Revisiting three key texts from sixty years ago: what do they have to say to us today?
This is the last 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.
Communications (1962) is the least substantial of the three books I’m looking at here. It originally appeared in a paperback series of Penguin Specials called ‘Britain in the Sixties’, intended to provide short contributions to contemporary social and political debates. It was reprinted several times in subsequent years, and had two further editions in 1966 and 1973 (the one I’m using is my own battered copy of the second edition). In the preface, Williams explains that the book arose from his own teaching in adult education, and that he produced the later editions partly in response to demand from teachers who were using it with their classes.
Communications is a topical book in a way that the two earlier books are generally not – and this itself makes it rather more dated. The contemporary reader might be forgiven for skimming through Williams’ detailed statistical comparison of the content and circulation of the newspapers of the time. There are references to reports and debates that are perhaps of historical interest, but are now mostly long forgotten. So in what ways does the book remain relevant today?
Firstly, Williams sets out to provide a kind of model for the study (and teaching) of communications media more broadly. At this time, the study of ‘mass communications’ was much better established in US universities than it was in the UK. The history of this research is interesting (this book provides a useful account of some key milestones). Most of it was conducted within university departments of psychology and sociology, although specialist research institutes and graduate programs were beginning to appear by the late 1940s.
However, there was no real equivalent of this kind of research in the UK. Although the BBC had conducted some limited audience studies, and Hilde Himmelweit’s landmark book Television and the Child had been published in 1958, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the first specialist academic research centres were established. The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies opened at Birmingham University in 1964, followed by the Centre for Mass Communication Research at Leicester in 1966. In this respect, Williams’ book was a pioneering effort – not least because it was published shortly after he had moved into the very conservative context of the English Faculty at Cambridge (where he was appointed as a Fellow of Jesus College in 1961).
The three chapters at the core of the book address three main dimensions of media analysis: institutions, texts and audiences. While this approach might appear obvious today, it was not at the time. As Williams notes, literary analysis in the Leavisite mode tended to focus exclusively on texts. Introducing the study of institutions – in effect, the ‘political economy’ of communications – was a significant innovation. In this chapter, Williams provides a brief history of key forms of media – books, the press, theatre, television – but he emphasizes the importance of economic factors, and especially the role of advertising. He argues that, while there has been a ‘spectacular’ growth in audiences, the ownership and control of media have narrowed: communications has been increasingly driven by profit, and choice is now more limited.
By contrast, Williams’ analysis of texts is more pedestrian. Much of what he presents is a simple content analysis, for example of the proportions of advertising and editorial content in newspapers, or the coverage of different types of stories. He lists headlines appearing during a given week, but draws very few conclusions from this: strangely, there is no significant analysis of the language itself. He identifies some changes, for instance in the emphases of women’s magazines, and muses about the different forms of sex and violence in the media, but his account remains fairly descriptive.
When it comes to audiences, the approach is much more speculative: this chapter is symptomatically called ‘controversy’. Williams makes some very important arguments here, especially about the relationship between ‘high’ and ‘low’ (or ‘minority’ and ‘mass’) culture, which build on those in the previous two books. He argues that such distinctions are becoming increasingly difficult to sustain; and that they can be positively dangerous if the gaps between them are exaggerated. Williams goes on to offer a careful account of the controversy about the effects of media violence, and around the prosecution of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but there’s little by way of evidence here, and once again the conclusions are rather vague.
As is probably obvious, I found re-reading these two chapters disappointing. Williams does outline a potential model for different forms of media analysis, which was clearly of value to teachers at the time; but it’s only in the area of institutions that he offers something really original and distinctive. The powerful methods later developed within Media and Cultural Studies were yet to be found, several years further down the road.
It’s also in relation to institutions that the book offers some of its clearest proposals. Williams distinguishes between four broad types of media institutions (authoritarian, paternalistic, commercial, democratic), each of which entails a different relationship between media producers (or what he calls ‘cultural contributors’) and audiences. Building on the final chapter of The Long Revolution, he also makes some concrete and detailed proposals for media and cultural policy, which continue to be relevant today.
Ultimately, Williams is an optimist. He argues that the contemporary ‘extension’ of communications is a highly dynamic social process – it is nothing less than a ‘cultural revolution’ that is ‘part of a great process of human liberation, comparable in importance with the industrial revolution and the struggle for democracy’. However, he also feels that this progress will be at risk if institutions are not in place to sustain it, and especially if commercial forces are allowed to dominate.
