Participation Now

Raymond Williams and 'The emerging landscape of thought and practice'

The potential for this project to tap into the many and diverse informal ‘education-for-social-purpose’ groups and activities could extend ‘back to the future’ readings and reflections, making the essential links and connections with the best that is available in established institutions.

derek tatton
10 March 2014

The stature and importance of Raymond Williams (RW) within, not just cultural studies, but educational and political thought generally, continues to be vitally important. The tributes to Stuart Hall from across the globe in February this year are one recent testimony (Stuart said that RW was ‘the most formative intellectual influence on my life’). There is more evidence of this in the contemporary Keywords art exhibition, currently at Tate Liverpool, from February to May 2014.  At the launch of Dai Smith’s biography, A Warriors Tale, Eric Hobsbawm stated in 2008 that Williams had won more web visitors than all his New Left colleagues and comrades put together. That remains the case in 2014.  A few brief biographical points and comments may go some way to explaining this.

Williams was born in Pandy, the Welsh ‘border country’, in 1921 and his confident progress from nearby Abergavenny Grammar School to Cambridge and then on to fifteen years full-time work in Adult Education helped him define his life-time project (The Long Revolution) and what he called his own social purpose ‘the creation of an educated and participating democracy’. 

He was always acutely aware of his links and indebtedness to others, from Tawney and Cole in Adult Education to contemporaries like Bourdieu and Bahro on general political and ecological developments. 

Crucially for our project there are the remarkably fruitful connections with Paolo Freire: the same age and both working in adult education in different continents and circumstances but embracing similar radical aims for educational practice. RW’s long revolution to greater democratic participation and empowerment was based on best practice which had been long developed within the British labour, trade union and adult education movements.

Raymond’s major strength was his prescience which grew from his own self-critical awareness that The Long Revolution (and its related adult education trajectory) was narrowly ‘English’.  His engagement with the dramatic changes, local and global, from the late 1960s led to his own re-evaluation of priorities and perspectives, defining himself as ‘a Welsh European’ so that by the 1980s when he wrote Towards 2000 he outlined the dystopian global challenge which ‘Plan X’ (neo-liberalism) presented and which we now know has all but destroyed British Adult Education as Williams knew it in the twentieth century.   

Even so, when Williams, with Friere, was seeking to ‘overcome the hierarchical distinction between teacher and taught…’ moving to ‘an educational practice that requires the distinction between active teacher and passive student to be broken down’ (Hywel Dix. 'The Pedagogy of Cultural Materialism' 2013)) those aims are, if anything, more relevant than ever. 

Teaching discussion

Arguably, the most significant proposal Williams made for education was to teach discussion.

This is surely where the Raymond Williams Foundation (RWF) can make a contribution to the on-going the analysis and debate on the ‘emerging landscape of thought and practice’.

The aims of the Raymond Williams Foundation (RWF) are deeply relevant to this Open University (OU)/openDemocracy (oD) Project, not least because Williams' life and work were devoted to what he defined as his own social purpose – ‘the creation of an educated and participating democracy’. 

The RWF web site ( ) covers all the major issues in detail. But it may help to summarise here some of the key points from which lessons might be drawn.

The RWF's origins go back to 1988 when Williams died and it was recognised that his writings and work offered an exceptionally strong social and educational vision. The Fund which was then created helped adults - especially the financially and educationally disadvantaged - attend annual WEA residential education courses for lecture and discussion on big social, political, philosophical and cultural themes. Key-note lecturers for these weekends included OU professors and luminaries, like Stuart Hall and Graham Martin.

These adult courses filled the Wedgwood Memorial College (WMC - a few miles south of Stoke-on-Trent) for more than 20 years.   A large personal bequest boosted the funds substantially from 2008 onwards, when the RWF was established to expand activities, building upon what had mainly been residential course successes.

Our promotional publicity and work had used, from the start, what Williams had predicted from the late 1970s would be ‘ of the major benefits of the new... interactive technologies...’.   Trustees and activists all over the UK have, in Williams' words, ‘…transformed the problems of travel and funding, consulting and making decisions from our own homes...’.  

