“We wanted to change the world without a revolution”

I recall interviewing the historian of adult education John Harrison a decade or so ago. Looking back on his own career and those of his contemporaries, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, he reflected that their aim, as adult educators, had been to “change the world without recourse to a revolution”. His remark, for me, neatly encapsulated the radical aims of the British adult education movement for much of the twentieth century – as well as its rejection of the more incendiary aims of the Marxist left accurately described by Hoggart as “middle class”. As Hoggart realised, Marxism never really caught the imagination of the British working class, whose radicalism took a more moderate, less violent form (Hoggart could make reading poetry seem a radical act – which, of course, it can be).

Those aspirations have fallen away somewhat as adult education has become to a large extent depoliticized and increasingly a tool of economic strategy, with adult educators chasing funding intended to support economic growth and promote employability, usually rather narrowly conceived. There is a tradition in the movement of interpreting these aims rather loosely in order to preserve at least part of its social purpose intent but this has become difficult to sustain in the face of the mass institutional vandalism of several generations of politicians (or both colours) who know the price of everything but see the value of nothing. The cultural infrastructure that enabled Britain to become a global leader in social purpose adult education with a focus on second-chance learners – the libraries, the departments of continuing education, the specialist institutions, the residential colleges, the programmes of part-time higher education, the local authority, adult education services – took many decades to build up and will not be reconstituted in many, many more.

These traditions are often in my mind these days, both because of the decline in the quality and subtlety of thought and ideas among what these days I suppose we might call the moderate left and because of the near-contempt shown by many current left-leaning thinkers and commentators (most of whom would, I guess, place themselves on the radical left) for the people whose interests they claim to have at heart but who, in reality, they appear to blame for most of the things they think are wrong in society: the working class (a similar contempt, I should add, is in evidence in the rhetoric of the right, though it is expressed more in its naked distortion of intent and its use of Orwellian double think, which reached its apogee under David Cameron and is being cheerfully continued by his unelected successor, Theresa May). It is as far as you could imagine from the thoughtful, compassionate and informed ideas of those radical left thinkers who cut their teeth in the adult education movement and knew first-hand the people and communities they wrote about and taught in. Most so-called progressive thinking now takes place in a rarefied space most working people know nothing about and which means absolutely nothing to them.

I read an interview with Alan Tuckett in which he drew a contrast between the significant role played by adult education in the build up to the 1975 referendum on entering the common market and the negligible role it played in the run-up to Britain’s decision to leave the EU – the result, he said, of a gradual shift in focus from political and social education and towards finance and administration. He remained, however, typically hopeful that adult education would find another way to push its roots through the cracks in our broken social and educational infrastructure. I suppose he is right to argue that we cannot go back to the past. Perhaps new and emerging social movements, many of which have used and reshaped traditional approaches to adult education, offer some hope. What troubles me, I suppose, is the huge divide that has opened up between working-class communities and progressive social and political movements and thinking. It is a gap that will not be bridged by any amount of name-calling or finger-pointing.

While I agree with Alan that adult education must, if it is to survive, find new ways to be relevant and useful, I think its traditions still have something important to teach us about how to bridge this divide. The Hoggarts, Williams and Harrisons of this world were, for me, genuinely radical because they took their ideas into the heart of working-class communities (communities, quite often, very like the ones in which they grew up) and saw themselves not as imparters of a gift but rather as learners themselves who took as much, if not more, from the students with whom they opened up a dialogue. We often hear about teachers who inspired students to be the people they became. But I have been just as struck over the years by the stories teachers have told me about their inspirational students. The important thing about the kinds of classes taught by Hoggart and Williams, and the Workers’ Educational Association approach more generally, is that they were seen as a kind of platform for negotiation or co-creation. The curriculum was not enforced, it was agreed. What the tutor brought to the classroom was just the start – the students took it somewhere else. That is what makes them so radical and still today, very often, such incredibly exciting places to be. It wouldn’t hurt the left to try listening for a change.

More than that, in our divided, post-trust society, I see in adult education a chance to span all kinds of divides; social, economic, cultural, religious or linguistic. It creates spaces in which prejudices are challenged, ideas are changed and wounds healed. That seems to me so very relevant to the issues we face today. We may not be able to rekindle “this great movement of ours” from the ashes in which it currently smolders, but its vision of slow, grassroots change, fueled by education with an unabashed social and civic purpose, remains, to my mind, our best hope of achieving something different to and better than the austere, unequal and socially disjointed vision that is the best that our politicians can offer.

