Raymond Williams and education – a slow reach again for control

Picture: Raymond Williams at Saffron Walden by GwydionM. Released into the public domain and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.Raymond Williams and education – a slow reach again for control. Raymond Williams was a literary critic, cultural historian, cultural and political theorist, novelist, dramatist, and the virtual inventor of the interdisciplinary field known as ‘cultural studies’. Josh Cole explores his little appreciated contribution as an educational thinker.

Contents: introduction · early encounters with community and schooling · raymond williams, adult education and lifelong learning · the virtues and dangers of public pedagogy · culture as a medium for political transformation · conclusion – raymond williams and education · references · about the writer · how to cite this piece

Raymond Henry Williams (1921-1988) wrote little directly related to education during his long career, and has rarely been thought of as an educational thinker. Despite this, education courses through his work, and if one looks carefully, much can be found within it to enrich pedagogical thought and practice.

In what follows, I will describe Williams’ cultural roots and early educational experiences, his thoughts on adult education and lifelong learning, his concern with informal education and public pedagogy, and his general thinking about the transformative power of culture, perhaps his greatest contribution to pedagogy in the widest sense.

Early encounters with community and schooling

Raymond Williams was born in 1921 in Pandy, Wales to a working class, politically-left-leaning family (his father, a railway worker, was also the secretary of the local Branch Labour Party in the 1920s) (see Smith 2008). He was an exceptional student, attending Llanfihangel elementary school before winning a prestigious scholarship to King Henry VIII Grammar School in Abergavenny in 1932. The notion of education and intellectualism were central to Williams’ Welsh village community. Unlike other working-class students he later met in university, he was always encouraged in his intellectual pursuits. As he later explained, he attributed this to Wales’ unique cultural climate:

there was absolutely no sense in which education was felt as something curious in the community…There was absolutely nothing wrong with being bright, winning a scholarship or writing a book…Historically, Welsh intellectuals have come in very much larger numbers from poor families than have English intellectuals, so the movement [into intellectual life] is not regarded as abnormal or eccentric…The typical Welsh intellectual is—as we say—only one generation away from shirt sleeves. (Williams 1979: 29)

That said, as child in Wales, Raymond Williams learned more than just an appreciation for the life of the mind. He also began to see education and politics as deeply intertwined, a lesson that marked him deeply. In the Wales of Williams’ boyhood, formal schooling served as a means of supplanting local cultures with the official culture of the British Empire. Children in Pandy were punished for speaking Welsh in schools, and were taught, above all else, about the glories of ‘English Civilization.’ As he was finishing at King Henry VIII, Raymond Williams’ father and his headmaster colluded to send him to Cambridge University without his consultation. He later recognized that this educational official played a small but important role in the colonizing process, by identifying talented local children and whisking them away to elite English universities, thus neutralizing their potential anti-colonialist tendencies. (Williams 1979: 37)

Raymond Williams began reading the ‘English Tripos’ (modern languages, history, and classics) at Cambridge in 1941, before being called to service during World War II. After serving as a wireless operator and tank operator, he returned to Cambridge in 1946 to finish his studies. Immediately after, he was appointed as a Staff Tutor in the Oxford University Tutorial Classes Committee—also known as the Extra-Mural Delegacy and Workers Education Association (WEA).

Raymond Williams, adult education and lifelong learning

As an adult educator, Raymond Williams began to reconcile the schism between the community-based informal education he received in Pandy, and the ‘official,’ elite education bestowed upon him through English schooling and higher education. He did so by attempting to use Oxford’s adult education programme to actualize a process of lifelong learning conducive to a radical expansion of community and democracy. Williams insisted that ‘education was ordinary,’ and was a means through which people of all ages could both immerse themselves in a common culture, and refine and sharpen that culture against their own individual experiences. (Morgan 2002: 253) Adult education offered a unique means of deconstructing the social hierarchies created by other forms of education, rather than reinforcing those hierarchies in the name of private or commercial interests. In adult education, people could cultivate critical skills by interacting with others whom they might not normally encounter (a factory labourer and a physician could engage in philosophical discourse, for instance) and thus create a concrete, working model for a future democratic society (Williams 1993: 221; 219) Education as a mere means of post-war material advancement–a means of creating a “newly mobile and varied elite”–was anathema to Williams’ conception of lifelong learning. (Williams 1993: 223)

For Raymond Williams, adult education as a means of expanding democracy meant all involved would be educated—including the educators. Anticipating Paulo Freire’s great work Pedagogy of the Oppressed (published in 1968), Williams argued in the early 1960s that the educational process cuts both ways. The adult instructor has much to learn about herself and her discipline from her students. Ideally, through adult education, instructors and students would ‘meet as equals’ in the classroom, and share fully in the process of democratic learning. (This is not to suggest that Raymond Williams assumed that students automatically knew more about a teaching subject than their instructors—his was not an uncritical version of ‘student-centred learning’–rather, he simply took it as given that the instructor is not beyond reproach: the educator “may not know the gaps between academic teaching and actual experience among many people; he may not know when, in the pressure of experience, a new discipline has to be created.” Interaction with adult students could give educators that experience) (Williams 1993: 225)

