discussion with young people

In this piece, Josephine Macalister Brew reflects upon then contemporary experiences of ‘growing up’ and of the power of discussion in groups. (1950)

contents: preface · introduction ·‘growing up’ in wartime · a sense of insecurity · a prey to shifting moods · education through the group discussion · the leader’s task · ‘hot air’ can be useful · some groups at work · how to cite this piece

Josephine Macalister BrewOne of the most able, wise and sympathetic educationalists of her generation, Josephine Macalister Brew (1904-57) made a profound contribution to the development of thinking about, and practice of, youth work and informal education. She wrote three classic books: In the Service of Youth (1943); Informal Education. Adventures and reflections (1946) - the first full-length exploration of the subject; and Youth and Youth Groups (1957). The last started as a rewrite of the first, but ended up a completely different book, 'because we live in a different world' (Brew 1957: 11). She had an ability to connect with people through her writing and speaking. She was also associated with a number of significant innovations in practice including the growing interest in social groupwork in the UK; the development of 'residentials' as an educational form; and the formulation of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award (she wrote much of the programme for young women). 


[page 53] When Dame Ethel Smyth was asked what she most wanted when imprisoned as a result of her suffragette activities, she answered—’to get out of prison’. If normal young persons of any age, from 13-21 at least, were asked what they wanted, an equally short and truthful answer might well be—’to grow up’. For that is the essence of the so-called ‘problem of youth’.

Adolescence is merely the process of birth into adulthood—a perfectly natural process—and the problems connected with it only seem more clamant because of the nature of our civilization. The young themselves are now more vocal about their problems and difficulties because they are better educated than their forefathers: and their elders are more vocal concerning modem youth since, through such comparatively new media as the popular press, the radio and the film, they have been made more ‘Youth conscious’.

‘Growing up’ in wartime

‘Youth consciousness’ has been further stimulated, firstly, by two major wars within twenty years (for war is always a period when the ‘accent’, as it were, is on Youth), and secondly, by the emergence of highly-organized Youth Movements which, since the turn of the century, have come into being in countries of widely dissimilar ideologies—Fascist and Nazi youth in Germany, Italy and Japan; Communist youth in Russia; and democratic youth through such international organizations as those founded by Baden Powell and the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Christian Associations.

But for young people themselves, whether within or outside organized youth groups, the problem is unchanged. They want to grow up—to be both independent and secure—to be not only recognized as near-adult, but to have a definite stake and status in the community as the citizens and parents of tomorrow.

Put thus, it sounds very simple, but growing up in the war years has not been an easy process. All living things, whether plants or human beings, need two things in order to grow. Firstly they need a measure of independence—the climbing plant to put out its tendrils, the young person to experiment and adventure. They also need security—the plant needs the pole around which to climb, young people the material and emotional security of home, neighbourhood and friends.

During the war years young people were almost overwhelmed with opportunities for adventure; for many (as we tire of hearing) this took forms which led them to the Juvenile Court, but for many more it took the form of active service on behalf of the community. Such service varied from training themselves in pre-service units to the less glamorous but no less exacting duties of A.R.P. messengers, and to the often heart-breaking and [page 54] yet painstaking collection of the more sordid forms of salvage! Even evacuation itself was for many of them an adventure and a widening of horizons.

A sense of insecurity

But what young people gained in independence by no means made up for what they lost in security, that other essential for growth. It was not only that many young people lived in danger, not only that many lost their homes and all their possessions in a night, but that even the more intimate atmosphere in which they grew up was one of insecurity. For large numbers the stabilizing framework of the family pattern was broken; this happened not only through the actual loss of relatives and friends, but through the absence of their fathers in the Services, an absence which pressed particularly hardly on boys. Again, many families suffered through the inevitably divided attention of mothers who undertook war work, and though evacuation was an adventure for many, it certainly put a strain on family unity. However, during the war young people, in common with their elders, were buoyed up even when living uncomfortably or even dangerously, since all things were borne as the price willingly paid for freedom and peace. Now, with a sense of anti-climax, they step fearfully, not into a brave new world, but into an atomic age.

