Cultural Studies and the evasion of education

Working papers

A postscript to my blogs about Raymond Williams: what happened to the educational dimensions of Cultural Studies?


In my last three posts, I’ve been discussing some of the work of Raymond Williams, who’s commonly described as one of the ‘grandfathers’ of Cultural Studies. I’ve been arguing that Williams’ early ideas about education were prescient at the time, sixty years ago, and that they still seem surprisingly fresh and relevant today. But this begs the question of what happened in the meantime. How did Cultural Studies evolve as an educational project?

As I mentioned, Williams spent the first 13 years of his career in adult education, teaching mainly working-class students in what were variously called ‘extension’ or ‘extra-mural’ classes – or what we might now call ‘outreach’. While these classes were run by universities, they were very distinct and distant from mainstream academia. The same was true of two other ‘grandfathers’, Richard Hoggart and E.P. Thompson. All three authors wrote several of their key early books (Culture and Society, The Uses of Literacy, The Making of the English Working Class) while still working as adult education tutors.

Stuart Hall, the leading figure in a slightly younger generation, also briefly taught in this sector; but he was actually a supply teacher in a secondary modern school in south London for some years before he joined Hoggart at the newly-founded Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at Birmingham University. (His first book, The Popular Arts, written with Paddy Whannell, was a kind of handbook for teachers – although much of the educational content was removed when the book was recently republished. I’ve discussed this here.)

SteeleOn reading one of my earlier blogs, my scholarly friend Chris Richards lent me a copy of a book from 1997 by Tom Steele: The Emergence of Cultural Studies 1945-65: Cultural Politics, Adult Education and the English Question. Steele paints a fascinating picture of the context from which these early pioneers of Cultural Studies emerged. He makes it clear that they were part of a broader educational movement, which began before the Second World War, and gathered pace in the late 1940s and 1950s. The point here is that Cultural Studies emerged, not as an outgrowth of university English or Sociology departments, but from a very different educational milieu.

At the time, adult education provided a marginal space for experimentation, and for political work. For these early exponents, Cultural Studies was part of a broader social movement, a form of ‘politics by other means’. The aim was not primarily to give working-class students access to ‘bourgeois’ knowledge, but to work with their needs and interests. That necessarily meant exploring the everyday popular culture in which these students lived. However, this was never a matter of simply validating or celebrating popular culture, or indeed working-class experience in itself: it was always about interrogation and critical analysis.

In engaging with literature and popular culture in the classroom, Williams, Hoggart and Thompson were all significantly influenced by the critics F.R. and Q.D. Leavis. (In retrospect, the Leavisite hostility towards popular culture has rather overshadowed their combative attitude towards the mainstream literary establishment.) Yet the founders of Cultural Studies obviously took this approach in a more sociological direction: they saw literary study as part of a broader, explicitly socialist, political project. As Steele describes, there was an ongoing debate between teachers who focused primarily on cultural texts, and those who favoured a more explicit emphasis on economics and politics. Yet either way, they were clearly going against the grain of the academy: Cultural Studies was not a ‘discipline’, and they did not want it to be constrained by ‘university standards’.

cccsYet as Cultural Studies became institutionalized in the academy in the years that followed, education was largely marginalized – and, I would argue, systematically evaded. The story of academic Cultural Studies has been told countless times; and much of this writing has a decidedly self-mythologizing, celebratory air, like a kind of academic fan culture. Yet there have also been endless debates about the distinctive theories and methods of Cultural Studies, and indeed whether it is (or should be) an academic discipline at all. Many of its leading exponents disagree about what Cultural Studies ‘is’ or ‘is not’ – and there are many disputes about who should have the right to define this, or speak on its behalf, in the first place. It’s almost a quarter of a century since John Storey published a chunky collection entitled What is Cultural Studies? – a book which provides no less than 22 different answers to its question. Critical self-examination is certainly necessary, but Cultural Studies has frequently crossed the line into self-aggrandizement, or alternatively a kind of morbid self-obsession.

Yet amid all this, the educational dimensions of the field have been conspicuously absent. Back in the heyday of CCCS, there was some research about education as a topic. Ethnographies like Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour were based on fieldwork in schools; yet these researchers identified (perhaps somewhat romantically) with their working-class school resisters, and teachers were largely portrayed as the Enemy, the agents of social reproduction. Meanwhile, the book Unpopular Education, published in 1981, engaged with some key debates in education policy of the time – although it is hardly ever mentioned in subsequent histories.

HallResearchers and students at CCCS were involved in some interesting community-based projects, and other forms of activism that took them beyond the university – although there was little attention to schools or even youth work, which seems ironic given the emphasis on studying youth subcultures. Like the early pioneers, participants at CCCS were keen to see themselves as involved in political (and not only intellectual) ‘work’ – yet in their writing there is no real sense of Cultural Studies itself as a form of educational work. More recent recollections and histories have somewhat disturbed the rather rosy stories about collaborative scholarship at CCCS. The commitment to working in non-hierarchical ways wasn’t easy to carry through in practice. There was a good deal of tension and contestation (not to mention psychodrama) going on among the ‘sub-groups’ and seminars, and part of this was to do with the issue of teacherly authority.

