Stuart Hall, who died last week, was regarded as one of Britain’s leading intellectuals and exerted huge influence on recent academic, political and cultural debates.
Though not writing much specifically about education, Hall’s work on the importance of ‘culture’ as a key political area of social action and intervention provided a new intellectual framework for those with a more specific interest in studying the processes of schooling. In a limited space it’s almost impossible to provide an adequate account of Hall’s contribution to rethinking the relationship between education, economy and society, but the main thrust is as follows.
Though influenced by the Structuralist Marxism of Louise Althusser and his arguments about education being part of the ‘Ideological State Apparatus’, Hall and his colleagues at Birmingham University’s Centre For Cultural Studies rejected the idea that ‘reproduction’ of class relationships was direct or automatic. Drawing on Gramsci, they argued that post-war social democracy represented a class ‘settlement’ –a sort of compromise. The product of particular historical conditions, it encompassed both progressive and reactionary elements, reflecting the balance of forces within society. Policy outcomes were also mediated by the interests of groups responsible for implementing them.
No more so than the education reforms of the post-war period, which – though implemented partly in response to popular demands for greater social equality and opportunity – were also deeply ‘unpopular’. Not surprisingly, as they were the product of an alliance of national political elites, LEA administrators and newly ‘professionalised’ teachers. As a result, working-class students and parents, while designated as the main benefactors of an expanding public education service, were also largely excluded from any direct influence over it.
The ‘settlement’ was only provisional and the compromise could not last because it lacked real legitimacy and was thus always open to challenge. With a more difficult economic climate emerging from the late 1970s and the lack of any popular radical alternative, the Right succeeded in imposing a new and uncompromising settlement. From then on, allegations that education was not meeting the needs of the economy and was not properly ‘accountable’ featured under both Conservative and Labour governments – Michael Gove building on many of the ideas of the Blair period as well as those of the 1980s’ Tories.
The Cultural Studies courses that continue to blossom in universities have now adopted ‘post-modern’ terms of reference, while Hall’s teachings about the complexity of the relationship between economy, state and ideology have long since departed from most education departments. Yet, with evidence showing social mobility has gone into reverse so that having a stack of educational credentials doesn’t get you the sort of job it used to, education is again losing its ‘legitimacy’ as a way forward for new generations.