Raymond Williams and the future of transformative education

Niki Seth-Smith reflects on an English seminar that engaged with the Welsh writer’s view of the ‘long revolution’

What is the future of transformative education? I had three days last week to reflect on this question, at the Raymond Williams Foundation‘s residential seminar. Established in 1988, the foundation brings together its members with a loose network of people from across the UK, in pubs, cafes, and every year at a residential, to discuss and develop ‘intellectual and political projects broadly connected with Williams’ work’. De-code this, and you get ‘all the big political, social and cultural themes’. For Williams, the man credited with inventing cultural studies, was a thinker in the broadest terms, and as an educationalist made it his lifework to encourage learning that embodied this spirit of free inquiry.

It was fitting, then, that last week’s residential took place in what was once a country mansion, converted in 1950 into an education and holiday centre for the labour movement. Wortley Hall, in Sheffield, is still a co-operative venture today, run as a hotel but retaining strong links to the unions, co-ops, and life-long education groups that use it as a meeting place with meaning. The forty or so of us at the residential had free range of the Hall, and sipping tea looking out over the twenty-six acres of formal gardens and woodlands, I sent my thanks to another Williams: the local labour activist by the name of Vin, who at a meeting fifty-two years ago had proposed that Wortley Hall be owned by the workers and run for their benefit.

In his 1958 essay ‘Culture is Ordinary’ Raymond Williams says, “I cannot accept that education is a training for jobs, or making useful citizens…” and sets out his ideas on learning as conducive to a radical expansion of community and democracy. The value of such transformative education has always struggled to be recognised, but in England in particular it is currently under extreme threat, as Cameron’s government oversees the marketisation of formal education at all levels, most obviously through its higher education reforms. These are not just an attack on public service provision, but a move towards treating students as consumers, inviting them to down-pay on a product to cash in on graduating into the working world.

While the Coalition is attempting to greatly accelerate it, England was already moving in this direction in 2005 when Derek Tatton, the foundation’s administrator, started up the pub discussion circles that have fed into and are changing the culture of the network, bringing in allies like Philosophy in Pubs and Cafe Philosophique. Last week was the first of the annual residentials to be entirely composed of leaderless discussion circles and feedback sessions, with openDemocracy’s Anthony Barnett attending via Skype, to give his input on the over-arching theme: Williams’ concept of the Long Revolution. Barnett’s foreword to the 50th anniversary edition of the 1961 book of that name and his speech to the foundation last December, ‘The Long and the Quick of Revolution’, were key resources for the residential.

Today, the foundation is linked to a network of around three thousand people, who may meet weekly, monthly, yearly or on an ad hoc basis – part of a movement of people seeking participative learning that is, Tatton says, ‘growing exponentially’. Why is this? In true critical mode, one of the sessions last week provided the chance to analyse the trend. While our fellow attendees discussed Marxism, Robert Tressel and Agency and the Peace Movement, our small group of five convened in the Hall’s garden room and considered the future of transformative education.

The question that stood out for me was whether ‘real-life’ meetings, of the kind we were engaged in, had a distinctive role that could not be usurped by online interaction. The discussion circles were certainly in the spirit of the network: flexible, non-hierarchical, bringing people together from remarkably varied backgrounds. The drawbacks we established were the obvious obstacles: time, travel, funding. The majority at the residential were retired, with those below 30 like me an exception – no surprise at a conference taking up most of the working week. People had come to Sheffield from around the country at their own cost, discouraging those who couldn’t afford the fare as well as international participants (although the foundation – supported by membership fees and small grants from philanthropists – had subsidised the stay to a modest £70).

Beyond the practical, my fellow participants had more fundamental worries about the web: particularly that it was discouraging the formation of communities with a tradition and sense of continuity, and that those without access or training were being excluded from the new ‘digital commons’. Paul Dolan, the national organiser for Philosophy in Pubs, couldn’t imagine the same culture of mutual exploration and discovery being created online as in pubs up and down the country in the ‘PiPs’ network. Another in the group pointed to the wealth of information imbibed by sitting around a circle with others, and the inestimable value of carrying on the chat – a theme is developing here – over a pint or two.

If Williams had sat in on our small discussion circle, I suspect he would not have come down on either side of the online / offline divide, but would have taken a detailed look at the increasing interdependency of real-world and online communications in our social interaction today. As a radical democrat, he had a prescient appreciation of the internet’s transformative potential. In Towards 2000, published in 1983, he posits that new technologies could bring about ‘a significant improvement practically of every kind of voluntary association’ leading to the ‘achievement of full social and cultural powers by civil society, as opposed to their appropriation or marginalisation by the corporations and the state.’ Yet he had none of the messianic faith in the inescapable internal logic of the net that so distorts debate; rather he saw the evolution of technological development as a series of complex interactions between these innovations and the world into which they were born. Sitting around the circle with a mother getting the hang of long text conversations with her children, the co-ordinator of a UK-wide network who far preferred face-to-face than email, a market researcher enthused by attending a protest in her local community organised via facebook, and a thorough tech-sceptic, the need for such a holistic approach was in clear evidence.

While our institutions of education are under assault, networks of informal transformative learning are budding to fill the vacuum. To reach out effectively, online and offline should be working together. What sites like openDemocracy and ClickonWales are doing, in providing a digital space for serious debate, stands not in opposition to ‘real-life’ networks like the Raymond Williams Foundation, but should be working more closely with such groups to reflect the web of interactions that are becoming increasingly more involved. The process has already begun: many openDemocracy pieces were among the web articles used as resources to feed into the discussion circles at last week’s residential – this piece itself is another bridge, albeit of small proportions.

Next year is the 25th anniversary of Williams’ death, and we hope the foundation’s celebrations of a quarter of a century supporting his cultural, political and educational projects will provide an opportunity to work further with the network. In Tatton’s words, himself a one-time pupil of Williams: “We want people across the country to form groups and join in. You can do it yourself, wherever you are, it’s easy.”

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and Co-Editor of the OurKingdom website where this article first appeared.

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