One experiment in democratic learning made possible through adult education involved using technology to transcend the physical confines of the classroom. For Raymond Williams, adult education offered a unique opportunity to marry new communications media and pedagogy, expanding the democratic reach of educational practice. As he wrote in 1959:

There is no necessary opposition between (education) through the small group and the use of such new media as broadcasting and television. We all live at different levels of community, and a healthy culture needs a corresponding scale and variety of institutions. Broadcasting has helped adult education both directly and indirectly. Television, at worst, has not harmed it. (Williams 1993: 220)

The virtues and dangers of public pedagogy

Raymond Williams was an important (if largely unrecognized) theorist and proponent of ‘public pedagogy.’ Public pedagogy is an approach to education that (in the words of the American educational historian, Lawrence Cremin) “projects us beyond the schools to a host of other institutions that educate: families, churches, libraries, museums, publishers, benevolent societies, youth groups, agricultural fairs, radio networks, military organizations, and research institutes.” (Cremin 1970: xi; see also Gramsci 1995: 249; Giroux 2006: 70) This expansive notion of education, in which Williams saw great democratic potential, ran counter to education as traditionally conceived from the nineteenth-century forward; that is, as either the perpetuation of elite culture, or as a means of vocational training. Both reproduced social inequalities, and did so partially through their confinement to the controlled environment of the school-house. In addition to this, both were fatally nostalgic, failing to take contemporary realities into account. Raymond Williams saw modern people as swimming in a veritable sea of new information and modes of communication—all of which educate. As he wrote in 1953, in defence of the study of film as an adult educational subject:

[F]or conservatives and reformers alike [film] is shorthand for depravity and cultural decay. Many fear that if education touches it, the taint will be indelible. It is a pretty fear; but if adult education cannot handle and access an institution which weekly serves the leisure of twenty-five million British adults, and which deals well or badly, but at least with great emotive power, with the values of man and society, then adult education deserves to fade. (Williams, 1993: 186)

Though he saw modern media such as film as intrinsically educational, this alone did not guarantee it democratic status. The new information environment was (and is) all too often inordinately influenced by interests that care little for education or democracy. (McGuigan 1993: 168) A paradigmatic example of Raymond Williams’ approach to new media as public pedagogy, and the dangers that unequal access to the means of information production hold for public pedagogy, can be seen in his analysis of the commercialization of the printing press. The press, from its advent in the sixteenth-century, was a mixture of public and private, commercial and non-commercial elements. It was educative from the start, spurring on “the formation of opinion, the training of manners, the dissemination of ideas.” (Williams 1961: 175) That said, ratio of the commercial and non-commercial, and thus the educative and the non-educative, was seriously upset in the 1890s due to the introduction of mass advertising. Through advertising, the share of potentially liberating information in newspapers was dwarfed by that that of commercial ‘persuasion.’ As a result, the press became a medium dominated by a “selection of facts and opinions” related primarily to capitalist expansion. The promise of an informed, critically engaged populace suffered as a result. (Williams 1993: 123)

Characteristically for Raymond Williams, all is never lost, and the seeds of renewal are never far from the surface. Mass media, though subject to anti-educational interests, can still be rescued for the purposes of democracy. For instance, centralized forms of information such as the press–which are likely to be overtaken by singular interests–could usefully be combined with, and offset by, regionally-based means of public education, such as “theatres, orchestras, county societies, the great voluntary organizations, local authorities, and the minority national cultural organizations.” (Williams 1993: 220) Similarly, a medium like television could be utilized for the public interest (as it was in the heyday of the Open University, a project for which Williams was an early, if not uncritical champion). If the entire informational environment were directed towards education and by extension democracy, and if the “extreme hostility which has been all too common in education towards the general communications services” could be overcome, Raymond Williams believed that the political dividends would be enormous, and what we now conceive as ‘education’ could be superseded by something altogether more ‘public’ and effective (Williams 1993: 230)

Culture as a medium for political transformation

On the most basic level, perhaps Raymond Williams’ most important lesson for educators is the deep and continuous emphasis he placed upon culture as both a constitutive element of society, and as a potential means for social transformation. Unlike many writers and thinkers on culture, who seal off it from the rest of society, Raymond Williams refused to divorce culture from other concerns. For him, culture cannot be understood in isolation from the social ground from which it springs, or from the reciprocal effects it has upon the social environment. He stated this still sadly unorthodox position as early as 1947 in a journal he edited entitled Politics and Letters:

If a critic of literature is genuinely interested in the contemporary and traditional work which he criticizes, then he cannot fail to be concerned about much more than literature itself. He is obliged to enquire particularly into what modern literature reflects of contemporary social experience and into the way in which social life influences the subject, form, and language of literature. But beyond these researches, he must accept the responsibility for whatever it is that literature represents in society. (Williams 1993: 34)

This marriage of culture and politics did not ingratiate Raymond Williams to England’s academic elite. As Terry Eagleton points out, Williams politicized culture just enough to alienate him from his peers, and to have his version of culture “thrown back in his face by the cultivated.” (Eagleton 1989: 5)

