Revisiting ‘Popular Culture and Personal Responsibility’

Thompson cover

Revisiting a key moment in the early history of media education in the UK, and its legacy in print..


Sixty years ago, a conference was held in London that played a crucial role in the early development of media education. Popular Culture and Personal Responsibility was organised by the National Union of Teachers, itself an unusual role for a trades union to play. The conference reflected the concerns of a fascinating period in Britain’s cultural history, which I’ve written about at length elsewhere – a period that saw rapid developments in commercial media, and early signs of a distinctively modern youth culture, as well as the origins of academic Cultural Studies.

The conference fed into several subsequent publications, most notably Raymond Williams’ Communications (1962) and Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel’s The Popular Arts (1964) – both of which I have discussed in earlier posts (here and here). However, the book that is most strongly identified with the conference was Denys Thompson’s edited collection Discrimination and Popular Culture, published as a Penguin paperback in 1964. As we’ll see, it offers a rather more conservative (and indeed reactionary) account of the emerging significance of ‘mass’ media than the other books that preceded it.


Defending children from popular culture


Terry Bolas’s detailed history of the early decades of media education in the UK gives a useful account of the origins of the conference, and the competing perspectives that emerged. It was a high profile event, opened by none less than the Secretary of State for Education, R.A.B. Butler (again, it’s hard to imagine such a thing happening today). According to Bolas, the conference attracted relatively few classroom teachers: most of the 500 people who attended were representing organisations of various kinds. Several representatives of the media were present – in some instances, responding very vigorously to criticism.

As Bolas explains, the origins of the conference clearly reflected a defensive approach towards popular culture. A few months earlier, the teachers’ union had passed a motion at its annual conference calling for ‘a determined effort… to counteract the debasement of standards which results from the misuse of press, radio, cinema and television; the deliberate exploitation of violence and sex; and the calculated appeal to self-interest’.

Several of the delegates recalled an earlier campaign on this theme, in which the union had played a vital role. This was the campaign against so-called ‘horror comics’, analysed by Martin Barker in his book A Haunt of Fears. As Barker suggests, this campaign (like many similar campaigns, before and since) brought together groups with quite disparate interests: in addition to teachers, there were activists from the Communist Party, and moral crusaders. Like the comics themselves, much of the inspiration came from the US, where similar campaigns had been mounted earlier in the decade. In the UK, they led directly to legislation in the form of the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act, passed in 1955.


It’s possible that some in the NUT were hoping for a repeat of this ‘successful’ earlier campaign, although in this instance the target was much broader and more diffuse. Indeed, it seemed as though for some the fundamental battle was between education and the entire modern world – an opposition that would have been familiar to followers of the most influential literary critic of the time, F.R. Leavis. Thus, the motion proposing the conference called especially on those in the media, and on parents, to support teachers ‘in an attempt to prevent the conflict which too often arises between the values inculcated in the classroom and those encountered by young people in the world outside’.


Competing perspectives

As Len Masterman wrote several years later, the conference provided ‘a platform for “responsible” middle-class opinion to express its concern at the tide of commercialism and infantilism which seemed already well on the way to engulfing the nation’. Yet as Masterman, Bolas and others acknowledge, the conference reflected tensions between these conservative perspectives and more modern views that we would now identify as early forms of Cultural Studies. Lockdown has prevented me from consulting the full record of the conference, but these differences are apparent in some of the publications that resulted from it.

In Communications, Raymond Williams describes the conference as ‘the most remarkable event of its kind ever held in this country’; and he quotes from several of the speakers. Yet he also distances himself from some of the more conservative arguments. He rejects the idea of viewing people as ‘masses’, and challenges the paternalistic distinction between ‘mass’ and ‘minority’ culture that had been apparent in Leavis’s work. He is also sceptical of the ideas about harmful media effects on which movements like the horror comics campaign were based. Hall and Whannel likewise challenge easy distinctions between high culture and popular culture; and condemn what they call an ‘opportunist’ approach, where the teacher uses popular culture merely as a means of leading students on to ‘better things’.