As an academic field, Cultural Studies expanded massively in the 1980s and 1990s, not least internationally – and this has inevitably made it even harder to define. The economics of the academic book publishing industry played a significant role in this: there were countless ‘introductions’ to Cultural Studies and ‘readers’ the size of telephone directories. Cultural Studies, it seemed, had been commercially instrumentalized in ways that would make it accessible and attractive to undergraduates. In the process, it had become a semi-respectable academic discipline – albeit one that was a long way from the marginal practice of its early founders.

CCCS ReportHowever, at least in the UK, Cultural Studies’ years of expansion have given way to a sense of decline: several commentators have announced its demise, some of them perhaps a little too gleefully. Others, like Graeme Turner, fear that it is effectively being replaced by superficially vocational courses, offering students the promise of cool creative jobs under banners like ‘cultural industries’. Globally, Cultural Studies continues to expand; yet some suspect that its critical political edge has been blunted, and replaced by an infatuation with fashionable ‘theory’.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the practice of Cultural Studies itself, education still seems to have nothing to do with it. This isn’t just an oversight or an unfortunate omission: in my view, it’s an evasion, and one that has distinctly political consequences. Most researchers and writers in the field are educators: they earn their living at least partly from teaching students in universities. Yet accounts that discuss the actual process of teaching Cultural Studies are few and far between. Even in these cases, the focus is largely on teaching, rather than learning. University teachers occasionally describe what they do; but there is very little discussion – and hardly ever any evidence – about what their students do. How students learn to do Cultural Studies; how they engage with theory, and how they use it; how they debate and discuss in seminars and tutorials; how they learn the conventions of academic writing in this field; how they relate academic study to their own everyday cultural experiences; how they connect cultural analysis with cultural practice – these are among the many questions that are never really addressed.

Insofar as these issues do get considered, it’s in the context of academic ‘theorizations of pedagogy’. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is in the version of so-called ‘critical pedagogy’ that’s been recycled by Henry Giroux and others over many years. This is a form of political posturing that often reads like it’s been created by a random academic sentence generator. The rhetorical soup is endlessly stirred, but there is a continuing failure to address specific instances of teaching and learning: grandiose rhetoric swamps any dim recognition of the detail and complexity of what really happens in classrooms.

PedagogiesI had my say about this at some length many years ago, but the problem is exemplified by a more recent collection from Australia entitled The Pedagogies of Cultural Studies, edited by Andrew Hickey. I landed on this book exclaiming ‘at last!’ But I’m afraid I was sorely disappointed. To be sure, the book does have some concrete accounts of educational practice, although these mostly relate to research methods, teacher training and community outreach projects. Others cover a broad range of issues (from storytelling to surfing to the experience of climate catastrophe): ‘pedagogy’ gradually fades into a more general concept of ‘practice’. Only one chapter in the book actually talks about teaching Cultural Studies to undergraduate students – which is, after all, the thing most of the contributors actually seem to do for a living. The authors constantly slide away from concrete educational issues to generalized theoretical discussion, much of which is woolly and repetitive.

Of course, pedagogy isn’t just about classrooms. Academic discourse itself is a form of teaching: the way academics write inevitably establishes relations between ‘teachers’ and ‘learners’ – although it often does this in ways that have the effect of excluding or intimidating readers. The imperatives of academic publishing, and academic assessment regimes, have their own pedagogical implications. The concept of ‘public pedagogy’ draws attention to the pedagogical dimensions of public discourse that go beyond formal educational settings. And obviously there are pedagogic dimensions of popular culture itself: it ‘teaches’ us things, or attempts to do so. Nevertheless, pedagogy is also about classrooms, even academic seminar rooms and lecture halls – and in a context where (in the UK) almost 50% of the population now goes on to higher education, it is surely important for all academic teachers to analyse and understand those students’ experiences.

Tom Steele’s book on the early history ends (in 1997) with a qualified optimism, not so much about Cultural Studies (which he feels has increasingly fallen victim to academic pretentiousness) but about the continuing possibility of a democratic, popular education. He even sees opportunities here with the emerging ‘massification’ of higher education. It is frankly much harder to be optimistic about this a couple of decades further down the line.

There is, evidently, no going back. Whether we’re talking about higher education, or education more broadly, there’s a danger of looking back nostalgically to the ‘golden age’ of Cultural Studies, and then bemoaning the ways in which everything has gone so badly wrong. Of course, history can provide resources for a critique of the present: one of my aims in returning to Williams has been to throw into relief the sorry limitations of contemporary policies and prescriptions for teaching about culture. Yet while many of the ideas still seem fresh, the educational environment from which Cultural Studies emerged is now a very long way from current realities.