‘The challenge is to get across without selling out’

I interviewed Richard Hoggart, who has died aged 95, in 2005. I’d read The Uses of Literacy at university and several other of his books since and hugely admired the man and his writing. I was a bit in awe of him, but he was welcoming, generous and kind; everything, in short, we hope our heroes will be. We talked in the main about broadcasting and democracy, but he also told me about his passion for adult education and his belief in the transformative power of  culture, all in that familiar voice: honest, straightforward and eloquent, all underpinned by a fierce sense of social justice.  Here’s the interview in full 

The British system of broadcasting is among the country’s outstanding achievements. But the notion of public service broadcasting is under threat and the new Communications Act, which opens up parts of the British broadcasting network to foreign ownership, is likely to do further damage, Richard Hoggart tells Paul Stanistreet

‘Triviality is worse for the soul than wickedness’, said R.H. Tawney. It is an axiom Richard Hoggart is fond of quoting and an apt one, he believes, for policymakers and programmers reviewing the condition of British broadcasting in the light of the new Communications Act. In the 40 years since the Pilkington Committee – on which Hoggart served – published its landmark report criticising the funding of commercial television and defending a public service broadcasting philosophy, the slippage from the outstanding early achievements of British broadcasting has been dramatic. People can no longer expect to be led ‘beyond familiar boundaries’ by the television they watch. Instead, Hoggart says, they get a regular diet of celebrity trivia and ‘reality’ TV, with the occasional sop – such as BBC4 – to satisfy those who still fondly recall all three verbs of the BBC’s founding remit. With the Communications Act opening the door to foreign ownership of parts of the British broadcasting system, there is no sign that the tide is about to turn.

The Pilkington Committee report – sections of which were drafted by Hoggart – was published in 1962, at a time when commercial television was widely perceived to be ignoring public service provision and pushing less audience-grabbing programmes to the margins. Its key recommendation – the separation of programming and advertising functions – was rejected by the Conservative government of the day. Since then, Hoggart argues, successive governments have failed to grasp the nettle in respect of declining broadcasting standards. Although he had the satisfaction of seeing Channel 4 established along lines set out in the Pilkington Committee’s report, Hoggart believes Lord Reith’s simple injunction – to inform, educate and entertain – has been too often ignored, with both Channel 4 and the BBC among the culpable. The ‘most effective public service broadcasting system to be found anywhere’ may be in terminal decline.

I met Richard Hoggart at his home in Norwich. Now in his 80s, he continues to press his often-unfashionable views, unfazed by the strength of the tide against him. Since marking the change from an urban culture ‘of the people’ towards ‘the creation of a mass culture’, in his 1957 book The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart has been critical of much in the changing cultural climate, urging the cultivation of ‘critical literacy’ as an essential tool of citizenship within commercial, democratic society. The likely cultivators – adult educators – face a ‘bigger and deeper’ task than did Hoggart and the other members of the extraordinary post-war generation of university adult educators to which he belonged, since, increasingly, he says, we do not know what we are missing, ‘what it is possible for us to have’. Yet without critical literacy, Hoggart thinks, we will prove easy prey to those, such as Rupert Murdoch, who are eager to exploit democracy’s ‘essential wide-open spaces’.

Critics of the Communications Act, which received royal assent in July, believe that the ‘public interest’ hurdle to the purchase of Channel Five – fought for in the Lords by David Puttnam – is unlikely to prove much of a deterrent either to Murdoch or to prospective buyers in the United States. Puttnam’s amendment (the so-called ‘plurality test’) means that the DTI can order Ofcom to report the implications of any purchase of Five which raises ‘a specified public interest concern in relation to plurality’. However, the main thrust of the Communications Bill and its key tenets – to drop the ban on national newspaper groups buying television stations and to permit the foreign ownership of British broadcasting franchises – remain. It is the latter prospect that most troubles Hoggart. The international purchase of elements of the system can, he believes, only add to the already well-advanced demolition of the public service tradition in British broadcasting.