Victorian and Edwardian youth struggled for independence and adventure since they felt stifled by what seemed to them too much security. The young people of the 1920’s-l930’s, who grew up when the League of Nations was crumbling, were of a generation which knew only partial security and learned to live without hope. Present day youth has enjoyed little material security and has seen hope dashed from the lips of a war-weary world. It is little wonder, therefore, that many of them seem harsh and bitter in their judgments or cynical in their outlook, little wonder that many try to stifle the very idealism of youth in noisy gaiety and a brittle search for pleasure—an attitude of ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we also may die’.

A prey to shifting moods

This general atmosphere of insecurity presses hardly on adolescents, not only because security is one of their major needs, but because one of the main features of growth into adulthood is a greatly-increased emotional awareness. The adolescent is a prey to strong and often conflicting emotions, at one time filled with boundless enthusiasms, a starry-eyed idealist indeed, at another weighed down with misgivings, fearing personal inadequacy and failure, and afflicted with that ‘sadness at the heart of things’ from which all sensitive souls suffer from time to time, but which is hardest to bear at an age of emotional upheaval.

Young people’s opinions, therefore, vary according to the mood—at times they feel they have been born to set the world to rights, at others they surrender to self pity and to cynicism.

Previous generations were supported (even if they were unconscious of it) by the school background from which they emerged, but present day youth has suffered an interrupted education. Through no fault of the teaching profession, young people are probably worse educated than any generation since education became compulsory. Yet their very desire for status, their [page 55] longing to be considered grown up forms an emotional bloc which prevents them (even were they otherwise so inclined) from seeking to continue their education after their school days are over. The idea of going back to school to make up some of the leeway of the war years is an affront to their newly-acquired independence and dignity as part of the army of the world’s workers. The young, in common with so many of their elders, see no value in education that has no clearly observable effect on the pay packet!

Fortunately, that branch of further education known as Youth Service has little connexion in the popular mind with education as ordinary people understand it. It is in the membership, therefore, of a youth group that many young people find some resolution of their tensions and their conflicts and some security, some compensation for their own feeling of inadequacy.

Education through the group discussion

In the old days people thought that the only way to influence anyone was to work on the individual—by praise, blame, reward, punishment or persuasion. Such educational experiments as Youth Service and the Community Centre are an acknowledgement of the fact that the group itself has power to educate. In such gatherings people educate one another, in the early stages purely incidentally, very much a matter of a ‘chat over a cup of tea and a bun’; and the most disastrous mistake, made all too often, alas, is that of trying to force such groups into more organized and formal activity before they are ready for it.

For one of the major fears of present day youth is the fear of being ‘got at’. Having been brought up in an age of propaganda, they view with the deepest suspicion both what they have ‘seen in the newspapers’ or ‘heard on the radio’. Youthful opinion now tends to flatter itself into believing that it is a great deal cleverer to believe in nothing than to swallow everything they hear or read, hook, line and sinker.

Education through the group and through informal discussion is one of the best methods of correcting this quite terrifying tendency. It gives young people not only facts and information (important as these are), not only self-confidence and practice in expressing their thoughts and feelings (necessary as that is), but also some feeling of security, some tangible evidence, as it were, that all men are not necessarily motivated by self-interest, that all idealists are not necessarily romantic fools, and that the purpose in life for which they seek is not necessarily unattainable.

The leader’s task

The difficulty is not that of getting young people to join a group, club or youth centre, nor is the difficulty one of getting them to express their opinions (though an expression of opinion on Monday may differ entirely from the opinion expressed by the same group on Friday). Young people will talk both loud and long, but without some guidance much of this talk is merely an interchange of clichés or even of abuse, though there may be much ‘intellectual tap dancing on ideological staircases’. They realize as infrequently as their elders that opinion is not at all the same thing as factual information. The major difficulty lies in canalizing discussion and in varying the technique of such very informal group education, and last, but [page 56] not least, in providing an atmosphere that shall seem sufficiently adult to satisfy their longing for status.

