NOTES on Hargreaves, A.  and Hammersley, M.  (1982) 'CCCS Gas!  Politics and Science in the Work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies'.  In Oxford Review of Education, 8(2): 139 -44.

Dave Harris

We know that there is a tension between commitment and 'careful explanation and appraisal' (139), especially at times of social crisis.  We should really avoid overcommitment though, otherwise 'the "knowledge" we produce will undoubtedly suffer, and any political action we pursue on the basis of that knowledge might be misconceived as a result'.  Bias undoubtedly exists, for example in the publication of the Black Papers.  Biases were pointed out by the CCCS publication Unpopular Education, arguing that assertion based on common sense and new right values took the place of careful discussion of the evidence.

This is undeniable, but Unpopular Education offers another example of the same trend and tactics.  It involves discharging 'vast quantities of superficially persuasive rhetoric—a kind of CCCS "gas", as it were—which casts an imperceptible yet intellectually disabling cloud of dogmatism across the theoretical terrain' (140).  This is a particular pity because CCCS work is appealing across a wide spectrum.  It claims to offer a more sophisticated Marxism, and 'go beyond mere theoretical speculation by producing empirical studies'.  It is the modes of argument that particularly need to be challenged, since they offer 'dogmatic political assertion' masquerading as 'subtle and open kind of social science'.

The argument is that state provided education manages capitalism and thus cannot serve the interests of the working class or others.  It is in this sense unpopular.  Truancy and deviants among working class pupils is better understood as resistance.  The analysis avoids simple economic determinism, and argues instead that state education reflects the balance of forces of various kinds, including compromises about developing comprehensive education involving sociologists, teachers, unions and the labour party, among others, acting as '"a set of relatively autonomous trajectories"'(141).

However, there is no consideration of non Marxist work, especially on the influences on policy.  This often takes a pluralist approach, and is dismissed earlier in the analysis.  Instead we find 'the repetitive use of Marxist and "marxissant" [sic] categories of "settlement", "struggle", "balance of forces" etc.'These are designed to replace conventional pluralism.  We can understand the commitment to autonomous trajectories and the like better as a response to over-deterministic Marxist sociology of education.  This left no room for political struggle and change, or activism [Althusser of course].  This is also why liberal pluralism cannot be fully accepted.  Overall, the attempt is made to 'protect CCCS from charges of political fatalism on the one hand, and from fraternal guilt…  on the other'.

Instead of blunt assertions about economic and class forces, which would look like 'Stalinist vulgarity' there is instead a strategy of 'gently, subtly and repetitively' (142) making assertions using particular terminology about 'popular' struggles for popular education.  This is exactly what they accuse the new right of doing, reiterating key terms in order to discredit rival social democratic concepts.  The definition of popular is particularly broad, and includes not only the working class but black people, women, children, groups like teachers.  However the term popular also alludes to 19th century radical politics, where there was a popular struggle against the state and its control, especially of education [as in Johnson's piece on 'really useful knowledge'].  Current conceptions are seen as impoverished by comparison, so change is also deterioration, and again, 'little attempt is made to argue the point'.  Instead we have 'working class romanticism', like the kind you find in community studies, although with less hope of restoring it.  Nevertheless, there is an attempt to show 'residual survivals', and to urge a focus on them by contemporary socialists.

However, evidence for this position 'is pretty thin'.  Much reliance is placed on one text from a former president of NUT, analysing the school and classroom as the site of guerrilla warfare.  Willis on penetrations and limitations is also influential.  However, this is still not 'the politically articulate views of 19th century working class radicals', despite continued 'reading inflated political significance into each and every deviant act of working class pupils'.  There is other evidence on pupil cultures which has been ignored [including the usual suspects like Delamont, Furlong or Woods].

Citing this evidence leads to the view that no particular group can be seen as preserving the tradition of radical popular education, except for CCCS.  Instead, there is 'a spurious attribution of inchoate "radical" insight or rebellious pupils…  [and]…  Entirely unsubstantiated assertions about dormant revolutionary potential and "objective" class interests' (143).  These are based on a CCCS vision of socialism rather than on the evidence, and this is a prerequisite.  In practice, there is no 'conceptual centerpiece', but 'little more than "hurrah" and "boo" words in an armoury of political rhetoric'.  Marxism does have a role to play in analysis, but CCCS would be better to emit less gas, deal with theoretical categories less prescriptively, manage empirical evidence 'in a properly skeptical way', and open themselves to other traditions.

[hear hear!]