Screen Ed

However, neither of these books entirely abandons the Leavisite project of ‘teaching discrimination’. Hall and Whannel famously argue for discrimination within the products of popular culture, rather than discrimination against – and so, for them, jazz and the cinema are broadly acceptable as objects of serious study, while pop music and television are viewed with much more suspicion. Williams is especially critical of advertising, and of the advertising-funded model of commercial media. Both books adopt a broadly democratic approach to teaching popular culture, although neither could be accused of populism or uncritical celebration.

At the conference itself, this more contemporary approach was apparent in the contributions of two teachers from the Society of Film Teachers, which in 1959 had changed its name to the Society for Education in Film and Television (SEFT). Don Waters and Tony Higgins were the only two teachers to address the delegates; and intriguingly, they played tape recordings of children discussing films, and screened a school-made film. However, it was clear that in terms of the conference agenda, film was not part of the problem – and indeed, if children were encouraged to watch the ‘right’ films, it could even be part of the solution. Higgins and Waters seem to have raised questions about the pleasures of popular culture; but to some extent, they too seemed to share the desire to wean children off more popular fare.


Discrimination and Popular Culture

Use of English

By contrast, the more conservative approach is much more apparent in Thompson’s book. Thompson himself was the co-author with Leavis of Culture and Environment, published in 1933; he was a former student of Leavis, and played a major role in translating his approach to schools. After leaving Cambridge, he first became a teacher and subsequently a headteacher in private schools. He continued to contribute to Scrutiny, the key Leavisite journal, and eventually founded a teacher-oriented journal called English in Schools, which later became Use of English, and is still published today. Over a long career, he was the author or compiler of a copious number of school textbooks, anthologies and manuals. Interestingly, he was also a key mover in the foundation of the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), regarded by some today as one of the last bastions of ‘progressive’ English teaching. (A full critical account of Thompson’s career can be found here.)

For Thompson, as indeed for his mentor Leavis at university level, English was not just a curriculum subject, but a mission. As Leavis put it, it was nothing less than a struggle to preserve the health of the language, and of the culture itself – perhaps the last remaining means of saving civilisation from the moral and spiritual depravity of modern industrial capitalism. This broader mission has been described and analysed many times before – Francis Mulhern’s thorough account of Scrutiny remains definitive – but its implications for thinking about popular culture are more apparent in Discrimination and Popular Culture than they are elsewhere.

Thompson cover

After its introduction, the book contains seven contributions, each of which takes a particular medium in turn, offering what its publisher’s blurb calls ‘a guide to the saccharine world’. Revisiting it over forty years since it first crossed my desk, it was to some extent exactly as I expected. The book is suffused with a kind of patrician disdain, not only for popular culture, but also – crucially – for those who enjoy it. Thompson’s introduction sums up the overall argument. The modern world is essentially going to hell. This is partly a result of urbanisation, industrialisation, and rapid population growth; but it is also particularly due to the overpowering influence of the mass media. The expansion of the media has led not to greater diversity, but to homogenisation. ‘Our rich national culture,’ Thompson writes, ‘is [being] replaced by a synthetic affair, which glamorizes a consumption-for-its-own-sake civilization’.

In this situation, ordinary people appear to be entirely powerless. The media target the largest audiences, and thus the lowest common denominator. They manipulate public taste, creating artificial wants, conformity and ‘servile contentment’. People simply ‘acquiesce’ to all this – and youth in particular are ‘ready prey’ for the media industries.

There’s a striking – and for some, perhaps uncomfortable – similarity here between these baleful arguments and the explicitly Marxist ideas of the Frankfurt School; although for Thompson and his cohorts, Marxism was itself a symptom of the same problems. Both are ‘anti-capitalist’, to be sure; and yet both are highly paternalistic, despite their attempts to deny it. There is a kind of grandiose self-importance, and indeed arrogance, in this contempt for the meaningless lives of the poor, deluded masses.

This stance is apparent to a greater or lesser extent in all of the contributions. Frank Whitehead, for example, offers an account of advertising that says virtually nothing about specific advertisements, and very little about how the industry operates. Advertising, we are told, is a form of ‘psychological manipulation’, which is based on the exploitation of human frailty. It panders to people’s ‘discreditable impulses’ and their ‘unthinking conformity’; it stereotypes human experience, and debases the quality of living. Likewise, Philip Abrams argues that ‘trivialisation’ is an inevitable consequence of television as a medium. It imposes uniformity of taste, and obliterates individual personality and authenticity. Even at best, it offers little more than ‘undemanding distraction’.

