring the political story up to date, before moving on: suffice it to say that I’ve joined the ranks of the politically homeless, unable to identify fully with the platform of any single party, though I find myself in sympathy with many of the ideas of Blue Labour. And if a UK equivalent of the American Solidarity Party were to come along, I’d probably vote for it…
…which is kind of a neat segue into talking about (takes a deep breath) religion (if you look up the ASP’s platform, you’ll see why). Alongside my political journey, I’d been on a spiritual journey as well, and it’s impossible to write about the shifts in my intellectual perspective without bringing up the subject of religious belief. I acknowledge that some of my readers may tune out at this point. However, for me, it’s difficult to disentangle the religious from the intellectual and political.
I was brought up in a devoutly nonconformist Christian home: my parents are active Methodists, and as a teenager I underwent the standard evangelical conversion. At university, I went through a time of profound questioning, but instead of leaving Christianity behind altogether, I eventually found myself drawn towards Catholicism. The appeal was philosophical and aesthetic, as well as spiritual. In addition to the intellectual tradition of the Church and the beauty of its sacramental life, it was the radical faith of Catholic Worker movement founder Dorothy Day, of the Trappist monk and peace activist Thomas Merton, and of the Latin American liberation theologians, that appealed, and didn’t seem at all incompatible with my left-wing commitments.
Dorothy Day (via en.wikipedia.org)
However, I drifted away from my new faith once I left university and started work: or rather, I simply stopped practising it, as I came under the influence of Marxism, feminism, and a whole host of other appealing –isms that seemed to leave no room for faith. I was never able to completely shake off my religious background, though. I remember, at the end of a course on literature and social history that I was teaching for the Workers’ Educational Association – a course which in my view had been solidly secular in its approach – a sweet elderly couple thanked me and told me how much they appreciated that everything I’d said had been inspired by a deeply Christian perspective.
Despite the secular humanist socialist-feminist beliefs that animated my work in adult education, and later in academia, an interest in spirituality, and the search for a spiritual grounding for my life and work, never entirely left me (perhaps there’s a permanent god-shaped hole in everyone who has once believed) and in my middle years I experimented with Buddhism and eastern spirituality. I certainly gained a good deal from meditation and similar spiritual practices, but in time I concluded that the unworldliness of Buddhism was out of sync with my abiding interest in the social, the cultural and the historical. I wanted to celebrate the world, and maybe change it, but certainly not escape from it. I also came to believe that a good deal of western Buddhism was actually a stripped down, exoticised version of Christian spirituality, with the more difficult and challenging bits left out.
At an intellectual level, I also came to believe that many of the ideas we take for granted in western thought, and which in fact are foundational for ‘progressive’ thinking, such as a belief in the value of the individual human person, and the sense that history has a trajectory and purpose, rather than being an endless, meaningless cycle of events, have their roots in a Judaeo-Christian worldview and are inexplicable without it. Vestiges of these ideas remained after Christianity lost its historical influence and can even be seen as underlying the Enlightenment, despite its formal opposition to traditional religion. However, as even the Enlightenment has been increasingly undermined by postmodern thinking, those foundations have begun to crumble. Increasingly, I came to the view that only a religious, and specifically a Christian worldview, could provide a stable basis for holding on to a humanist perspective. This intellectual questioning, together with my personal yearning for a spiritual grounding for my life, would eventually lead me back to Christianity and to Catholicism, though the process of return has not been without its bumps along the way, with the secular humanist ‘me’ continuing to argue with my newly rediscovered spiritual self.
Edith Stein (via en.wikipedia.org)
As a tentative religious believer and recovering social constructionist, I began to look around for an alternative – and realist – intellectual grounding for my academic work. I became very interested in phenomenology, which I discovered initially mainly through twentieth-century Catholic philosophers, such as Edith Stein and Dietrich von Hildebrand, who had been shaped by this philosophical perspective, which is rooted in the work of the twentieth-century German thinker Edmund Husserl. According to Robert Sokolowski, author of one of the best introductions to the subject, ‘phenomenology is the study of human experience and of the way things present themselves to us in and through experience’ and, by contrast with postmodernism, ‘insists that identity and intelligibility are available in things.’ Also, by contrast with the dominant philosophical tradition that has come down to us from Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, et al, which assumes ‘that when we are conscious, we are primarily aware of ourselves or our own ideas’, phenomenology argues that ‘we are not trapped in our own subjectivity’, that the mind is not isolated from the world. Perhaps you can see the appeal of this kind of thinking to someone like me, recoiling from the relativism and anti-realism of postmodernism and poststructuralism, and searching for a philosophical correlate for a renewed spiritual intuition of the ‘givenness’ of the world. I should add here, though, that I am by no means a trained philosopher and that reading philosophical writings, still less making sense of them and applying them to my academic work, remains a struggle for me.
I’ve found phenomenology a useful tool in my academic work: for example, the work of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty on embodiment has proved helpful in my continuing quest to understand the relationship between gender and care, while the writings of the Finnish philosopher Sara Heinämaa have reframed my thinking about sexual difference more broadly. My interest in phenomenology seems to be part of a wider trend: I’ve noticed an increasing number of postgraduate research students opting to use Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis, or IPA (which some purists would argue is not ‘real’ phenomenology), for their research, whereas a decade ago their predecessors were all mad keen on discourse analysis.
At the same time that my intellectual outlook changed, so my academic research interests began to shift. Although I was writing a book on men’s care for children, and still working on research projects on aspects of fatherhood, I was also beginning to develop an interest in the field of care ethics. I corresponded with a number of care ethicists and contributed a paper on the development of caring masculinities to the inaugural conference of the international Care Ethics Research Consortium. More recently, I’ve written a chapter for a new book on care ethics, spirituality and religious traditions which is due out in the next month or so.
In time, my reading in phenomenology led me to personalism, a philosophical tradition which in part grew out of phenomenology, so that many phenomenologists – Stein and Hildebrand would be leading examples – were also personalists. Personalists draw on the philosophical resources of phenomenology, existentialism, and in some instances Judeo-Christian religious traditions, to emphasise what the American personalist philosopher John F. Crosby terms ‘the unconditional worth in all human persons’. As I wrote in a post last year, personalism offers a corrective to some of the depersonalising tendencies of contemporary society, and to the devaluing of the human person.
My research and writing continue to have two strands, one empirical the other more theoretical. In the former, I’m continuing to explore men’s involvement in care, for example, through my current project on fathers and perinatal loss (see the previous post). In the latter, I’m exploring the potential of personalist thought for developing an ethic of care. Although I’ve found the work of feminist care ethicists like Joan Tronto, Virginia Held and Eva Feder Kittay, enlightening, I also find myself arguing with some aspects of their work. Rather than remaining a perpetually negative critic, however, I’ve been casting around for alternative foundations for an understanding of care. I’m interested in developing a dialogue between personalism and feminist care ethics, identifying aspects in common, such as a shared relational view of the self, but perhaps supplying a normative perspective that mainstream care ethics currently lacks, as well as a deeper insight into the nature, and value, of the human person.
My inner debates continue, and I’m sure there’ll be more ch-ch-changes in my thinking before I’m done. Now that I’ve set out some of the background to my current thinking, I want to use this blog as a space to work through some of the issues around care, gender, identity and personhood that continue to interest and exercise me.