Richard Hoggart (1918-2014)

Listed on April 25, 2014 in Blogs!

News of the death of Richard Hoggart a couple of weeks ago sent me scuttling for my copy of his most important book – The Uses of Literacy. First published in 1957 its vibrant thesis has ensured that it has continued to remain in print throughout the decades to this day. Hoggart’s contention was that as we became more affluent, the so-called boundaries and defining values of class became blurred and even undermined. This was especially the case from powerful influences such as the media. One only has to think about how the notion of celebrity distorts many of the ideas and behaviours of young people today to appreciate that Hoggart had a point all those years ago.

I briefly knew Richard Hoggart when I was a student at Goldsmiths’ College and he was the Warden. In my last years as an undergraduate I served on the Academic Board and then I was elected President of the Student’s Union. As President-elect I had several one-to-one meetings with Richard and I learnt that he was an intellectual force to be reckoned with. His mind was sharp – very sharp. I remember well him cutting through an arcane debate at a meeting of the college Delegacy by making some reference to the principle of Occum’s Razor – essentially cutting to the chase and to the core of an argument. Mary Warnock made some arch remark (with her oh so plummy voice) and then then this was followed by a contribution by the avuncular Merlyn Rees (former Northern Ireland and Home Secretary). It was like watching some intellectual ‘It’s a Knock About’! Richard retired when I became President of the Student’s Union and in a tangible way that was a loss to the college. Behind the self-assured bravado there was a very decent man who cared about people and their journey. He knew what it was like to be poor and he knew of the power of education to improve your prospects in life. Tony Blair’s mantra of ‘education, education, education’ was very much an echo of Hoggart’s own philosophy. He was passionate about adult education and what is called, these days, lifelong learning. Cradle to the grave stuff. In thinking of Richard Hoggart we can also recall other great names in education across the post war years – Raymond Williams, Asa Briggs (still with us), Arthur Marwick and Roy Porter too. All historians, interestingly, holding a belief that we have to learn the lessons of history to avoid making the same mistakes again. Hoggart would say that whatever we enjoy today should not be taken for granted as it can be taken away tomorrow.