Community Building and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I’m afraid at any given time I flit from one book to another and between several from one week to the next, and typically there’s little that’s common across them. So I was pleasantly surprised when I saw a connection the other day between two books (both old classics that I’m returning to after many previous readings) and an article I plonked on a pile on my bedside table. The article is about a group called Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA), and the books; Deschooling Society and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

So what’s the connection? Well, the quote below offers a clue; they all speak to how we can learn rich lessons within what Illich might call a convivial space, but also remind us about competencies that as citizens many of us have forgotten we have.

“The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.” 

Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1973)

Deschooling Society, though written 41 years ago, holds its appeal, and relevance, given the rise of institutionalism and professionalisation across civic space. Illich is clear in his call to action: the integrity of learning across the life course will only be maintained and sustained by growing community alternatives to ‘established service industry’ responses.

Notwithstanding, through my work with schools in Rwanda I have come to learn of the power that resides within the respective treasure chests of local schools. Schools are indeed places with abundant human / financial / political / physical assets upon which to build better educational, economic, environmental and community outcomes. The challenge is in releasing these assets, and ensuring they mingle, and connect with the assets of the communities of which they are an integral part.

In Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, I am currently mentoring 16 schools who have reimagined themselves into hubs for community building and economic renewal. They are releasing previously untapped community building potential, and stand as living proof of what is possible when educational institutions ask ‘how can we educate in a way that builds community either side of our boundary walls?’

Schools (its pupils, parents, teachers and the wider community) that have come to deeply understand and release the assets they have for community building, while at the same time coming to understand and support the assets the community has for learning and teaching (education), are proving the transformational potential that such genuine partnerships offer.

As my friend and colleague Jonathan Sher, Scotland Director of the WAVE Trust, wisely pointed out during our discussion on the themes within this blog:

“Illich’s words / ideas continue to resonate and appeal, but they manifestly have not translated into a deschooled society anywhere. There are millions of students, and hundreds of thousands of teachers, who are (and will, for the foreseeable future, remain) in schools for a large portion of their waking hours.

The challenge is to make that time far more meaningful for students / staff / communities — and those assets far more explicitly and robustly connected to the kind of community development both of us favour. Books (such as Jack Shelton’s Consequential Learning) point the way to what place-based learning could and should mean. The work we did years ago through REAL Enterprises was another version of a pragmatic strategy for working in / with / through / around schools having ABCD implications and impacts. This is also true of the excellent work in rural / indigenous Alaska over decades (accessible through Prof Ray Barnhardt). Efforts such as the UNCRC-based, creative efforts of Scotland’s Children’s Parliament of the school community and citizenship-building efforts of the Responsive Classroom programme in the States, as well as the myriad Nordic ‘nature kindergartens’ offer wisdom, hope and practical experience of what schools could, and should, be doing.”

Wise words indeed!

A year after Deschooling Society was published, an American cultural icon in literature emerged on the scene – but not before setting the Guinness Book of Records for the most rejections of a first book ever, it clocked up rejections from 121 publishers. The book’s full title was, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. The book sold 5 million copies worldwide, and despite what the title suggests it has very little, in factual terms, to do with either Zen Buddhism or motorcycle maintenance.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The book beautifully exemplifies: ‘educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.’ It also illustrates the tension between the romantic / idealistic view of the world and the more rational view, (the idealistic vs. the practical; or the intuitive vs. the scientific) which explains the book’s title: Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle maintenance.

Pirsig (the author) concludes his philosophically grounded fiction novel by asserting that we need to hold both in creative tension, his call to action is for us to occupy the space between purposefulness and emergence, and to learn to more gracefully move between the two.

For those who haven’t read the book, it describes a 17-day journey within a journey. The more obvious journey was a ‘Father and Son’ motorcycle odyssey from Minnesota to Northern California, along with two friends who complete the first nine days with them. The second journey was a philosophical one. The book is peppered with philosophical conversations referred to as ‘Chautauquas’ (a reference to the popular, informal adult education / culture movement across rural America around the turn of the 20th century) exploring the full gambit of all things philosophical from metaphysics to epistemology.

Aside from the wonderful way it illustrates how learning happens outside as well as inside formal educational systems, it also celebrates the importance of non-professional people (citizens) as primary educators, while challenging (them) us to ensure we have enough technical know-how to maintain our own ‘bikes’ so that we can sustain our own, and our neighbours’, ‘journey’.

