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Young men finding words and worth



At the recent launch of the #WorthASecondChance campaign I had the privilege of listening to young men who, in their own estimation, had turned their lives around from fragmented childhoods, troubled early adolescence and behaviour that could have brought them into conflict with the law.

CHARLES’ STORYNow they are clearly hopeful, self-confident and are making plans for the future. They attributed the change to programs in which people stood by them and helped them reflect on their lives.

I was particularly struck by the language they used to describe their lives. They spoke in very general terms and in a limited and flat vocabulary of the time before they became engaged in the program where they found support. They were inarticulate.

But when describing the change that had taken place in their lives they spoke fluently in the language of psychology and therapy: of wellbeing, growth in self-esteem, inclusion and connection. They had found an analytical vocabulary to describe themselves and how they now wanted to interact with the world. Finally, when they spoke personally of themselves, especially through song or poetry, their language was simple, direct, warm and distinctive.

Their evident joy at growing in confidence and self-awareness confirmed the importance of language for finding meaning, for developing personal relationships, for connecting with the world and for a firm sense of self. The things for which we have no words or symbols have only a shadowy and barely understood existence.

The path to adulthood is in large measure a process of learning words, coming to use them discriminatingly and discovering their resonance in relationships and in work. Ideally the early stages of this path run through a stable and warm network of relationships within family and community in which words are linked to a tradition expressed in stories and symbols.  

Where young people grow up in a world without stable relationships or words to negotiate the world, their education is likely to be an experience of alienation and rejection. They will then find it difficult to find the right words for exploring respectful relationships, for understanding the world and their place in it and for finding employment. They risk becoming inarticulate and alienated even from themselves.


"The alternative is their alienation and the making of a society in which adult gaols multiply across the land as a monument to its failure to care for its children."


Even though their growth is interrupted in this way, however, they can find a path if they meet companions whom they trust, who respect and listen to them and provide words that help them to understand themselves and to explore building good relationships with other people and with their world. They are eventually able to own as their own a vocabulary that gives them power over lives that had previously been driven aimlessly. They come to life as they discover good words for a new world of possibility.

Another part of young people’s growth is to recover old words, or more precisely to discover new possibilities in old words. When the young men to whom I listened spoke more deeply of themselves they used simple words, exploring their emotional as well as their rational possibilities. In this way they explored the depths of their experience and came to own it. Those who accompanied them through the program had clearly encouraged them in this through song and art, but they had themselves been able to build a personal vocabulary of their own.

One might hope that they will be encouraged to explore further the literary tradition with its capacity for fine discrimination. That in turn might help them to find words apt for describing their traumatic early experiences and to integrate the different strands of their vocabulary.

Listening to these young men brought home the importance and the delicacy of the task of helping vulnerable young people find words. The alternative is their alienation and the making of a society in which adult gaols multiply across the land as a monument to its failure to care for its children.

The healing of young men through language also prompts reflection on the language of public life and of politics. Many prominent politicians, shock jocks and partisan reporters display all the alienation and aggression associated with lost youth. Their words display neither self-understanding nor elegance nor capacity for deep relationships. Their behaviour is gang-like, characterised by temporary alliances between rivals, concerted assaults on hostile gangs and tormenting of people who are different.

Is there a way in which adult members of society might respond compassionately to these people, helping them to find good words that lead to self-reflection and respectful relationships with one another and with society? Finding and pursuing such a way would demand a laborious commitment, certainly. But failing that, do we not then face a choice between abandoning the city to the gangs, or awaiting an electoral opportunity to take to one of the rival gangs with baseball bats? In both cases we would be leaving the inarticulate and alienated to rule the earth.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, youth justice



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Existing comments

At the moment, one of the books I'm reading is James Rebanks' "The Shepherd's Life : A Tale of the Lake District". It's an autobiography about a third-generation fell farmer who idolised his grandfather, has a testy relationship with his father and who wanted nothing more from life than to continue the farming tradition of his family. He disliked school and left as soon as legally possible, spending time with his mates of similar persuasion. A few years on, his bookish, academic younger sisters inspired him to go to night school, get his 'A' levels and apply to Oxford, where he was accepted after an interview. He didn't fit in with the 'perfect' students there but his professors saw his difference as a strength. Rebanks wants an education and then wants to return to his farm. That's as far as I've reached.

