Raymond Williams: Adult Education and the Public Intellectual

‘There’s a huge gap that once was at least partially filled by left intellectuals willing to engage with the general public and their problems’ – (Noam Chomsky) [1]

Sharon Clancy writes…

Raymond Williams came into my life as a result of work I undertook on my thesis in 2014 on adult education. My PhD supervisor, Professor John Holford, suggested I explore Williams’s An Open Letter to W.E.A Tutors (1961) to understand some of the complexities of the historical place of adult learning and the role of the Workers’ Educational Association. What was immediately clear to me was that Williams was arguing for a form of education for the many and by the many, not led by the elite few. He was deeply sceptical of the notion of cultural or educational imperialism, commenting in his letter that:

‘… adult education is no longer propped up by simple missionary feelings, that the fortunate should help the unfortunate or by simple class feelings, that the odd person should be picked out of the swine heap… the challenge to new and imaginative teaching is constant’.

This had a deep resonance with me, at the time grappling with the concept of adult education as variously a radical emancipatory and democratising force, a means of supporting reform and ‘missionary’ activity or as a way of promoting ‘social mobility’ and employability. Williams argued that education should act as a form of public pedagogy, in which he recognised the democratising potential of education which escaped the elite-controlled schoolhouse and found its expression in the family, churches, libraries, museums, radio networks, and so on, echoing earlier working class learning experience in the reading libraries, in pubs and kitchens. My contact with the Raymond Williams Foundation around the same time, and the powerful, informal group debates I enjoyed at the first residential weekend I attended, were a revelation to me and echoed the principal of public pedagogy.

williams again

I found myself sincerely wishing that I had encountered Williams’s thinking much earlier, particularly in my fraught years at Cambridge University as a young, working-class student from the Derbyshire coalfields studying English Literature. Squaring my own origins with the rarefied atmosphere of Cambridge was a constant inner battle. Williams, before me, went to Cambridge as a working-class man from rural Wales. He later returned to teach at the university. Instead of being fazed by the experience, however, Williams was able to assert that, whilst he did not belong there – either as a student or a lecturer –  he had no envy of the confident and mannered people he encountered: ‘It was not my Cambridge. That was clear from the beginning’, [2] going on to say:

‘the myth of the working-class boy arriving at Cambridge… is that he is an awkward misfit and has to learn new manners… Out of rural Wales it didn’t feel like that. The class which has dominated Cambridge is given to describing itself as well-mannered and polite, sensitive. It continually contrasts itself favourably with the rougher and coarser others… If I then say that what I found was an extraordinarily coarse, pushing, name-ridden group, I shall be told I am showing class feeling, class envy, class resentment. That I showed class feeling is not in any doubt. All I would insist on is that nobody fortunate enough to grow up in a good home in a genuinely well-mannered and sensitive community, could for a moment envy these loud, competitive, deprived people’.

He also went on to say that his own people recognised the power and value of education, provided sincere encouragement and support and did not believe that education at an elite university should be the purview of the privileged few.

As a student of English Literature I was never alerted to his writings. This may be due to the period in which I started my own time at the university, which was during the post-Leavisite backlash of the late 1980s, and Williams was associated with F.R. Leavis. He had also ceased to teach at Cambridge himself by the time I arrived, having retired in 1983. Post-structuralism and deconstructionism were particularly prominent instead and I enjoyed the way that deconstructionism seeks to move beyond the surface meaning of a text, and exposes the supposed contradictions and internal oppositions within it. I was also intrigued by the idea that any piece of writing does not have only one meaning and that any meaning depends on the reader, their position and context, rather than being an untouchable ‘pure text’. I understood that values are relative, hierarchical and need exposure. However, I struggled to understand that biographical detail was seen as a point of distraction. I wanted to understand the writers I loved – their experience, their political, social and economic context, the way they felt about, and responded to, the world around them. Moreover, I was bewildered that certain writers, such as Thomas Hardy, were not considered part of the accepted literary canon. It was not sufficient that Hardy’s work had been important to me, had fired and stimulated my imagination and had opened the door for me to debates about how much freedom of will we have, how much we are socially constrained, how much of our lives is predetermined by both circumstance and chance and how tragedy occurs in the life of an ‘ordinary’ human being.

rw strip 2

Williams’s assertion that ‘culture is ordinary’ has enabled me since to understand my discomfort with aspects of studying literature, my sense that my own experience and sensibility did not belong. Concepts of tragedy and the tragic as they were taught at university were confined to the world of the nobility, the monarchy, the ‘great men’. They had the capacity, and the culture, to experience such a heightened state. Williams, by contrast, stated that culture does not have to be ‘great’, beautiful or sublime, nor is its popular or more commercial aspect necessarily utilitarian, bleak and reduced. Culture is, in Williams’s definition, not just about beauty or tragedy, or that which transcends the everyday, but is part of the fabric of daily life and the lived experience – for all people, and not simply ‘a special kind of people, cultivated people’.

In his concept of a structure of feeling, Williams argued that literature, by transcending fixed or historically defined experience, forms and conventions, enables us to look beyond them, to our own lived experience in the moment. ‘Feeling’ is not a synonym for emotion or sentiment but a subjective, nameable state. It reconciles the individual and the collective, bringing together the social and the personal. It recognises that art and literature are separable from the overall culture of a given period but are the locus through which feeling is expressed and embodied. It struck me that structure of feeling recognises the capacity of literature to give shape to what is otherwise inchoate, still unformed, and to challenge received orthodoxies – by examining a text’s historical context and its ideological and political implications. This approach to understanding literature enabled me to bring together the individual, intensely personal experience of reading, the historical and the political.

Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall has described his recurrent experience of finding his own partially conceived ideas clearly and fully articulated by Raymond Williams before him:

‘…in a broader intellectual sense, I often had, at different times in my life, the uncanny experience of hesitantly and confusedly beginning a line of thought, only to find that, apparently coincidentally, Raymond had not only been travelling much the same road but had given it a clearer, more forceful, clarifying formulation than I ever could’. [3]

In my own way, I have been constantly excited and surprised by Williams’s intellectual journey and his prescience. He has been a source of stimulus, support and comfort, reminding me that the journey I have personally taken has been traversed before, and by the left intellectual giants who populate my inner world – such as Williams and Stuart Hall. I would argue that Williams acted as a public intellectual for a mid-to-late twentieth century audience and that we miss his creativity, his humanity and his ability to explore human experience from the interstices of inter-disciplinarity – the fusion of sociology, art, history, literature – grappling with the complexities of modernity and the place of education and language within it. In his experience of thinking about, and delivering, adult education he developed a form of criticism and pedagogy for the public, moving beyond simple historical or biographical literary appreciation and into a rigorous approach to reading and analysing text, which focused attention on the primacy of language itself but never decoupled it from its social and community origins.

Sharon Clancy is a Senior Research Fellow in adult education and lifelong learning at the University of Nottingham. She completed her PhD in 2017, examining a historic adult residential college. Her writing focuses on class, culture and social justice issues.


[1] The discussion in which Chomsky expressed this view took place on LBBS, Z-Magazine’s Left On-Line Bulletin Board in 1995.


[2] Raymond Williams, What I Came to Say (London: Radius, 1989), p. 5, pp. 7-8.


[3] Stuart Hall, ‘Culture, Community, Nation’, Cultural Studies, 7:3, 1993, pp. 349-363 (305).