Revisiting three key texts from sixty years ago: what do they have to say to us today?
This is the second of a series of three posts, in which I’m exploring the work of one of the founding fathers of Cultural Studies, Raymond Williams. I’m looking particularly at his ideas about culture and education across a trilogy of books: Culture and Society 1780-1950 (published in 1958), The Long Revolution (1961) and Communications (1962). Re-reading these books 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.
The Long Revolution (1961) is a game of two halves, with some extra time at the end. The first part of the book begins where Culture and Society leaves off. It explains and elaborates the general theory of culture that is implicit in its predecessor. The second part is much more empirical and historical, and provides examples of a ‘historical materialist’ approach to cultural analysis. In an extended conclusion, ‘Britain in the 1960s’ Williams points to some contemporary challenges, and makes some concrete recommendations for cultural policy, which are developed in more detail in his following book, Communications.
This book develops Williams’ distinctive ‘keywords’ method, which he later expanded in his book of that name, first published in 1976. While Culture and Society traces the changing definitions and uses of the term ‘culture’, The Long Revolution extends this and applies it to additional terms, including creative, art, individual, society, and so on. This might be seen as just a form of intellectual throat-clearing (the approach that launched a thousand student essays), but it’s more than that: it provides a way of relativizing and historicizing ideas that can easily be taken for granted. Tracing the history of such terms shows how current ways of thinking, and indeed whole disciplines, are contained within shifting conceptual frames, which both define and limit how the world can be understood.
The first part of the book is Williams at his most abstract and philosophical, and it’s probably best taken in small doses. Where Culture and Society bounces off a sequence of other authors, the approach here is much more generalized: the language isn’t difficult, but Williams tends to ruminate without always directly saying what he thinks. As such, it’s easy to miss the challenge and the radicalism of his argument.
In the context of recent educational debates, the first two chapters seem particularly relevant. Chapter One offers a social theory of creativity that goes well beyond some of the woolly, feel-good thinking that gathered around this idea in educational thinking in the 2000s. (I wrote about this, along with a couple of colleagues, at the time.) Williams traces the idea historically, and then briefly (and perhaps surprisingly) elaborates some ideas from what we would now call ‘constructivist’ psychology. His key points are, firstly, that creativity is ‘ordinary’, rather than something confined to a special category of people called ‘artists’:
A vital imaginative life, and the deep effort to describe new experience, are found in many others besides artists, and the communication of new descriptions and new meanings is carried out in many ways – in art, thought, science, and in the ordinary social process…
As this suggests, communication with an audience is key to any meaningful art:
Art cannot exist unless a working communication can be reached, and this communication is an activity in which both artist and spectator participate. When art communicates, a human experience is actively offered and actively received. Below this activity threshold there can be no art.
For some, these will be familiar quotations – and perhaps even statements of the obvious. But it’s important to recognize that Williams is offering a fundamentally social theory of art and culture that challenges a good deal of received thinking, both then and now. The idea of the arts as a superior, almost transcendental, realm of activity that is only accessible to a minority of extraordinary geniuses continues to inform a good deal of contemporary cultural and educational policy.
In his second chapter, Williams extends the general theory of culture briefly discussed in Culture and Society. He identifies once again the limitations of confining our attention merely to the ‘selective tradition’ (‘the best that has been thought and said’); but he also offers a more formalized approach, identifying different ‘levels’ of culture, and explaining how we might identify the particular ‘structure of feeling’ of a given period. This is a social theory, which places a central emphasis on class; but it is not a deterministic one. Williams consistently stresses the need to see culture in dynamic and multi-dimensional ways, looking not only at cultural forms but also at economic, political and institutional aspects; and he opposes the reductive view of it as simply a manifestation of pre-existing social forces.
Again, all this might seem obvious enough for those of us who’ve grown up with Cultural Studies, but it’s important to stress how radical it was at a time when the study of literature and the arts was dominated by narrow forms of textual appreciation. Indeed, by comparison with current educational policies – such as Ofsted’s ill-informed insistence on the need to inculcate ‘cultural capital’ – these ideas still seem positively revolutionary.
