classroom I am told of this child or that who has never before sat so still, listening; and
DIALOGIC STORYTELLING AND THE CONTEMPORARY YOUTH EXPERIENCE
6.2 A generational empathy gap
There is evidence that the accelerating pace of social change, and the differentiation of adolescents’ and adults’ worlds enabled by the internet, are exacerbating the cultural ‘othering’ of adolescence which may be common to every recent era. Lori Plante feels it necessary, in her study of the recent (and to most adults inexplicable) phenomenon of widespread teenage self-cutting, to ‘bring to life the real humanity of these struggling
adolescents’ (2010:xiv), implying that the nature of adolescent search for identity has become unrecognisable to adults. A recent survey by Girlguiding UK found that 82% of teenage girls believed their parents misunderstood the pressures they were under. This study corroborated the findings of other recent surveys that parents are most concerned about drugs and alcohol abuse, while young people are overwhelmingly more affected by mental ill-health, self-harm, sexual harassment and cyber-bullying (Press Association 2015, Press Association 2016, Green 2015). The phenomena by which social media transmit and heighten mental pressures on adolescents (see for example Godwin 2015) can scarcely be understood by adults whose relationships in youth were conducted in person or by telephone.
Despite (or because of) this incomprehension, there is growing adult anxiety over young people’s mental health, and a solidifying sense that interlocking pressures are impacting them in insidious ways. Former UK Children’s Mental Health Champion, Natasha Devon, cites the key factors as poverty, academic pressure, lack of family time, cuts to CAMHS budgets, and social media (Aitkenhead 2016). According to the charity Young Minds (2015), there has been a doubling in hospitalisations of young people due to eating disorders during 2012-2015, the approximate lifespan of this research project; over a slightly longer horizon, the charity reports a 68% increase in hospitalisation due to self-harming between 2001 and 2011, and a doubling of the number of 15-16-year-olds with depression between the 1980s and the 2000s (2016). Meanwhile the average age of onset of depression has decreased to 14, from 45 in the 1960s (Aitkenhead 2016).
It is of course impossible to disentangle changes in illness rates from changes in diagnosis rates, and exclude the possibility that this ‘crisis’ is in fact a moral panic. We might suspect as
much when Henry Giroux (cited in O’Connor and Anderson 2015:17) goes so far as to talk of a ‘war on youth’.
However, the desire to avoid hyperbole and over-generalisation should not dissuade us from harking to what CAMHS psychiatrist Rory Conn called ‘canaries in the coalmine’ (Bradbury 2017). Thus, while achieving a sense of connectedness to others may be a fundamental developmental challenge for adolescents at any time (Chapter 184.108.40.206), researchers in a recent verbatim theatre project interviewing a hundred York teenagers were struck by the degree to which their contributors felt ‘divorced from their peers and the world around them’ (Upstage Centre Youth Theatre 2015). Within my own practice, the stories young people created, alongside much exuberant and utopian creativity, often threw up the figure of a tough and wounded hero or antihero in retreat to a wild and lonely place (such as Hamma at Kitchen
School, Girls Combing Their Hair at Maple House, or Mr Imagination at City School), on the run from technology and unsympathetic eyes. Their moral reversals sometimes seemed like straws, not happy endings but snatched refuges of calm, happiness, trust and control, of fragile bonds being formed between individuals across complex and cold environments. Inevitably these motifs will partially reflect concerns the young people perceive in my consciousness, through my tellings, as well as intertextual references from film or young adult fiction; in any case it is not my methodology to conduct thematic analysis of young people’s creative outputs. Nonetheless the common motif of disconnection, from either peers, adults or both, is hard to ignore.
In this context, it is of particular concern that there may be a lack of situations where adults and young people can listen attentively to each other. While the scope of mainstream institutions like City School to provide the dialogic fora envisaged by Habermas has arguably decreased, protected settings for segments of young people identified as vulnerable abound in opportunities for dialogue (Chapter 5.3.1), but such conversations are more or less sealed off from influencing mainstream provision. Thus from the (avowedly situated) perspective of my practice research, there seems evidence of a bifurcation of the systems supporting and educating young people, producing unequal access to responsiveness, flexibility and dialogue, and potentially exacerbating the empathy gap.
6.2.1 Counsel in decline?
Lamenting social disconnection is of course nothing new. Writing in the 1930s, Benjamin contends that in the aftermath of rapid industrialisation and the dramatic social ruptures of
the First World War, ‘”having counsel” is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring’ (1973:86). This observation remains salient to any exploration of how storytelling gives counsel. To counsel other people, one must inhabit the same social sphere as them, at least to the degree that one’s own understandings gained from experience might foreshadow their future
experiences and needs − for example the success of Pat Ryan’s (2008) Kick Into Reading project may lie in its facilitation of football coaches to tell stories to young footballers. Bruner draws on Jean-Paul Sartre’s observations to amplify this point:
life stories must mesh, so to speak, within a community of life stories; tellers and listeners must share some ‘deep structure’ about the nature of a ‘life,’ for if the rules of life-telling are altogether arbitrary, tellers and listeners will surely be alienated by a failure to grasp what the other is saying or what he thinks the other is hearing. Indeed, such alienation does happen cross-generationally, often with baleful effects.
Storytelling in the everyday chronotope may often have enabled unusually attentive, I/Thou dialogue, through the narrative channel of storyknowing, within young people’s everyday lives. I have suggested (in Chapter 4.2) that the everyday chronotope rests primarily on the
mechanisms of counsel, and the related metaphor of the story as a walk across unknown territory − that telling any story or sharing any experience is likely to provide something of use, and build up shared understanding by eliciting answering stories exploring similar territory. If so, it is profoundly challenged by any empathy gap. For counsel to be possible, young people must encounter adults who consider their life experience to be of interest and relevance to them. It also requires a confidence in the multifaceted value of narrative knowledge and a readiness to make time for the storytelling exchange, which have prevailed during certain periods in education and the welfare state in the UK, although never unchallenged, and which have been in marked retreat since the early 1990s (Chapter 1.4.1). My observation from working in a variety of settings catering to adolescents is that only in protected settings do adults and young people frequently share experiences and stories. Where stories are told, as Bruner predicts above, the risks of mutual incomprehension are high; in Chapter 220.127.116.11 I described the ‘invisible elephants in the room’ I have sensed on many occasions.
Thus, neither the spaces and time, nor the shared framework of reference, essential to the everyday chronotope can be taken for granted by a 21st century storyteller working with adolescents. It therefore becomes necessary to articulate a way of working which inherits its intentions and values of open-endedness and exploration, and its ease with the cross-
Neither the dynamic nor magical chronotopes (oversimplifications though these may be) fulfil this role, both involving, to some extent, a quest for a predetermined outcome, or an
overemphasis of a certain ‘moment’ within storytelling over others. The dynamic reaches too eagerly towards a propositional expression of knowledge gained through story; the magical seems to limit the potential for critical engagement with reality; both can leave storytelling too open to ready instrumentalisation. It is dialogic storytelling which I have identified as the answer – but to be genuinely dialogic in the 21st century, how should storytellers offer our stories to adolescents, and just as importantly, where shall we do it? The following section brings together my key findings from Chapters 3, 4 and 5 as to the rationale and nature of this practice.
6.3 Dialogic storytelling: the everyday chronotope reinvented