Pam | 09 August 2018  

Interesting and thought provoking. I remember much of the early manhood experience at university in Melbourne in the 1960s. A slightly older friend who'd studied Sociology told me universities had been described as 'neurotic subcultures'. Many academics and academic high flyers seemed profoundly dysfunctional. Some later took their own lives. I notice, when meeting acquaintances of yesteryear, they often tell me how 'successful' they are. That 'success' is usually in material terms. I am unsurprised so many young people and their elders are dysfunctional, appalling at interpersonal relationships and substance abusers as well. Without vision, as some much more materially impoverished earlier societies had, we indulge in empty, circuitous verbiage and get nowhere. The late Father Seraphim Rose, a profound critic of the American society of his era, considered Nihilism to be the father of our Modern Age. If people have vision and social coherence they can survive the most appalling circumstances. I look at the Poles who survived Communism. I would say a lot was due to their leaders, both spiritual and political. But they also had an ancient and coherent Christian identity which the common people never surrendered despite centuries of partition and foreign rule. Perhaps, in very different circumstances, we can learn something from them?

Edward Fido | 09 August 2018  

This is a very sensitive and evocative article, Andrew. Thankyou, It is profound in alerting us to the consequences of our language for public policy making. I read the paragraph beginning: "The healing of young men through language also prompts reflection on the language of public life and of politics...." and reflect upon the way legislation can shape language and the confusions of public discourse. The December 2017 change to the Marriage Act was passed before Parliament considered the advice of qualified jurists concerning the constitutional implications, And ever since, a word that we have learned to use to describe the relationship between wife and husband has been under a cloud, subject to that pre-emptive Parliamentary imposition upon our everyday use of the term "marriage". The Prime Minister now sits upon the Ruddock panel's report (a week from 3 months since it was handed to him) and we think about the vulnerable young men you discuss who, at some point, will have to deal with the verbal public language confusion that should not have slipped our notice. Thanks again.

Bruce Wearne | 09 August 2018  

A great insight Andrew. I deliver inprison restorative justice programming and I am challenged not to use "big words." There is a significant proportion of prisoners whose childhoods were traumatic, inhibiting or preventing them from learning. They have since not had the opportunity to develop a vocabulary that enables them to explore their lives and relationships. Punitive justice only adds to the paucity of their life chances. Prisoners don't trust those who punish them to educate them.

Jane Anderson | 09 August 2018  

Thanks, Andrew. We all need to sense that there is more to the world than primary colours.

Kimball Chen | 09 August 2018  

It's interesting, Jane, that we seem to have inherited the British penal system, which I think is one of the worst in the developed world. The accent is very much on punishment, as it was in colonial times. Contrast this with the system in countries like Denmark, where there is much more emphasis on rehabilitation and far more funding per inmate for it. Especially with younger offenders, this is vital. I have known young offenders, who, after going to juvenile detention centres, told me they learnt a lot more about crime 'inside' than they did outside. Heartbreaking really. With a bit of compassion and kindness and decent, well targeted resources and programs, they may have made something out of their lives. Instead, many were on the treadmill of despair and blighted hopes. I'm not sure what 'restorative justice programming' is, but I think we could certainly do a lot more to build up, rather than further break down, young offenders.

Edward Fido | 09 August 2018  

Fascinating, Fr Andrew. "The path to adulthood is in large measure a process of learning words …" When I read this I was reminded of my childhood - of my father reciting his poetry around the dinner table after we had finished the rosary - all the famous Australian poets. And then of my school experience, liberally sprinkled with poetry till at the leaving level we studied the English poetry of many poets from Chaucer to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Francis Thompson. By the time my children sat the school leaving exams they studied only one poet - I reached the stage where I knew what year my medical trainees left school by asking him/her who their favourite poet was - always the single poet studied for the leaving exams. Now my grandchildren rarely hear or read any poetry once they pass the nursery rhyme stage. What have we done in our enlightenment ?????

john frawley | 09 August 2018  

John Frawley, supplanting education with ideology and an increasing reliance on information technology in the classroom are factors that go a long way to answering your ironic question.

John | 09 August 2018  

Having spent 7 years working in Mt. Druitt with the type of people Andy has mentioned, he has as it where "hit the nail on the head." In the school I am working at, as part of their 20 hours community service for the year, I take 3 boys from Year 9 each school day to Mt Druitt for the day to observe and interact with the youth that Andy has mentioned. A number of the boys have commented how inarticulate the people they communicate are,including the adults. A large number of youth leave School in Year 9 or 10 and have no male role models in their lives. The programme mentioned appears to be working very well and congratulation to the organisers of it.