To take this latter point first, much group education fails to attract young people because it is not, on the one hand, sufficiently remote from the school atmosphere, nor yet sufficiently remote from the atmosphere of ‘slumming’ characteristic of much youth work in the last century. Their very desire for security and status demands not only that attention should be paid to such elementary material necessities as light, warmth and comfortable seating, but that the leadership of the group shall at one and the same time be friendly and yet only just as personal as the emotionally sensitive can stand. It is fatal to be either too possessive or too impersonal (and what a hair’s breadth line divides the two).

‘Hot air’ can be useful

But given the right atmosphere and the right guidance, where can this group education lead? On this, above all subjects, it is unsafe to generalize. In what are they interested? Everything from the cinema to the soul, from radio newsreels to religion, from film stars to parent education, from makeup to atomic energy, from world affairs to their own personal relations with the foreman and the girl friend. Such widely varying interests tend to make any discussion superficial.

But one cannot expect the adolescent to have an adult head on his shoulders, and it is very much better for them if they want to talk ‘hot air’ to get it out of their systems in a suitable atmosphere rather than to let it explode in some anti-social form. Much of the purpose of education after school days surely lies in the paramount importance of preserving the lively interest and mental agility of the average citizen for as long as possible, so that his reaction, when called upon to make a decision, is neither ‘I don’t understand, therefore I am afraid’ nor ‘I don’t understand, therefore I don’t care’. It is apathy and stagnation which are the major enemies of democracy and almost any guided interchange of views is at least some practice in the art of living more fully.

Some groups at work

Before me as I write are a number of reports on discussions which took place in widely dissimilar areas. A group in one of our most rural counties, having chattered together about their jobs, organized a conference under the general title of ‘Vocation’. The people who spoke at the conference were chosen because they wanted to tell others of their difficulties and their problems. Among them were a stiff-collar-and-shirt-front-ironer who worked in a laundry, an apprentice in the brick-laying trade at is 5d. an hour, a B.O.A.C. pay clerk (who was too technical and involved for anyone to understand) and a self-styled ‘farm yokel’ who talked about horses, and many more. But what emerged in the final session of the conference was the conclusion that the need today is not only for each of us to have a job that will satisfy ourselves, but one that will fill some need in the whole social pattern—not a bad expression of opinion or even philosophy to be formulated by an adolescent group!

Another group started off by reading a ghost story. It happened to be the [page 57] week in which Gandhi died and after the conversation had wandered from spiritualism to faith healing, from Bishop Barnes’ views on miracles in the Sunday Pictorial to Emlyn Williams’ play Trespass, which someone had heard on the radio, the general conclusion was that most of the really great people in the world have believed passionately that in the end good can overcome evil, and even suffering and death make no difference to the ultimate triumph of good, which, as one young man expressed it‘is a comfort when you consider the mess we are in at the moment’.

Many groups have discussed personal relationships, the art of getting on with other people, which is the basis not only of happy home life, but world peace itself—and have found comfort in the general conclusion that ‘getting on with people is in itself a glorious and worthwhile adventure’.

And this matter of ‘finding comfort’ is a major point. Young people are at an uncomfortable stage of growth and young people nowadays live in a most uncomfortable period of history. Like little boys whistling in the dark to keep up their courage, many of them seek refuge from their innermost fears in raucous laughter and riotous behaviour, but in the organized group—under skilled leadership—large numbers, even of the most apparently uncompromising material, can and do help each other to grow, and to grow more fully.   

How to cite this piece: Brew, J. M. (1950) 'Discussion with young people' in Bureau of Current Affairs Discussion Method. The purpose, nature, and application of group discussion, London: Bureau of Current Affairs. Available in the informal education archives:

This piece has been reproduced here on the understanding that it is not subject to any copyright restrictions, and that it is, and will remain, in the public domain.
First placed in the archives: August 2002.