Prisig, using the metaphor of motorcycle maintenance makes the basic point that if you want to live a free and care-full life (achieve Zen) then you need to develop at least some of the skills that most have farmed out to the edge of personal and community competence, into professional space, like basic motorcycle maintenance.

It reminds us that there are many things we once did in civic life that now have become commodities in the marketplace. Given the themes that run through both books under discussion, raising children that are deeply connected to productive adults within their community strikes me as a germane example. Increasingly the children of our neighbourhoods are not treated as integral to our neighbourhoods. Instead, they have been spirited off to cyberspace, or the halls of the marketplace.

John McKnight and Peter Block, who blog on parenting, family and neighbourhood issues at their website, conclude that this outsourcing of care functions for our children and our neighbours’ children has led to the significant “loss of basic functions belonging to families and neighborhoods. Most have become incompetent in terms of doing the work of families and neighborhoods. The cost of this incompetence is families and neighborhoods that have no real function.

No group persists when it has no reason to be together. Therefore, if families perform no functions we can predict that they will fall apart. We delude ourselves if we think our high divorce rates are caused by interpersonal problems and disagreements. It’s not that people are not getting along; it is that they don’t need each other because they have no functions to perform. They are just isolated, unproductive, dependent consumers who happen to live in the same house.”

Children need to be needed, as well as needing to have their needs met. Those combined needs are greater than any one family, or State can meet unilaterally, hence the assertion that it takes a village to raise a child. It is therefore only when children are connected to productive adults and are recognised as ‘at promise’ and not just ‘at risk’, that they learn how to contribute and receive relative to their age and stage in life. This is the pathway to adulthood and citizenship, heavily punctuated by play and rituals of celebration. The benchmark of competent neighbourhoods, and a functioning State, must surely be the extent to which each child can traverse this path.

Having age-appropriate and valued roles within their communities, and relationships that enable them to grow securely, children can come to feel confident enough to be in the world and to shape it. Yet many believe that the safety and competence of children is contingent largely, if not solely, on the quality of our educational curriculum’s and the robust implementation of child protection policies. As one Leader of a Council said to me recently:

“I love all this community stuff, but a community can’t really do a lot about child protection issues…can they?”

To be fair I’m sure he was actually referring to complex child welfare issues that involve Social Workers and other professionals. Yet, even then, is it either true or desirable to assert the view, as many do, that communities are incompetent and impotent (they would never be so blunt as to use such language but the implication is clear) in the face of their young neighbours’ abuse / maltreatment? That the protection of our children and our neighbours’ children is solely in the hands of outside agencies, to whom we have delegated our own personal and collective agency on such matters, concerns me greatly. Since I believe it creates the opposite of what it intends, in that it results in children becoming less protected, not more.

But in response to the question ‘are professionals best placed to deal with some forms of child neglect or abuse?’ I agree that, at a certain point, the answer is yes. In the same way that certain mechanical issues are beyond the average native wit of a motorcycle enthusiast, and require a skilled mechanic, certain child protection issues require professional stewardship.

But here’s the rub. On the one hand, if as a motorcycle enthusiast I neglect to maintain my bike, when it does eventually break down, it is true to say I have to call in an expert if I want it to work again. On the other hand, it is also true to say that I have by degrees slowly given away what agency I previously had to fix it, before it got to the point of no return. So too, while it is true to say that some mechanical issues are beyond the competence of the average motorcyclist, maintenance (prevention) is not. We all know by reference to other possessions we prize, but do not maintain (look after), the quality of maintenance is often directly linked to our dependence on outside expertise and intervention.

Understanding the borderline where my competency as an individual and citizen ends and professional competency begins is critical to sustaining my personal agency and citizen power to negotiate a healthy social contract. It is equally important that I come to completely explore and understand my capacity and that of my neighbours, family and friends on the civic side of the borderline – to maintain and sustain not just motorcycles but everything we love and care about including a culture of community where children can grow well.

Bikers Against Child Abuse

Bikers Against Child Abuse

And that brings me to the ‘Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA)’ article. These are an association of Motorcycle enthusiasts (commonly known as Bikers) across the world, who as well as being passionate about Motorcycles and the sense of community that that way of life brings, care deeply about keeping children safe. They intentionally form a non-violent barrier between victims of abuse and convicted abusers, and work with the child and supportive family, in close liaison with professionals, to convince them that they are and will continue to be surrounded by ‘scary’ looking Bikers who are watching out for them. You can appreciate that a group of golfers wearing pink Ralph Lauren sweaters might not create the same theatrical impact! Where possible, these benevolent Bikers try to support abusers to take ownership of (and find better ways of resolving) their issues.