It’s in The Long Revolution that Williams also begins to couple the ideas of learning and communication – a connection that’s elaborated further in his subsequent book. His most explicit discussion of education comes in the chapter that begins the second part of the book. As I’ve said, these chapters take a very different approach. What we have here is effectively a series of empirical case studies in cultural analysis; although when taken together, they provide a pretty comprehensive account of the evolution and ‘expansion’ of English culture over several centuries. In addition to education, there are chapters on ‘standard English’, the popular press, the reading public, and the social history of English writers and dramatists. Once again, the historical approach enables Williams to relativize the present: what we think of as ‘correct’ forms of pronunciation, for example, or self-evident distinctions between high and popular culture, are shown to be constantly shifting. (The chapter on standard English should still be compulsory reading for linguistic fundamentalists today.)
The analysis in these chapters is often highly detailed, and in some instances even statistical. For example, in the chapter on the social history of English writers, Williams trawls chronologically through the Dictionary of National Biography to trace the social backgrounds of successive generations of authors; while the chapter on the popular press contains a good deal of information about circulation figures, economics, ownership and relevant legislation. In line with his broader theoretical arguments, Williams shows how cultural analysis needs to take account of broader social processes and institutions, not just as ‘context’ but as part of a dynamic, situated view of culture. Again, it’s worth noting how far away this seems from the current teaching of literature and the arts in schools, and indeed in many universities.
When it comes to education, Williams begins by tracing the historical evolution of definitions and purposes of education. He looks at which social groups were represented and excluded, the selection and shaping of the curriculum, and the new kinds of institutions that emerged over time. (Again, this makes interesting reading at a time when the structure of the formal education system is undergoing dramatic change – albeit largely in the form of marketisation.) Broadly speaking, this is a story of democratization – this is the ‘long revolution’ – but there have also been forces seeking to restrict and prevent this. Williams points to the continuing existence of private education, and the practice of sorting and grading within the state system, which serve to entrench and magnify wider social inequalities (and still do so today, of course).
This chapter also makes some sharp observations on the limitations of the curriculum. As Williams notes, social studies are virtually omitted: students receive little instruction in the workings of government, the law and public administration, in the ‘evolution and character of modern social groups’, or in ‘the techniques by which a modern society is studied and influenced’. Even in science, ‘the history of scientific discovery and its social effects’ is effectively ignored. Meanwhile, education about the arts represents ‘a meagre response to our cultural tradition… with hardly any attempt to begin either the history or criticism of music and visual arts forms, or the criticism of those forms of film, televised drama and jazz to which every child will go home’. (Perhaps it’s not jazz any more, but you get the point.) Even in English, most children leave school ‘without ever having practiced the critical reading of newspapers, magazines, propaganda, and advertisements, which will form the bulk of their adult reading.’
Of course, these limitations remain apparent – and indeed, are being actively reinforced – today. Even in the recent discussion of a ‘National Education Service’ there has been very little consideration of the school curriculum, despite the damaging ways in which it has been ‘reformed’ in recent years. As Williams observes, the grammar school curriculum of his time was essentially created in the nineteenth century, following some even older models. Despite some of the changes that happened in the intervening period, it is precisely this curriculum to which educational policy makers are now returning.
However, it’s important to emphasise that Williams’ ideas here are not just to do with ‘modernisation’. Nor are they just a matter of defending or fighting for a particular sectional interest – a crusade to save the arts. On the contrary, they are grounded within a much more broad-ranging and principled theory of culture and society, and a sense of the broader role of education within that. Some of Williams’ ideas were manifested in the educational developments of the 1960s and 1970s – and we sorely need to recover some of that of the history, and rescue it from superficial caricatures of the so-called mistakes of ‘child-centred education’. In the past thirty years, we have been undergoing what Ken Jones has called a long counter-revolution. In educational debate, the democratic optimism that Williams’ work represents has been abandoned and systematically betrayed.
The Long Revolution was written in the wake of Labour’s third successive electoral defeat in 1959 – an election in which many millions of working-class people voted Conservative. As I write, the UK stands on the brink of a massively decisive election. Williams offers a humanistic version of democratic socialism that has much in common with current Labour Party policy – yet the media (including the BBC) seem determined to convince us that this kind of thing is nothing more than ‘communism’. It’s bizarre and depressing that, sixty years on, many of Williams’ concrete proposals for change seem so radical – and yet so sensible and reasonable.