As Raymond Williams moved further to the left in the 1970s, his notions of culture moved with him—and so did the controversy he generated. Unlike many leftists of the time, Williams refused to treat culture as a second-order political concern. The simplified version of Marxism then fashionable all too often subordinated culture to a mere reflection (or ‘superstructure’) of the economic mode of production (or ‘base’) practiced in a given period. Drawing on the work of the Italian cultural and political theorist Antonio Gramsci, Williams rejected this ‘economistic’ view of society. Instead, he advanced a position which had culture, economics, and politics in deep and shifting interaction with one another. A social formation at a given historical moment was for Williams a “complex interlocking of political, social, and cultural forces.” (Williams 1977: 108) In such a situation, culture is, if anything, the key constituent. Culture—particularly in institutional forms such as schooling and higher education—is crucial to rendering economic and political arrangements ‘natural,’ and thus ‘inevitable’ and ‘unchangeable.’ Culture ‘internalizes’ political arraignments, and makes them a vital part of public and private experience. (Williams 1977: 110) Once naturalized through culture, such an arrangement gains immeasurably in influence.

But for Raymond Williams, if culture is a key factor in modern political arrangements, it also contains their potential undoing. Within any cultural and political formation, nodes of resistance are ever-present. The dominant formation always contains remnants of the cultural past (or, the ‘residual’), and generates new cultural forces (the ‘emergent’) which can be turned against an existing cultural and political order. Human agency always shadows domination. As he emphatically stated in 1977’s Marxism and Literature: “no mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy, and human intention.” (Williams 1977: 125) Thus, within the culture that oppresses, lies the ‘imminent critique’ that can be used to overthrow oppression in the name of a deeper and more total form of democracy. Educators play an obvious and essential role in such a project.

Conclusion: Raymond Williams and education

As mentioned in the beginning of this piece, Raymond Williams’ influence upon educators and pedagogical theorists has been indirect, if not slight. Considering that in education, more than in most activities, culture and politics come together in a radically concrete fashion, and that education is, by its very nature, a site in which ‘human practice, human energy, and human intention’ can flourish or be stifled, Williams’ absence from pedagogical debate is genuinely unfortunate. But as more than one cultural worker has discovered, Williams has a way of making his presence known eventually. Stuart Hall has written as much: “I have often had the uncanny experience of beginning a line of thought or inquiry, only to find that, apparently coincidentally, he had not only been travelling much the same road but had given the issues a clearer, more forceful and clarifying formulation.” (Hall 1989: 55) Educators would benefit immeasurably by acquainting themselves with his rich and endlessly rewarding work, and by doing so sooner rather than later.


Cremin, Lawrence A. (1970) American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607-1783. New York: Harper.

Eagleton, Terry (1989) “Introduction,” in Terry Eagleton (ed.) Raymond Williams: Critical Perspectives. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Eldridge, Elizabeth and Eldridge, John (1994) Raymond Williams: Making Connections. London and New York: Routledge.

Giroux, Henry (2006) The Giroux Reader edited by Christopher G. Robbins. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Hall. Stuart “Politics and Letters,” in Terry Eagleton (ed.) Raymond Williams: Critical Perspectives. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Gramsci, Antonio. (1995) Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Translated and selected by Derek Boothman. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

McGuigan, J. (1993) “Reaching for Control: Raymond Williams on Mass Communication and Popular Culture,” in W. John Morgan and Peter Preston (eds.) Raymond Williams: Politics, Education, Letters. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Morgan, W. J. (2002) “Antonio Gramsci and Raymond Williams: Workers, Intellectuals, and Adult Education,” in Carmel Borg, Joseph Buttigieg, and Peter Mayo (eds.) Gramsci and Education. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Smith, D. (2008) Raymond Williams. A warriors tale. Ceredigion: Parthian Books.

Turner, Graeme (1992) British Cultural Studies: An Introduction. London and New York: Routledge.

Williams, Raymond (1961) The Long Revolution. London: Chatto & Windus.

Williams, Raymond (1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, Raymond (1979) Politics and Letters: Interviews with the New Left Review. London: Verso.

Williams, Raymond (1983) Culture & Society: 1790-1950. New York: Columbia University Press.

Williams, Raymond (1993), Border Country: Raymond Williams in Adult Education edited by John McIlroy & Sallie Westwood. Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

Josh Cole is a PhD Candidate in the department of history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. He received an Honours BA in history from Huron University College (at UWO) in 2006, and an MA in history from Queen’s in 2007. He is interested in cultural, intellectual, and political history, with a particular focus on the history of education in Northern North America. His dissertation is entitled Culture and Anarchy in Ontario: The Right, the Left, and the Politics of Educational Change, 1945-1975. It is an exploration of the common ground shared by politically right and left-wing critics regarding post-war Ontarian progressive educational policy.

Acknowledgement: Picture of Raymond Williams at Saffron Walden by GwydionM. Released into the public domain and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to cite this piece: Cole, Josh (2008). ‘Raymond Williams and education – a slow reach again for control’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/raymond-williams-and-education-a-slow-reach-again-for-control/. Retrieved: insert date]

© Josh Cole 2008