Revisiting three key texts, published sixty years ago. What do they have to say to us today?
Raymond Williams (1921-1988) is often described as one of the founding fathers of Cultural Studies. He published a wide-ranging body of literary criticism and social theory, as well as several novels. Yet his ideas about education have often been ignored. Williams was born into a working-class family in a Welsh village: a promising student, he won a scholarship to a leading grammar school, and subsequently read English at Cambridge. At the start of his career, after a period of army service, he spent more than a decade as a teacher in adult education. These experiences raised questions about the relationships between politics, education and culture that were central to his early work in particular.
In this series of posts, I want to trace some of these ideas in a trilogy of books: Culture and Society 1780-1950 (published in 1958), The Long Revolution (1961) and Communications (1962). These books appeared during a period of significant social and cultural change in Britain, which is in some respects parallel to our own (I’ve written about this period previously in relation to youth culture). Re-reading them today, sixty years on, they seem exceptionally forward-looking and relevant – as well as more thoughtful and politically astute than much of the contemporary debate about education and culture.
Certainly at present, this debate seems entirely retrospective. Culture is seen as a fixed body of material that we inherit from the past; and the function of education is simply to pass this on to succeeding generations. Indeed, the influential former education minister Michael Gove has described education as a means of transmitting ‘the best that has been thought and written’ – an explicit reference to a book by Matthew Arnold called Culture and Anarchy, published exactly 150 years ago. According to Gove, misguided progressive teachers have been engaged in a systematic attempt to deny children access to these things. This disadvantages working-class children in particular, by withholding what he believes is ‘the key to social mobility’: ultimately, poverty and inequality appear to result from a lack of ‘culture’.
These ideas are reinforced by similar arguments about the need to re-introduce ‘knowledge’ into the curriculum (as though it had somehow disappeared); and by Ofsted’s new insistence on the importance of children acquiring ‘cultural capital’. These arguments all presume that culture is contained in a fixed body of texts (or indeed facts) that can simply be handed on to the next generation. They ignore the dynamic nature of culture, the way it is embedded in lived experience, and the fact that it is always contested. They also seem to ignore the far-reaching cultural and social changes of the past half century. It’s partly because of this that Williams’ arguments remain especially relevant today.
* * * * * * *
Culture and Society is not a history of culture itself, but rather of the idea of culture. It traces how the idea emerged and evolved across the preceding two centuries, in the work of key authors from Burke, Mill and the Romantic poets through to Lawrence, Eliot and Orwell. The idea of culture, Williams argues, arose in the late eighteenth century as a response both to industrialization and to the growth of democracy. These changes in the organization of society resulted in massive transformations, not only in everyday life, but in the individual psyche – they produced what Williams calls ‘a new kind of human being’. For the writers Williams discusses, culture – particularly in the narrower form of ‘the arts’ – was a means of challenging these developments, but also of identifying alternatives. Against what was seen as the deadening influence of mechanization, they understood culture as a source of individual wholeness and of authentic, ‘organic’ community. Culture was the thing that would save us all.
Williams identifies several problems and limitations in this line of thought. From the Romantics onwards, there was a tendency to separate ‘artists’ from the rest of society, and to regard them as a specialized, superior category; and in the process, art became steadily divorced from everyday social life. Faced with the evident challenges of working-class movements, many of these writers reverted to habitual class-based ideas: the critique of industrialism and consumer society easily slid into a snobbish and bitter contempt for the vulgar masses. And, Williams argues, too many of these writers failed to spell out how any of the alternatives they preferred were ever likely to happen: they wandered off into abstraction, or sought comfort in nostalgic yearnings for some imaginary golden age.
Perhaps the key figure here is Michael Gove’s favourite, Matthew Arnold: as Williams notes, Culture and Anarchy has remained more influential than any other single work in this tradition. Writing in the late 1860s, Arnold was responding, not just to industrialization (which was a well-established phenomenon by this time) but more specifically to the growing agitation for working-class suffrage. For him, culture was an alternative to what he regarded merely as ‘anarchy’, and almost a bulwark against it. Arnold was an inspector of schools for several years, and he saw education as key to this: although he sometimes described the pursuit of culture in quasi-religious terms, it was not simply an inward-looking, individual matter. However, as Williams shows, Arnold’s contemptuous and fearful response to working-class movements left him incapable of really understanding the wider social and economic causes of what was taking place around him.
Despite its historical approach, Culture and Society is essentially forward-looking. Written at a time of what Williams calls ‘expanding culture’ – especially with the proliferation of modern communications media – the book aims to provide a new basis for cultural policy and practice, and indeed for education. Williams’ political aims and sympathies here are clear. While he offers a very cautious account of Marx (significantly, the only non-English-speaking thinker here), he is clearly attracted to the proto-socialism of William Morris: far from being merely nostalgic, Williams argues, Morris regarded art as embedded in everyday social life, and (unlike most of the other authors in this tradition) made common cause with the organized working class.
