Tag Archives: culture

Spaces to think, question and create – we need them more than ever

We are witnessing an assault on the humanities, nationally and globally, to the extent that many academics now feel it necessary to ‘defend’ the humanities – something that would have astonished any previous generation of scholars – and to warn of a growing crisis which could threaten their very existence.

In Australia it seems likely that A$100 million funding for the humanities and the social sciences will be ‘reprioritised’ to where it is ‘really needed’, principally in medical research. The language of the debate there may be tonally different, but it plainly echoes the UK government’s emphasis on science and research and in particular on so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and its treatment of other disciplines as nice-to-have but not essential.

In the UK we have seen the beginnings of a debate about the value of the humanities, but it is, in the main, a depressingly narrow debate, focused on their contribution to employability and the economy. The culture secretary, Maria Miller, has argued – ‘claimed’ might be a better word as (as is so often the case with the austerity rhetoric of the coalition) there is no real argument, only an unsupported assertion of necessity – that ‘in an age of austerity, when times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s economic impact.’

Of course, it is much easier to defend investment in medical research, for example, than it is to defend investment in the humanities. The benefits of medical research are clear, measurable and comparatively well-understood. The case for the humanities is more difficult to set out, particularly against the backdrop of a policy and media environment which is stubbornly resistant to abstract or difficult thought or to any opinion which overtly challenges conventional thinking. No doubt the decision of the UK government to withdraw the university teaching grant for the humanities was made, in part, because it was a cut that would be hard to argue against, given the way debate is constrained.

We need to remind ourselves that not everything that is valuable is valuable in terms that can be expressed on an abacus. Much of what is most valuable in our lives is valuable for reasons which are not particularly easy to understand, that involve reflection, thoughtful articulation and learning. But that is no reason to dismiss or overlook them.

It is not only economic considerations that guide our choices, even in times when money is tight. In fact, when times are tough it becomes even more important to look beyond the economic concerns which regulate much of our everyday behavior, to reach towards some vision of how things might be different and better. A broad, general education and an understanding of the humanities and social sciences become all the more important.

I was in Edinburgh recently to meet a group of adult education students and activists interested in broadening and deepening the debate about Scottish independence in the run-up to next year’s referendum. The debate, as reflected in the mainstream media and the rhetoric of the two campaigns, was characterised as dull, sterile and negative, with the focus on the economy and projections, often negative, about what economic life in Scotland will be like in five or 10 years time.

No-one, of course, would deny that these things are important. But, beyond the mainstream, the debate is much wider, as was reflected in the discussion the students had. This touched on questions of value and social justice, history and literature, politics and political education, but was, above all, about culture and identity. As one student, Andrew Morrison put it, ‘Economics is important, but the issue is identity’. It is questions of culture and identity that are truly enlivening the debate, and which, I suspect, will be foremost in people’s minds when they walk into the polling places.

I was reminded of this conversation when I read James Kelman’s short column on Descartes in Saturday’s Guardian. Painting with a broad brush, Kelman traced ‘almost every literary tradition’ back to Descartes’ profound philosophical scepticism and, in particular, his emphasis on ‘the primacy of the individual perception’: ‘A sceptical voice, the child questioning the adult, the artist challenging convention, the individual challenging authority; casting doubt on infallibility and the imposition of authoritarian control.’

Five centuries later, philosophical scepticism and our insistence on the primacy of individual experience remain strongly linked with our reasons for valuing the humanities. Crucially, the humanities teach us to think – for ourselves – in creative and critical ways, to argue and to respect the arguments of others, and, most of all, to question. It also helps us to develop new visions of what the future might be, to challenge conventions and to think about how things might be different.

These are critical resources, particularly in times when the outlook is bleak and people are unsure of how to move forward or to change things they see as plainly wrong. While no-one (again) would question the huge value of medical research, we, as a society, also need to be able to reflect on the legitimate limits and use of medical research, to consider the conventions and how we might change or improve them, to maximise the benefits for humanity, with in a set of agreed boundaries. The humanities help us to do this.

As Richard Taylor argued recently, we need a broad, cultural education, and not just for children and young people. Adult education for active and informed citizenship is an absolute condition of democracy. Adult education is closely linked to the democratic process. It gives people a safe, neutral space in which to gather and discuss issues of concern, to think critically about the world as received through the news media and to engage in an imaginative and open conversation about how things might be. Given the pressing challenges we face as a society – from wealth inequality to climate change to the democratic deficit – this is more necessary than ever. It is much more than a nice-to-have. We need more spaces to think and more awkward customers. Adult education produces both.

Of course, education itself is not exempt from this kind of critical questioning. The cuts to higher education funding have resulted in heightened questioning of the value of higher education, what it is for and what its wider civic and community obligations are – and I think this is welcome. For too long, parts of the academy have been far too remote from communities, from ordinary people – and have been far too happy to remain so. This has begun to change. There is no room for complacency. Academics in the humanities and social sciences must do more to demonstrate the wider value of their work – not through soundbites and with abacuses, but by slow and careful engagement with people and communities. You can’t really be told about the value of the humanities. You have to experience it.

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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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