“My father still reads the dictionary every day. He says your life depends on your power to master words.”
Obviously I’m pleased, not to mention surprised, to see my book reviewed in a national newspaper that isn’t the Morning Star. Without wishing to sound ungracious, though, it is mildly exasperating to see the review uncritically reflect the idea that using Big Words makes the writing ‘over-done’ and ‘in thrall to the strangulated cult-studs vernacular’. I do know what John Harris means by the latter term, of course, and I will write at a later point about the regrettable tension that seems to occur in a lot of contemporary writers, invariably ones on the left, between the wish to make one’s writing easily understood and the fear of sounding overly simplistic. The latter, incidentally, often seems to be fuelled by a feeling that, in order to be taken seriously by a small potential readership whom one has been conditioned to regard as cultural and academic gatekeepers, one needs to somehow ‘prove oneself’ by larding one’s prose with gobbets of Žižekian sophistry, lest one stand accused of being low-brow or naïve or Owen Jones or something.
The thing is that these words don’t strike me as ‘big words’ when I’m thinking or writing them, they simply strike me as the most appropriate words to use. I also dislike repeating words, and so I use a lot of words which mean similar things but which I guess might grow progressively more outlandish until the book ends up describing 90s popular culture as ‘atavistic’ rather than simply ‘backwards-looking’. Sorry about that, I guess? Ironically enough though, the review goes on to cite ‘those great pop-cultural intellectuals’ the Manic Street Preachers, whose lyrics were nothing if not a strangulated vernacular of their own. For good or ill, the Manics, in their encouragement of reading and general cultural immersion as a cure for small-town boredom and alienation, were far more of an influence on my subsequent vocabulary than some nebulous villain called Cult-Studs.
So here’s a question. Is vocabulary now considered a class signifier? Does understanding, and using, ‘big words’, mark you out as someone who cannot belong to ‘the ordinary’, ‘the normal’, the demographic conveniently delineated by external commentators as ‘working class’? Or is it the case that one’s socio-economic background does not preclude one having an expansive vocabulary? Might one have gained a knowledge of ‘big words’ from, uh god I don’t know, reading books and reading broadsheets, despite where one was brought up? And does knowing ‘big words’ mean you can never be categorised as ‘working class’?
Something I’ve been finding increasingly pertinent to several arguments I make is the apparent erosion of a particular tradition of working-class relationship to education, both institutional (school and university) and autodidactic (learning on your own). The proletarian scholar is a very specific subset of class taxonomy which these days rarely receives a visible spokesman. Higher education, for a few brief and glorious decades, did exist as a way out and ‘upwards’ for the aspirant working class, but, throughout the twentieth-century, the ability to educate oneself also operated at all ages through the worker-built mechanisms of civic society. The supply of free newspapers in libraries, the spread of miners’ institutes designed as social and educational venues, adult education classes, trade union educational programmes – all provided a method of self-improvement without the need for or intention of social mobility.
For me at least, the importance of education – both autodidactic and institutional – was partly based on the idea of gaining access to cultural capital previously denied on grounds of class, of accessing what had been the preserve of the wealthy, of gaining the space to think for oneself. Taking education for granted, as an entitlement rather than a hard-won right – like the right to the vote, to trade unions, to the NHS – was something I received as a class shibboleth. The idea of education as automatically granting social advancement and upward mobility ignores the tradition which valued education for its own sake, for the sake of not getting fucked over by being without it.
Libraries gave us power and all that. I’m never sure of the extent to which this tradition has been eroded, but when I talk about these things, I sometimes feel as though I’ve stepped out of a museum display case. Following the imposition of tuition fees and, more significantly, the withdrawal of grants, higher education has become an investment, a transaction, with the contemporary university expected to think and operate as if it were a business. The Coalition have gone at the removal of access to higher education with their typical clumsy accelerationist glee – arguably way more damaging than the increase in tuition fees has been the withdrawing of EMA, the cutting of free adult education classes, and the mass closure of public libraries. The dismantling of the structures (civic, state, financial, hegemonic) which supported access to higher education or to self-education for those without the means to pay for it has been hard to watch, and it may be that some of its effects are only now becoming apparent.