Crucially, Williams rejects the narrow conception of culture as ‘art’, in favour of a broader view of culture as ‘a whole way of life’ – a more sociological or anthropological view that he identifies in different forms in writers as diverse as Marx and T.S. Eliot. This idea has often been used as a justification for the study of popular culture, but its implications are more broad-ranging. In terms of education, it suggests that it is mistaken to regard ‘culture’ as something abstracted from society that can then be diffused or transmitted in order to achieve a more general form of enlightenment. Culture (in this narrow sense) cannot be extended without changing the ‘whole way of life’ within which it has existed: as Williams puts it, it’s not about spreading the ‘known gold’ more widely, but about changing the currency.
This all implies a rather different function for education, as compared with the approach of Arnold (and indeed Gove). Williams challenges the notion of education as a ‘ladder’, a social mobility device that will enable a few individuals to escape their working-class origins. Rather than simply cultivating appreciation of ‘the best’, or focusing on a narrow selection of the arts or literature, education about culture should address the ‘whole way of life’, and seek to create a dynamic and democratic ‘common culture’. A genuinely popular education should not function simply as a means of keeping people quiet, or forcing them to defer to received authorities. It is not about promoting appreciation of what an elite minority chooses to define as self-evidently ‘the best’, but of critically examining what Arnold himself called ‘stock notions and habits’. Ultimately, Williams argues, ‘nobody can raise anybody else’s cultural standard’: what education should do is to provide critical understanding, and offer people access to the full range of material available.
Interestingly, Williams follows this tradition of thinking through to two twentieth century literary critics who played a major role in establishing the subject of English in education. I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis remain influential in defining the aims and methods of English teaching, and (perhaps especially) setting its limitations. Williams praises Leavis’s proposals for teaching about popular culture, for example in his book Culture and Environment (with Denys Thompson, 1933) – although these proposals have been justly criticized by subsequent generations of educators. However, he also challenges the cultural pessimism of this approach, its nostalgia for an imaginary ‘golden age’, and what he calls its ‘pseudo-aristocratic authoritarianism’. And he notes that, in the world of modern communications media, ‘technical’ changes have run far ahead of practical educational responses.
Culture and Society doesn’t deal directly with media (there is more in the two books that follow), but it does identify some important basic principles. Williams rejects the idea of ‘the masses’, not least because of the contempt (and the fear of the ‘mob’) that generally accompanies it. ‘There are in fact no masses,’ he argues; ‘there are only ways of seeing people as masses’. The idea of ‘mass communication’, which follows from this, is also rejected, not least because it tends to overstate the differences between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media, or elite and popular forms. Williams does not deny the need to make judgments about value, but he challenges the tendency to over-generalise, both about media and about audiences. At the same time, he refuses any easy equation between class and culture, and any sentimentality about ‘working class culture’; and he argues for a more far-reaching democratization of media institutions. As we’ll see, these ideas are developed much more concretely in his subsequent work.
The scope of Culture and Society is obviously phenomenal, but so is the care and thoughtfulness of its arguments. Williams treats each of the thinkers he considers with a kind of intellectual generosity, rather than engaging in easy individual attacks: he reads them symptomatically, as representative of their times. Yet although he criticizes some of these writers for falling into abstraction, this is a problem with his own writing too – and perhaps especially in his concluding chapter, which seeks to provide the basis for an alternative approach. The insistence on complexity, and the care and nuance of the argument, make it hard to pin down much beyond general principles. The idea of ‘common culture’, for example, implies a fundamental challenge to the narrow and elitist ideas of ‘minority culture’ that he has been discussing. It’s linked to arguments about democratization and equality, although it’s evidently not about ‘dumbing down’, or about the eradication of diversity and individuality. But, like the idea of culture as ‘a whole way of life’, it’s hard at this point to see what it means, except in general terms.
Culture and Society has a historical focus, but it also speaks to its own time, and to the future. All three books I’m considering here were written on the cusp of the 1960s, at a moment of social and cultural democratization (or ‘expansion’) in Britain; and while he’s aware of the forces that are working against this, Williams remains fundamentally optimistic. As Britain goes into a decisive election, our current situation seems much more precariously poised: it may be that the kind of democratic socialism Williams represents can no longer be sustained in the face of the global wave of right-wing populism.
The ideas of culture that Williams considers in Culture and Society are partly a response to industrialization and modernity. The advent of digital media – which some have described as a ‘second industrial revolution’ – would seem to present new opportunities, but also some fundamental challenges. Williams would certainly insist (as indeed he did in his later book, Television: Technology and Cultural Form) on the need to see technology in relation to broader economic, social and political changes. As I’ve argued elsewhere, early ideas about the democratic promise of digital technology are now giving way to a much more pessimistic understanding of how technology is being used for profoundly anti-democratic purposes – and this again has significant implications for education.
As I’ve tried to show, Williams also provides a different basis for thinking about education, and particularly about cultural education, as compared with the ideas of Michael Gove et al. Culture and Society is by no means a narrow defence of ‘minority culture’ or ‘the arts’, as traditionally conceived: it is an argument for rethinking the place and function of teaching about culture much more broadly. Yet here too, this kind of expansive, dynamic, democratic view is very much in retreat. The fact that Williams’ ideas still seem so radical today is surely an index of how narrow and regressive so much contemporary educational debate has become.