Thus, he makes several proposals for forms of government intervention that will regulate the commercial market and promote the democratization of media institutions. Williams favours the idea of citizens’ councils, which can help to prevent concentration of ownership, as well as guaranteeing accountability, diversity and freedom of expression. For example, he proposes to reform the Press Council so that it is not dominated by industry representatives, and to give it greater power to enforce corrections to press reports (which is a very long way from the UK’s current so-called ‘independent’ press regulator, the toothless IPSO). He also proposes an Advertising Council with similar functions; and a Books Council to increase access to publication, to encourage independent bookshops and to promote genuine choice for readers.
Communications also suggests specific ways in which the BBC could be made more accountable, while also extending the public service functions of broadcasting more broadly. In my 1966 edition, there’s an interesting appendix that attacks some BBC educational broadcasts dealing with advertising and the press, which Williams suggests are little more than public relations for the respective media industries. This is interesting to read in light of recent efforts by media companies in the area of ‘news literacy’, which I discussed in an earlier post. Williams goes so far as to suggest that educational programmes of this kind should be produced by independent groups of teachers, rather than by professional broadcasters.
Almost sixty years on, it’s striking how relevant these suggestions still sound. Clearly, the advent of networked technologies has led to some significant changes in this respect; although the immense profitability and power of global technology companies surely puts paid to any utopian fantasies about digital democratization (as I argued in a previous post). It’s interesting to note the distance between Williams’ fundamentally democratic proposals and the various forms of media regulation (or non-regulation) that we currently have.
I’m going to refrain from discussing the recent UK election here; but if it proves one thing, it’s that we need a comprehensive, democratic reform of our media system. We should all be ashamed of the British press; but the behaviour of the BBC’s political journalists has raised broader questions about the functions and structures of public service broadcasting – and indeed, about whether the principle can any longer be sustained. When the Conservative government presses ahead with its plans to abolish the BBC license fee, it’s unlikely that many on the political left will speak up in its favour.
Finally, it’s worth revisiting Williams’ ideas about education in this context. Once again, his argument is partly made in very broad terms. He argues that communications is itself an educational process: ‘who can doubt,’ he asks, ‘looking at television or newspapers, or reading the women’s magazines, that here, centrally, is teaching, and teaching financed and distributed in a much larger way than is formal education?’ As in the earlier books, he also makes a broad argument for ‘popular’ education – which is to say education that comes from ‘the people’, and operates under democratic control.
However, he also makes some very concrete proposals. These are, firstly, to do with teaching the traditional forms of literacy – reading and writing. Here, he argues against the emphasis on narrowly ‘correct’ forms of communication, which associates ‘quality’ with the habits of an elite social group. However, he also argues that teaching about communication needs to extend to contemporary arts, and that it should not be confined (in the manner of Matthew Arnold, or Michael Gove) to teaching ‘the best’. This is not to reject the idea of making judgments, but on the contrary to promote serious cultural criticism:
In education, we must be prepared to look at the bad work as well as the good. The principle in the past has been that once you know the good you can distinguish the bad. In fact this depends on how well you know the good, how well and how personally you know why it is good, and how close the bad work is, in form, to anything you have learned to discuss.
This is an entirely logical critique of traditional literature teaching; but Williams extends it to a set of specific proposals for teaching about media such as newspapers, comics, advertising and popular fiction. For example, he suggests that teachers should be analysing the ‘social images’ of different professions; comparing examples of popular television genres such as crime dramas and soap operas; and even conducting simulated panel discussions modeled on the TV show Juke Box Jury, where students might learn a more developed way of discussing popular music. He also proposes that educators should teach about the institutions of communication – that is, about their history and how they are socially organized – and that this can partly be achieved by enabling students to produce their own cultural products.
These proposals might seem unremarkable today – although conservative policy-makers would undoubtedly find them horrifying. What is remarkable is that we find them being made, in a very specific and principled way, almost sixty years ago. More significantly, Williams is not simply proposing that such things should be added to the existing curriculum: he is proposing a more far-reaching and fundamental rethinking of how and why we teach about culture and communications.
Of course, this is very different from the narrow insistence on ‘quality’ that present-day policy-makers seem to have inherited from Matthew Arnold; and from the static, reified notion of ‘cultural capital’ that Ofsted is currently promoting. Yet it is also different from the rearguard defence of ‘the arts’ that seems to inform the work of organizations like the Cultural Learning Alliance. It is important that all children should have opportunities to learn a range of forms of artistic expression; and to develop critical tools with which to understand and analyse them. But Williams’ argument is broader than this. In his account, cultural education is not a matter of cultivating students’ appreciation of a set of objects or practices that have already been defined as ‘the best’. Teaching about culture needs to address a much wider range of cultural forms, but it also needs to locate them within the ‘whole way of life’ of the society. This necessarily means studying broader social, economic and political forces, and wider histories of cultural change. Far from being the icing on the cake, this kind of cultural education is fundamental if we are to prepare young people to act as citizens in a modern democracy.