Bruce | 10 August 2018  

Except, John, that Andy ends on a much less wretched and pessimistic note, by emphasising listening as the key to unleashing a more generous and availing tongue as much in young alienated men as in the rest of us. And, incidentally, last time I checked we lived in a world of anti-ideology and, instead, had thrust upon us the functional imperatives of productivity and performance, rather than of critical as well as appreciative reflection. (Thank you, Andy).

Michael Furtado | 10 August 2018  

Some years ago I worked at a large accommodation/welfare/meal centre run by the SVDP. The clients were all homeless men, suffering from addiction, mental illness, loneliness, and terrible isolation. The Vinnies introduced a program which taught the humanities to these men. They participated in discussion groups to acquire the basics of literature, sociology, psychology, etc, but by far the most popular was philosophy. Somehow, by the grace of God and the generosity of the academics who ran the groups, many participants gained the insights and,yes, the vocabulary, to make sense of their own situation. They could name what had happened to them and see their experiences as part of the 'ordinary' human experience, and themselves as 'ordinary' human beings with a right to live, change and hope. I think this program was based on the American San Clemente program. Because of my very peripheral involvement in this, I'm passionately in favour of the program Andrew describes. Let's teach all our children that they are all human beings with the right and the capacity for human dignity. Give them the words to describe themselves and recognize themselves in others.

Joan Seymour | 10 August 2018  

Nothing "wretched " or "pessimistic" about realism, Michael, which is a precondition of effective remedy. The young people on whose behalf Andrew speaks here are not helped by a systemic, ideologically based and patronising attitude that estimates education only according to its material utility, and conceives the potential of the learner merely in these terms: a stance which has contributed decisively to the "dumbing down" of education that only recently in Australlia is receiving the attention it deserves. Fatima Measham's article, "Students need teachers, not technicians" (ES, 9/5) in part addresses this issue.

John | 11 August 2018  

Bruce Wearne, the marriage act in Australia is not a constitutional issue - so I'm not sure what country you are reflecting on. It seems you are caught up in "definitions" rather than engaging in the use of language to express meaning - as was the point of Fr Hamilton's article which I think you might have missed. In Australia, finally, "Love is Love".

AURELIUS | 11 August 2018  

John, not only do you misrepresent Fatima Measham's plea for a return to teaching, as opposed to testing, which is what the current system of standardised testing underpins, you have misread every single aspect of this article by Andy. And, since you insist that 'ideology' underpins the current education system, the dominant one evident in current approaches to educational production and performance is extreme right-wing neo-liberalism.

Dr Michael Furtado | 13 August 2018  

Dr Furtado, Fatima Measham's article urges teachers to remain educators, not "technicians", which is quite consistent with my criticism of increasing technology dependency in classroom learning. What's more, I fully endorse Andrew's emphasis on the importance of language as a liberating resource conducive to personal growth and dignity. It is the kind of language that advances this on which, I think, you and I differ, Doctor. For instance, I eschew the imposition of Critical Theory as a mandatory method of literary analysis, and the study of history through predetermined neo-Marxian "lenses", all of which are evident in contemporary educational practice. I object, as well, to the colonizing hegemony of Social Theory in disciplines that of their nature require academic autonomy, and regard this as as a more immediate danger to freedom and the pursuit of truth than "extreme right-wing neo-liberalism" (which I also repudiate).

John | 14 August 2018  

In which case, dear John, we are in substantial agreement, except that I have no handle on your revelation that Critical Theory is left wing or neo-Marxist. Indeed, Critical Theory is as much a reaction to Marxism as it is to various extreme portrayals of economic liberalism. There are, in fact, substantial correlative epistemic aspects of Critical Theory that inform several contemporary theologies and vice versa. Might I suggest that, as with all of us, there are aspects of your own critical framework and turn of mind that trigger an explanation as to why you so earnestly and unyieldingly employ the term 'Marxist' as a value judgment instead of a description. Some stepping back to gain a wider overall perspective would, I'd respectfully suggest, enhance the already keen and polished eye and hand with which you see and write. The missing perspective for me in your otherwise excellent posts is about how unavailing and judgmental you can sometimes be.