“You’ve been cheated,” I said. “Rich people learn the humanities; you didn’t. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you.”
To punch academically above one’s socio-economic weight, to pursue academia – as I did, for way too long – for the sake of learning rather than as a means of ‘adding value’ to oneself as a potential economic unit, has also always been a route to no-man’s-land, where capital is gained at the expense of hanging onto one’s perceived real identity, one’s ‘roots’. Wherever you find yourself, you end up feeling like a fraud, although of course the degree to which you let this feeling bother you can vary. As Richard Hoggart put it in 1957:
Such a scholarship boy has lost some of the resilience and some of the vitality of his cousins who are still knocking about the streets… and he does not acquire the unconscious confidence of many a public-school-trained child of the middle classes. Underneath he knows that his compensatory claim to possess finer weapons, to be able to handle ‘book-knowledge’, is insecurely based… He has left his class, at least in spirit, by being in certain ways unusual; and he is still unusual in another class, too tense and over-wound.
While the anxieties of the scholarship boy have long been an object of fascination (Hoggart in The Uses of Literacy, Dennis Potter in the Nigel Barton plays), less attention has been given to the equivalent effects of higher education on the self-perception of working-class women, unless it’s they themselves who are trying to make sense of their situation. In an interesting post on this subject, Frances Hatherley quotes Jo Spence:
Going into higher education was the most amazing thing that ever happened to me, but it was also one of the most painful because it couldn’t deal with the conflict that I wanted to theorise, which was class […] In class terms, crossing social barriers, my greatest pleasure in life would be to understand what group I belong to. But at least now I understand that I never assimilated, I only masqueraded…
I don’t currently share Spence’s need for a group to belong to, or, really, for the feeling of stability a secure class identity can bring, but I have done so at many stages of my life, largely as a result of the tension between educational attainment and class background. But education can mean many things, not limited to the inside of a university – and these things can, and certainly used to, include self-education among the working class itself. Being ‘ordinary’ doesn’t mean being stupid. The idea of working-class as automatically meaning uneducated was a hugely frustrating factor, for instance, in the recent debates around intersectional feminism, in which many well-meaning liberals seemed to assume that working-class women formed a homogenous bloc fundamentally divorced from university education and therefore incapable of engaging with theoretical feminism because of, you know, all the Big Words involved. So by this logic, if you’re not bell hooks, you’re Vicky Pollard, between whom there exists no middle ground, no available identities, and no scope for sympathy, solidarity or co-operation. Which patently is bollocks. No wonder we’re in such a state.
One of the arguments I try to make in Clampdown is that there is no single monolithic working-class identity beyond economics, despite what politics and popular culture pretends. And, as traditions associated with certain identities, eg that of the proletarian scholar, have been lost or suppressed, so other identities – the ‘idle poor’, the ‘chav’, the ‘feckless single mother’ etc – have been made more prominent, through politics, media and popular culture, to the point where this assumed to be what it means to be working-class – and nothing else, no other conceivable identities. Equally, increasingly in politics and pop culture, to be working-class is assumed to prevent one from being other things – it is assumed that one cannot be working-class and well-spoken, or well-read, or well-educated. Even current injunctions for the left to engage with ‘ordinary people’ seem to assume an absence in the latter of reading, of theory, of intellectual engagement or capacity. As an immediate strategy, I have no disagreement with focusing on material reality rather than on abstract theory, but I worry about the assumptions tied into it, which see class and education in terms of binary oppositions (intelligence/stupidity, refinement/vulgarity, respectability/vice) and, in doing so, contribute to the continued narrowing of horizons.
I’d never heard of you before John’s article. Now I know why.
It always amazes me that in this country we have a language that has gone all the way around the world and yet there is still such an unease about fluentcy. It is that whole factor of “ooh that’s a big word” that we so often encounter.
This is an excellent blog. It’s good to see someone is writing about these subjects.
I’d never heard of this blog until the John Harris article. But was v. impressed and will be a regular reader from now on. Will buy your book too.
Really refreshing to see someone challenging the tensions around education and class. There is a worrying trend in left activism to be supportive of calls to improve access to education, whilst simulatiously being anti-intellectual.