RWF funding has been used to support a wide range of courses and activities.    Crucially, the long-standing WEA residential courses on themes like The Long Revolution; Representative Democracy; Scandinavian Politics and Culture have drawn on support from the emerging informal networks such as Philosophy in Pubs, (PiPs) Sci-bars, and pub/cafe lectures and discussion circles generally.   Some of these use the web and media resources (In our Time and OU broadcasts) to gain expert commentary and guidance (see RWF web > Discussion Circles > programmes and notes.)

Niki Seth-Smith of openDemocracy has written a thoughtful reportback on the residential she attended at Wortley Hall in 2012.  The title of her Our Kingdom post is A country mansion and a wireless connection: Raymond Williams and the future of transformative education.  Niki's review began:  ‘As formal education in Britain faces commodification, networks of informal participative learning are flourishing.  oD is building ties with these through our relationship to the Raymond Williams Foundation whose residential last week explored the theme of The Long Revolution.’ Anthony Barnett, founder of oD, 'attended' one session via Skype to give his in-put on the over-arching theme.

There is huge potential for new forms of educational and participatory practice from the bottom up, adapting and incorporating older forms of 'agency' as appropriate, using skype and other media the better to inform and stimulate the process.  Despite the decision to close WMC (taken by the Labour-led Stoke-on-Trent City Council in early 2012) RWF residential courses have continued at Wortley Hall, Sheffield, the RMT Education Centre, Doncaster and other venues.  These have many enthusiastic participants, mainly older stalwarts of the WEA and social and political movements.

Growth in a time of austerity 

But the problems and obstacles for RWF are similar to difficulties faced by all informal, voluntary and self-organised groups. The struggle to realise and extend our potential against a background of cuts to welfare and educational services, with a diminishing number of voluntary activists, fosters disillusionment and hampers growth.   One specific difficulty connects, paradoxically, with the now extraordinary wealth of information available through the web and social media.  Limited resources and weak technical know-how have made our attempts to link up the informal with mainstream education only partially successful.

Despite visitors from all quarters of the globe to RWF and RWS web-sites, many in this country remain quite unaware of our continued initiatives within 'the great tradition' of social and political adult education which Williams knew and respected.

This is where the current OU/oD work on the Participation Now project will be able not just to make essential connections but to give a boost to the often still isolated, inchoate, struggling, minority 'movements' in which RWF can and should play a significant role.

The growth of new forms of educational and participatory practice within an over-arching and rampant neo-liberalism is another paradox which Williams would have seen as clearly as anybody.  He would have been impressed, like his contemporary Chomsky, by the Occupy Movement. But the sudden phenomenal growth, across continents, of this movement and its equally rapid decline, if not disappearance, raises critical challenges and questions which Williams can still help us with.  His focus on agencies for change led him from labour movement institutions to also see the peace, ecology and feminist movements from the 1980s as ‘resources for a journey of hope’ in Towards 2000, his last major theoretical work.

He especially valued the organisational strengths of the earlier movements and he was aware in his later years that these were weakening and not so evident in ‘the new social movements’.   

Supporting an emerging landscape

The chapter in Towards 2000 on ‘Culture and Technology’ was exceptionally prescient and this is probably where Williams can most helpfully assist discussion on Participation Now and the way in which the OU and oD might potentially support this emerging landscape of contemporary practice.  When the OU started, Williams gave strong support though he felt that direct links could have been made with the then existing adult education networks in the communities to enable small group face-to-face discussion.

More than forty years on he would have recognised the difficulties we face and the enormous challenge, especially when education has been made formally much more instrumental and where at every level it is measured against the needs of the ‘global competitive economy’.   The potential now for this project to tap into the many and diverse informal ‘education-for-social-purpose’ groups and activities could extend ‘back to the future’ readings and reflections, making the essential links and connections with the best that is available in established institutions. 

This would include probing analysis of the subtleties in arguments about globalisation (and all the related keywords, with a particular focus maybe on social democracy), asking searching questions about future trends.

A crucial aim could be for the OU and oD, using their rich media resources, to help promote wider participation with younger people thereby increasing cross-generational educational work within the radically challenging informal discussion circles and groups.   At the same time Participation Now can better inform and guide a well organised anarchism (see Keywords and Chomsky definitions) to revive and re-invigorate the long revolution towards an educated, participative, pluralist, democracy.


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