Michael Furtado | 14 August 2018  

Michael Furtado, while I recognize that "Critical Theory" can have a broad philosophical meaning, it is the Frankfurt School's version (Horkeimer, Adorno, et al) I regard as the most influential in contemporary education: a self-confessedly "Marxist" academic cadre. And, while sentiments such as "emancipation from slavery" and "liberating influence" (Horkeimer et al) expressing the transformative aim of their ideology and methodologies may be rhetorically engaging, it is the assumption, indeed the prescriptive axiom, that this enterprise can and must be be effected without recourse to God which leaves me unconvinced about the adequacy of Critical Theory's (at least this most prominent version's) conceptual scope and depth. Now regarding my "value judgment" usage of the term "Marxist", I readily admit to having some difficulty in referring disinterestedly to an ideology that, despite its purportedly humane propaganda, has produced destructiveness on a scale arguably surpassing the abominations visited on its victims by its egregious 20th Century ideological competitor, Nazism. I hope this helps explain my reservations about "theologies" (e.g., Liberation Theology) derived from the thinking of the Frankfurt School and my unreadiness to avail myself of them.

John | 15 August 2018  

Horkheimer, Benjamin and Block show that religion and Critical Theory mutually draw upon the struggle against totalising forms of capitalism that drive the poor into destitution. Frankfurtians and Christians share a prophetic messianism, i.e. the belief in transformation through social action. Both share a belief in an alternative future whereby every tear will be wiped away and justice and equality achieved. Both collaborate in serving those who experience the tyranny of advanced capitalism. Both do this by critiquing those aspects of quietist Christianity that properly deserve to be called 'opium' and which offer an escapist solution to engagement with 'This World'. Protests against human suffering and social injustice, coupled with a “longing for another world,” are permanent themes throughout Horkheimer's work. Critical Theory is saturated with Biblical terminology such as redemption, truth, falsehood, salvation, suffering, compassion, and reconciliation. Horkheimer argued that the liquidation of religion by the Enlightenment parallels the disappearance of meaning, and that the “death of God” entails the loss of absolute truth and a transcendent God. Bloch exerted enormous influence on Jürgen Moltmann. John-Baptist Metz cites Benjamin as critical to his theology of suffering and memory. What is at stake here, John, is your definition of God!

Dr Michael Furtado | 16 August 2018  

Presenting Marxism and Christianity as interchangeable ignores the fact that the former is a secular ideology with an exclusively immanent goal while the latter is divinely initiated and has an end which transcends history as we know it. Contemporary atheistic humanism is expert at pressing selective biblical terminology into political service without acknowledging its provenance and full theological resonance.

John | 17 August 2018  

Those who reject any synthesis between Christianity and other bodies of epistemic knowledge ignore the fact that the codification of much Christian theology, and especially its canon law qua the applied wisdom of St Thomas Aquinas, would have been impossible without reference to the pre-Christian Greek philosopher, Aristotle. No one in these columns, least of all me, postulates the absurd view that secular ideology with an exclusively immanent goal is interchangeable with a divinely initiated faith which, in order to transcend history has perennially entered into significant critical dialogue with non-Christians on several historic junctures and invariably at risk of persecution, to promote the inculturation necessary for religious renewal and evangelisation. Contemporary atheistic humanism - no worse than the Enlightenment - rather than being at perennial odds with Christianity, and even those aspects of both that are expert at pressing selective biblical terminology into political service, has added to the provenance and fuller theological resonance of post-Vatican II Catholicism. Long may that dialogue continue, despite the warnings of thought police more intent upon containment and condemnation than dialogue and aggiornamento.

Michael Furtado | 17 August 2018  

Synthesis between Christianity and other bodies of knowledge where there is a substantial compatibility of ideas has indeed been characteristic of the Catholic intellectual and cultural enterprise, but the Church also recognizes that not all bodies of knowledge are compatible with its message and mission. In its encouragement of "aggiornamento", Vatican II's understanding of "dialogue" does not involve the relinquishing of critique informed by sacred scripture and tradition, sources discounted by many contemporary secular humanists. The Church also advises respect in the conducting of "dialogue", quite a different disposition from recourse to demonizing labels when differences are encountered.

John | 19 August 2018  

Nothing demonising here, dear John, or else the editors, towing a line between balance and politeness, would have employed their censorial pen to silence a theological upstart like me. I learn from and rather relish these bracing encounters with you, as they provide a necessary scholastic brake on my political and philosophical enthusiasms. From the eloquence and alacrity of your responses, I assume that you feel the same, rather than seek to take umbrage and shut me down.

Michael Furtado | 20 August 2018  

I'd much prefer agreement on the matters where we differ, Michael. Also,Let me assure you that I'm no thought policeman - a term I deprecate when it's employed to deter legitimate criticism and the right to express one's thinking; nor do I have either the authority or desire to shut any ES contributor down.

John | 21 August 2018  

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