In some instances, there is an attempt to engage with the range of material available, but this soon gives way to vast generalisations about modern life, most of which are decidedly bleak and pessimistic. David Holbrook, for example, begins with a wide-ranging survey of magazines, although he quickly comes to focus on those he finds most problematic – namely, teenage girls’ magazines. He sees such publications as fake, superficial and shallow: they are merely a palliative, an escape from the empty meaninglessness of modern life. He is particularly affronted by their encouragement of ‘sexual precocity’ and ‘excessive sex-consciousness’. There is no real acknowledgement here of the readership of such magazines, or what they might want or need: they are seen as being helplessly drawn in to an artificial, consumerist world.

Culture Environment

Where does education fit into this? According to Frank Whitehead, its role must be one of ‘inoculation’: ‘education,’ he writes, ‘must always be negative (education against’)’. Thompson suggests that education of this kind is an uphill struggle that will require ‘sustained effort’. If civilisation is to be saved, it will need ‘experts… in the sphere of “cultural” health’, who will expose their students to ‘the first-rate in art, literature and music’. ‘The aim is to provide children with standards (starting with the small details of everyday life) against which the offerings of the mass media will appear cut down to size’. In his introduction, Thompson refers to teaching young people about media analysis; yet there are very few usable models for media analysis provided here.


Reading in time

In all these respects, Discrimination and Popular Culture is definitely a book of its time; and it needs to be understood historically. It’s difficult to read a book about media from sixty years ago without being struck by how much the landscape has changed. Philip Abrams’s chapter on radio and television, for example, refers to a world of two terrestrial TV channels (with another one just launching): with so few alternatives, it made some sense to talk about ‘mass’ media and ‘mass’ audiences (despite Williams’s objections). Abrams is somewhat contradictory on this point: on the one hand, he calls for greater diversity; yet on the other, he resists the segmentation of audiences, because this would reduce the chance that ordinary people might accidentally come across something that might prove culturally uplifting (an argument that echoes that of the BBC’s first Director General, Lord Reith). Yet for Abrams, television is still a relatively new medium: it had only begun to reach substantial audiences about ten years before he was writing. (By comparison, the internet was reaching the equivalent point twenty five years ago, despite the fact that some continue to refer to it as a ‘new’ medium.)

Likewise, the serious study of media was in its infancy at the time. To a greater or lesser extent, all the chapters here are based on assertions of opinion rather than actual research. Although much of the discussion is very generalised, there is little in the way of ‘theory’ in this book (and here there is a striking contrast with the Frankfurt School!). Nor is there very much in terms of methodology. There is nothing resembling systematic content analysis, or even textual analysis (or the ‘close reading’ associated with literary criticism); and certainly nothing that comes close to political economy or audience research. In this respect, the approach is very different from that of Williams, who seems to be developing some of these systematic methods, particularly in Communications and The Long Revolution.


In several cases here, very few specific examples are provided; while in others, the examples seem to be randomly selected. In some instances, as with Holbrook’s account of magazines, it feels as though the writer has wandered down to the local newsagent and brought a few examples at random before retreating to the Senior Common Room to expostulate about them. The exception, interestingly, is Albert Hunt’s essay on cinema, where despite his evident preference for European art cinema, he discusses and evaluates specific examples of popular film in some detail. This too is symptomatic of the times: Hunt gives a sense of what the serious study of film might entail, which draws on those being developed at the time by organisations like SEFT and the British Film Institute. Yet there is no implication that such methods might be extended to television or magazines or popular music. As I’ve suggested, film appears to be the exception here – and indeed, for a good many media educators today, it still is.

Discrimination and Popular Culture is indicative of a particular strain of thinking about culture and education that was undoubtedly widely shared at the time. It is a strain that has in some respects stayed with us: it is apparent in Michael Gove’s arguments about ‘the best that has been thought and written’, and in Ofsted’s conception of ‘cultural capital’. Yet the contrast with contemporaneous books like Communications and The Popular Arts is very striking. Where Thompson and his contributors wallow in a kind of grandiose despair, Williams, Hall and Whannel and are much more forward-looking and optimistic – although by no means blindly so. Written on the cusp of the significant cultural shifts of the 1960s, these books offer remarkably different orientations to the world that was to come.

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