‘Everyone knows that the bids would come from America or they would come from Murdoch,’ he says. ‘They know that he has probably got an eye on it. And if Murdoch or some Murdoch-supported body took over Channel Five, you would see at once that it would go dead centre for the mass market’. Prospective purchasers will be motivated, he says, not by an admiration for our broadcasting achievements, but by the money they stand to make, seeking ever-bigger audiences to attract the advertisers who fill their coffers. Such purchasers are unlikely to be put off by inhibitive legislation and Hoggart is unimpressed by those who point to much-acclaimed American programmes such as The Sopranos. Such programmes reflect only a tiny proportion of U.S. broadcasting output. ‘An early chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said that American broadcasting was one “vast wasteland”. Advertising is taking up more and more time. It is also getting to define the terms. For example, news content is now being determined more and more by what the advertisers want. They don’t say, what is the big item of the day, is it something on Biafra or our environmental record? It is what will not worry people and what will amuse them.’

Of the three ways in which we might have organised broadcasting in this country – as an arm of government, of advertisers or as a separate, independent body – we, Hoggart says, ‘chose the free way’. ‘The British opted for a system that is not government owned or controlled, that does not take advertising. And that’s where the trickiness comes into it. Who is going to pay for it and how are they going to pay for it? We introduced the licence fee, called by some MPs “a regressive poll tax”. What they mean is that it is like having to buy a dog licence when you haven’t got a dog, that it falls on everyone whether they listen or view, or don’t. The real test is whether a tax of that kind is the best way of doing what you are trying to do. The only other way people have suggested is subscription, by which you only pay for what you view or listen to. That looks attractive. It looks democratic. But it cuts off people from all sorts of information, education, entertainment, which might take them by surprise and widen their horizons. It might, in many respects, produce quite good programmes, but it won’t have that universal sweep that broadcasting, as a regressive poll tax, has.

‘I’m constantly impressed by the simplicity of the original aims of the BBC. Think about the founding verbs – the aim of broadcasting, as laid down, was to inform, educate and entertain. You don’t need to say much else. There’s no pompous language and abstract verbs in it, about what you owe to the people and all that. It just says inform, educate and entertain. You’ve covered it. The setting up of the BBC, under the royal charter, was deliberate. It was to give them more freedom. A body which has the royal charter does not have to report to parliament. Mind you, you might think that many MPs don’t know that. Oddly enough, the BBC is now, under a Labour government, being more attacked than anyone expected. But most MPs don’t understand what the record is and how dangerous it would be to tamper with it. The BBC in its first decades under Lord Reith, with all its limitations, stood for something that mattered, in society and in broadcasting. It wasn’t a creature of any government or any advertiser. By the time of the Second World War, it was giving warnings, and it was standing as a free voice. Throughout the War it was listened to clandestinely across Europe as the voice of freedom. These things didn’t happen by accident.’

Much of what the BBC has traditionally done well in programming terms, such as original drama and intelligent comedy, programmes ‘educative without being labelled education’, doesn’t fit with the grabbing of mass audiences, Hoggart says. The rot really set in during the Thatcher years. ‘One of the many things for which Mrs Thatcher will be judged someday, I expect, if only by her biographers, is her communications bill,’ he says. ‘What she did was to undermine the BBC. She opened the gates to commercial television and she ensured that they would move away from representing a great range of opinion, instead going for what would bring them the most money through adverts. Before that it was required that a range of programmes in arts and education be provided for, even if you were a commercial channel. Mrs Thatcher removed that at a blow

‘That set off the process that the BBC has been under ever since. She talked about making them free and all sorts, but that was nonsense, unless she meant it was making them free to make more money out of broadcasting, which it did. And the BBC had to challenge it, because the moment they ceased to challenge it, in that way, the organs of opinion on the side of the Tories would say what’s the good of the licence, why should we have the licence. So they had to copy it and they are doing it rather too successfully, for me. If you look at the kind of programmes which, by any intelligent count, are rubbish now, as many of them are from the BBC as are not. An organisation gets the staff it needs for the job it has in hand and the BBC has got a new job. It’s saving itself. So you get people in the BBC now who wouldn’t even know the original axiom, “inform, educate and entertain”. All they know is that they are in pop, or whatever it might be, and they are going to beat the competition. That’s what they are hired for.’

