Reading, culture and citizenship

Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Charles Dickens quotes a description, by one of Dickens’ early biographers, of a visit to a Liverpool locksmith around the time of the publication of The Pickwick Papers: ‘I found him reading Pickwick … to an audience of twenty persons, literally, men, women and children.’ The novel had been hired by the group, whose members could not afford a shilling for the monthly number (and who were, in all likelihood, mostly illiterate), ‘for twopence a day, from the circulating library’. The story is indicative not only of the tremendously broad appeal of Dickens’ novels – and the excitement with which they were anticipated, by people of all classes and ages – but also of the role shared reading can play in stimulating enthusiasm for books, and for culture more generally, introducing the world of literature to people who might not feel comfortable with books or who might, perhaps for good reasons, think they are not for them.

It seems appropriate that this locksmith’s story should be set in Liverpool as the city is the home of Jane Davis’s Reader Organisation, which, over the past decade or so, has pioneered shared reading, facilitating reading groups in an array of settings (in Liverpool and beyond) in which people do not have ready access to literature, such as care homes, hospitals, prisons, mental health centres and hostels. ‘We teach being with books,’ was how Jane explained the work when I first interviewed her five or six years ago. The Reader Organisation was recently chosen as official partner in Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson’s campaign to transform Liverpool into ‘the foremost reading city in the country’. The project, which follows a report from the Liverpool Education Committee on improving school attainment, will aim to encourage a love of reading for pleasure among all the city’s primary school children – a hugely important objective, as the OECD recently recognised when it concluded that reading for pleasure is even more important than social class in determining social mobility.

The locksmith’s reading circle also put me in mind of a story Richard Hoggart told about the funeral of Byron, when I interviewed him a few years ago. Working people queued for days to pay their respects and lined the streets for the funeral procession, he told me, because serious literature mattered to them, because they felt it was something that did not just belong to other people. ‘People felt bereft,’ he said. ‘And I’m talking about the man in the street’. Great literature is for everyone. There is an amazing tradition of working people engaging with books and other forms of culture, from self-help and mutual improvement groups to the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and the university extension movement. It was documented wonderfully well in Jonathan Rose’s book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, which, tellingly, has been a significant inspiration to Jane Davis. Rose’s book remains a challenge, as well as an inspiration, to all those who work in the broad tradition of adult education, in what we used to term ‘this great movement of ours’. When the WEA was formed at the start of the twentieth century, Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin headed students’ reading lists – an indication, Richard Hoggart suggests, not only of educational ambition but of the ‘spirit of the age’.

The Reader Organisation sees itself as contributing to this tradition. Jane Davis believes not only that reading matters, but that what you read matters. The reading groups do not simply encourage engagement with books but engagement with books that open up to readers, in Jane’s words, ‘a world of powerful ideas, tremendous vocabulary, social visions, ideals, personal knowledge’. Members of the groups are encouraged to discuss, to relate what they read to their own lives and experiences – no one is pressured to contribute and all contributions are treated equally. The aim is to encourage debate, not to close it down – to give people confidence with books and with ‘big learning’ and big themes. Richard Hoggart talks about ‘a good tradition of bloody-mindedness in working-class life’, and, in a way, this approach cultivates that, giving people the resources they need to take charge of their own learning, to make up their own minds, to assert their ownership. There is a parallel with the teaching of history. Where it works best it is about creating debate, contesting ‘facts’, disrupting the established narrative, finding relevance in one’s own times and experiences – as Richard J Evans argues, it is about ‘myth-busting’ rather than ‘myth-making’ (the idea of a single cogent – and, presumably, closed – narrative is not only bad, it is likely to be a huge turn-off to most students). Critically, it is also about citizenship.

The Workers’ Education Association grew up, in part, as a result of attempts to redefine citizenship in a moment in history when the franchise was being extended – the early reading lists reflect this. Matthew Arnold’s prominence on them is particularly significant. Arnold’s own attempts to find out ‘what culture really is, what good it can do, what is our own special need of it’ coincided both with a period of rapid social change and with the widening of the franchise to include more members of the middle classes. For him, culture – by which he understood ‘the best which has been thought and said’ (he had a very literary perspective on culture, and took a rather narrow view of the cultural claims of science) – represented a way of preparing people for citizenship. It was important, Arnold felt, that citizens be able to challenge received ideas, to think more and in a more organised way, to develop principles of action and to act cooperatively and collectively, putting sectional interests aside for the good of society. It was to culture that he looked for the development of these capabilities.

As in Matthew Arnold’s time, and in the early decades of the WEA’s existence, these are challenging times for democracy, and rethinking citizenship is again on the agenda. With national fates increasingly determined by forces seemingly beyond political control, democracy is under threat and extremism is on the rise (particularly in southern Europe where the seeming powerlessness of national governments is most exposed). In the UK, with referenda on both Scottish independence and EU membership in the offing, we face major choices about the future shape of our polity. Yet the quality of political debate here is shamingly poor. Despite an economic crisis unprecedented in the lifetimes of many citizens – a crisis caused by the financial sector – the focus of debate has been overwhelmingly on public-sector cuts and the benefits provided for the most vulnerable in society. At the same time, there is a political consensus among all main parties – and the mainstream media – about the amount of tax that should be raised from the very wealthy which ensures that issue is never seriously discussed. With political debate so constrained, and politicians seemingly unable to talk straightforwardly about what they believe (unsurprising, perhaps, when the repetition of a half-truth so often trumps fact and evidence, and goes largely unchallenged by the media), it is hardly startling to find that people are turned off by conventional politics – and are increasingly looking beyond the mainstream parties for change.

Some of the problems Matthew Arnold was responding to are still relevant but the sort of thinking he did about education and citizenship is no longer fashionable. Adult education with a social purpose has been in retreat for many decades, out of step, perhaps fatally, with the ‘spirit of the age’. Yet it seems to me that now, more than ever, we need education that is, in the words of Jane Davis, ‘personal, creative, demanding and filled, as literature is, with useful equipment for the inner life’. The history of this ‘great movement of ours’ tells us that education can change things, and that there is a clear link between the sort of education we offer and the sort of citizens we get. Initiatives like those pioneered by The Reader Organisation are encouraging. They show the appetite many people have for learning that is imaginative, ambitious and socially purposeful. As Arnold too understood, education is not simply about preparing people for work – it is about giving people the resources they need to realise themselves fully, as individuals and as citizens.

My recent article on the work of The Reader Organisation, published in Adults Learning, is available here

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