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The Uses of Literacy

posted on 20 Jun 2017

The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart

A recent article in The New Statesman reminded me that it was time to revisit some of Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic, The Uses of Literacy. The date of publication is, of course, significant because it is the 60th anniversary this year – a celebration of which is the point of D.J. Taylor’s article. You maybe also noticed that I said it’s time to revisit some of the book and this is quite deliberate because, for me at least, some parts are infinitely stronger and more meaningful than others.

The Uses of Literacy was really the first book I read that explicitly addressed itself to a topic that would come to be a massively significant issue in my own life – the notion of a confused class identity. Hoggart seemed to speak convincingly and compellingly about the working class child who, through access to education, finds themselves ‘at the friction point’ of two cultures – not really any longer in sympathy with the working class from which (s)he comes but also not accepted or given permission to be part of the middle class. This idea that there are those who have been given access to education that has made them, in class terms, stateless and almost terminally anxious was an idea that felt very real to me for many years and seemed to describe my own situation.

He talks, quite emotionally and from personal experience, about the notion of shame – the way the educated working class feel ashamed of their family and their background and equally guilty at having that emotion in the first place. He understands the need to prove yourself in ways that those with a sense of class entitlement never worry about:

 “      even though his family may push him very little, he will probably push himself harder than he should…He tends to over-stress the importance of examinations…He discovers a technique of apparent learning, of the acquiring of facts rather than the handling and use facts.”

It was only some years later that I was able to step back from Hoggart’s analysis to realise that he wasn’t describing me but, importantly, himself.  One of Hoggart’s great gifts is to convince us that what he is describing is both universal and necessarily true and describes a generation of working class children educated under the auspices of a sytem like that  created by the Butler Education Act of 1944. But, ultimately, of course this isn’t the case - he speaks only for himself and his circumstances.

In fact he wants to use this position of being both inside and  outside the working class from which to launch an analysis of working class culture – much of which is colourful but which I have a problem with. The critical realisation for me was that, contrary to what Hoggart describes, education doesn’t lift you out of your class and it doesn’t deposit you in some uncomfortable nether world between two cultures – what it does is make you an educated member of the working class, which is a condition that gives you other issues to deal with but certainly doesn’t place you between classes. In this respect I now find the work of Raymond Williams and E.P.Thompson and their notion of ‘structures of feeling’ a far more compelling description of my class psyche.

It’s hard to read Hoggart now and not feel that there’s something obvious to say about him but which is not necessarily openly acknowledged – his desire to be accepted in the middle class. His assumption of the primacy of middle class culture seems undeniable and his scepticism of the value of working class culture makes me increasingly uncomfortable the further into the book you read. The gap between Hoggart and that bastion of cultural conservatism, Matthew Arnold, doesn’t seem too great a one to step across.

The second main theme in the book is Hoggart’s perspective on what he sees as  the American-inspired media assault on all things authentic in working class culture. His thesis is that a pop culture from the States is the equivalent of an invasive weed or foreign pest in the garden – out to kill off its host and replace it with ersatz values and questionable content. For Hoggart all manifestations of popular culture are ipso facto bad and destructive and will lead the working class to their doom.

In fairness Hoggart is arguing for the working class to embrace the very best that culture has to offer and not the very worst. It is through culture that advancement and liberation from oppression lies – all well and good but just whose culture are we talking about and who ascribes it value?

Hoggart himself acknowledged later in his life that Uses was a ‘puritanical’ book and the world it tried to describe had gone for ever. And this is astute and true. Nonetheless, the book remains an essential read for anyone interested in the debates and discussions about social class –  since its appearance it’s been a stepping off point for so many discussions and it will continue to serve that important function well into the future.


Terry Potter

June 2017