A Little Learning…

(postscript to The Best of all possible worlds).

The last few pages of conclusion in Hoggart’s book are worthy of further comment, now that I’ve read them.

His book was originally going to be titled The Abuses of Literacy – and I think that would have been more appropriate. In some ways, Hoggart is tilting at the old idea that “a little learning is a dangerous thing”, that by empowering the working classes with literacy and elementary education, they were being exposed to exploitation by forces to which they were previously immune, in the form of  junk commercialism.

In doing so, they lost much of the naive honesty of their basic but authentic way of life, and it occurred to me that this is epitomised by the traditional music that I find so appealing. What is important about it is precisely its honesty: for all its rough edges and lack of tutored skill, the fact shines through that it was produced by real people in real communities, unlike the passively-consumed commercialised pop music that replaced it, whose sole purpose was to make money. It is ironic that it is largely the educated classes to whom traditional music appeals today.

This is a very difficult point: should one provide people with education (and hence aspiration) that may ultimately damage them? The answer probably has to be yes, but it goes to show how little control it is possible to have over the ‘outcomes’ of the process. A more difficult question still is whether a materially advanced and (excessively?) comfortable society is preferable to a basic but more ‘honest’ one. I’m really not sure – especially as from an educational point of view, that complacency seems to be breeding a growing indifference to the many other less passive but more cerebral dimensions of life. Is a modern society that is materially rich but culturally bankrupt, whose only common standards are the lowest, really worth teaching for?

Hoggart claimed that commercialism needed to appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to sell enough copy to turn a profit. He argued the semi-educated working classes were particularly exposed to this – but one might consider that the subsequent development of a rampantly materialistic market-society has extended the same vulnerabilities to other groups too. These days it is not only the poorly-educated who fill their minds with pulp fiction, reality T.V. and other junk culture. Affluenza has tended to be the result – in some way a worse life, not a better.

One of Hoggart’s final points is that the true conflict in society is not between the educated and uneducated, but between the authentic and the inauthentic. In the time since he wrote, the superficial values of the commercial world have come to dominate our society to an extent not seen in our continental neighbours – and they have come perilously close to consuming our education sector in the process.

The real tragedy is perhaps that education, which might have stood up for more substantial values has, over the past few decades sold itself, first to the misguided progressive social engineers, and more recently to the demands and processes of the market economy.


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