There are, however, things which the BBC could do to ‘stop the leak’, which would not involve enormous change. One would be to halt the drift towards the trivial in news broadcasting. ‘If a big national broadcasting organisation with international repute starts the news by saying footballer so-and-so has left his wife, and then says, in Yugoslavia just now 100,000 people were murdered, you wonder what has gone wrong. This is trivialising in the extreme. I think they have got to put their foot down on this. They could stop the stream of vapid situation comedies. What you need to do is get a bunch of people together, give them good conditions and say to them, don’t give twopence about the audience, what you ask is “is this funny?”. The BBC could do that tomorrow. It could gather a group of people together and say consider the medium, not the audience or the competition. You have to pull the eye away from the audience, towards the meaningfulness of the programme, especially if you’re doing comedy.’

The Pilkington report – ‘the finest statement on broadcasting we ever had’ – provided a basis for protecting public service broadcasting in a commercial context, later taken up by Channel 4. ‘If you are going to get money through advertising and not through a licence fee, then the advertisement revenue gathering function must be separated entirely from the programmes. No programmes should be affected by the fact that it might have an impact on advertising revenue. Jeremy Isaacs knew what he was after. He had a very wide range of interests and he disliked tosh.’ But, for Hoggart, Channel 4 has ‘lost its way’. ‘What they’re doing now is putting on some quite good, interesting programmes, which appeal to a minority, and then they are putting out some that should never be shown. They think that if they have got the ones that please the “high-brow” minority, then they’ve fulfilled their brief and they can then get away with whatever rubbish they like, say, Big Brother, or whatever it may be. That is an absolutely classic state of ignorance. When we are arguing about better quality TV, we’re not just saying, we want something because we are high brows. We want everyone to have good programmes. This is what Channel 4 has stepped right into. We put some things on that even Jeremy Isaacs would have approved of, but, at the same time, we’ll get the bigger audiences from trivia. That is the cardinal mistake now. And the BBC is just as bad. If you go and talk to them, they’ll say we’ve got this and this, and they have and they are all good in their way, but you’ve also got this, this and this, which are just rubbish. They won’t face that one.

What is missing, according to Hoggart, is the sort of radical thinking, about education and culture, which is no longer fashionable. ‘They are too much caught up in the world as it is. The idea of really radical reform on a cultural matter that might affect some people’s taste and make them angry is a long way away from their thinking.’ When Hoggart started out as an adult educator, with the likes of John Harrison, Edward Thompson and Raymond Williams, ‘it was about things that mattered to you as a human being, as a citizen, not as a subject, but as a citizen. That has gone very slowly, but firmly, downwards. Classes about things that matter to the citizen, politics, economics, social matters, have been marginalised for 20, 30 years. There’s more to it, of course, than this. The great thrust of our consumer society is to the total persuasion, every day, that all you need to do is buy and enjoy yourself and watch the telly. It’s an undermining of the free civic spirit. In the nineteenth century, it’s astonishing what workers’ bodies said and did. It was desperately serious. It wasn’t just that they wanted a better franchise. When Byron died, people felt bereft and I’m talking about the man in the street. It’s not just a matter of education, it’s a matter of the whole spirit of the age.

‘We believed we had a purpose and it was a social and imaginative purpose, in relation to the students and what they would get out of it. I coined a phrase which Roy Shaw [one-time WEA literature tutor and Director of the Extra-Mural Department at Keele University] liked a lot: “the point of adult education classes, the challenge, is to get across without selling out”. There was a temptation to reduce the demands of the class, whether through the choice of authors you studied, or whatever. I would persuade them to try Shakespeare and I would do King Lear. They paid real serious attention to it. The classes got slower and slower. You didn’t do Jane Austen one week and George Eliot the next. You did King Lear and it slowed up because you were going through all the marvellous implications of it.

‘That still has left a shadow, a sort of beam on us, because we were the first post-war group and we were doing something we believed in, something that was not vocational. It’s not for me to say how far that spirit is still alive. From an institutional point of view, there is more pressure to follow the vocational line. The pressures are different. They are the pressures of a commodity society, a society that has lost its purpose. Some people really do want civic society, but we are fighting against all these other voices. In a society like this, to bring people to the point of education only at which they can swallow all the guff is not education properly. We have to have critical literacy. There is a good tradition of bloody-mindedness in working class life. We have to build on it. We have got to open up the imagination and you do not do that by going for the mass market. The system of broadcasting in this country is one of the best things we have done for a long time. We should leave broadcasters free to inform, educate and entertain, neutrally, objectively. Anything that reduces that is wrong.’

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