They are non-violent and work in partnership with police, and they intentionally commit to protect children where police and social workers cannot; but not to interfere with or take on the roles of these or any other professional. They are purposefully acting as citizens to protect young children so that they can grow into their citizenship. This is a powerful act of maintaining and flexing civic muscle while not masquerading as the ‘strong arm of the law’. And of course it is highly unusual. It also feels like a very late (though important) intervention. How as citizens can we create the conditions where our current unacceptable high incidences of child maltreatment are prevented in the first place?

Not all of us will take to the open road as in Persig’s tale, or be part of a gang of Bikers who occupy a schools yard with Harley Davidson’s on behalf of a seven-year boy who is ‘being bullied to death’, or as Illich proposed, create free floating book exchanges / civic libraries in local café.

But perhaps we can practice the art of Community Building and Motorcycle Maintenance, in the places where as adults we can think about what we do, and ask: ‘how could I do this in a way that builds community where I live?’ By asking this question and acting on the answer we can’t but help create opportunities for children to connect in all kinds of productive ways with adults who are near, loving, caring and sharing towards them and those around them, but also accountable to the community.

It is this seemingly ‘passive’ form of child protection that in fact creates the primary prevention layer that is currently all but missing in most of our neighbourhoods, and why? Because we are not maintaining it! This is the first and most powerful level of child protection, which requires far greater attention from all quarters in society, not least from us as citizens living in local communities.

Here again, WAVE Trust’s influence on my thinking above is immensely helpful. As Jonathan notes:

“First, and foremost, neighbours / families / communities can be most helpfully engaged in the primary prevention of child maltreatment i.e. in keeping harm from happening in the first place. This dovetails beautifully with the motorcycle maintenance metaphor. Good ‘maintenance’ is not just about care ‘after the fact’ (when problems have arisen, but are still relatively small). Rather, it is also geared toward, and successful at, preventing some problems from arising at all.

Second, the time when maltreatment most frequently begins is between birth and a child’s first birthday. In our society, this also tends to be the most ‘private’ time of life and a period when emotional neglect and psychological abuse are most difficult to identify directly (or by easily visible impacts upon the child). That makes neighbourly intervention much harder to conceive or achieve.

Third, while safety is an absolutely necessary pre-requisite for well-being, a preoccupation with safety is neither the ultimate goal nor the best strategy for child development. Just as health is more than the absence of illness / injury, so too, child wellbeing is about much more than keeping children safe. In ABCD terms, community safety is necessary, but not sufficient, to achieve asset-based community development.”

It is in this way that we maintain and sustain our competency to keep our children well and prevent maltreatment, and to have the discernment to tap into the assets of institutional resources and support to aid us in achieving that within it beyond local capacity. It is also in this way we can ensure that our services are not burdened with tasks they are not competent to take on like maintaining and sustaining our freedoms, our community and adult to child relationships or act as proxies for those. There are certain things that as citizens we must do, and if we don’t do them, they will not get done, the good news is that we have an abundances of gifts with which to work, not least being the gifts and ‘promise’ of our children.

That is why I am so passionate about the vision of WAVE Trust’s Founder & CEO, George Hosking OBE, and its 70/30 campaign to reduce child maltreatment by 70% by 2030. WAVE seeks to be a catalyst for a positive, ‘all hands on deck’, individual, family, community and governmental effort toward: Every baby nurtured; Every child thriving; and, Every parent prepared and supported.

I’ll leave the last word to WAVE: “Individual and collective action – in ways small and large – toward those positive 70/30 goals will result in child maltreatment dropping like the proverbial stone. Galvanising communities around becoming much better places to be a child and to raise children is the key.”

Cormac Russell

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  • Almost 40 years ago I took different messages away from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that I have attempted to practice. That was that was that every problem has a solution and those solutions emanate from our personal gifts and the gifts of others in league with each other. The other message I took was that any task worth doing was worth throwing our entire self into and performing that task as close to perfection as our skills and the skills of others would allow. Those messages still hold true for me but now I have to reread the book based on your observations. Thank you!

    June 30, 2014 at 1:10 pm
  • Thanks so much for your comments Bob, and your friendship;) BW Cormac

    July 1, 2014 at 7:32 am

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