Sunday, 23 February 2014

Ruskin: A Keyword for 115 Years


Yesterday Ruskin College celebrated its 115th birthday. I had hoped to post this item then but was at Ruskin teaching a BA labour/trade union studies group, which is a valid diversion from time spent with the blog.

That Ruskin has reached this ripe old age is some going for an institution largely renounced by its namesake John Ruskin, and which for over a decade after its creation as Ruskin Hall in 1899 had no formal, long-term home. The (in)famous student strike of 1908 which led to the formation of the Plebs' League, and thereafter the National Council of Labour Colleges, helped destabilise Ruskin's potential long-term future, but also helped cement a view that as Ruskin was borne to serve the radical educational needs of the burgeoning trade union and allied social movements, it could hardly not reflect the political. social and economic tumult and fervour at the turn of the 20th century.

Soon to admit thousands: The entry ticket to Ruskin's inaugural open
event at Oxford town hall on 22nd February 1899
Who could know what the next 115 years would hold? As Ruskin celebrates its birthday, it does so at a time of significant change and challenge in the context of neo-liberal dogma in the further and higher education sectors that the College straddles. As historical precedent demonstrates however, neither internal or external challenges are reliable barometers of the College's likely survival.

Ruskin's impact and legacy is reflected, I would argue, partly through the reissuing of Raymond Williams' seminal publication Keywords: a masterclass in understanding the ideological interrelationship between language and politics, and that in the battle for ideas working class women and men required Ruskin College as an institution to rebalance the power of elites.

Keywords as an expression of the power of language
The reissue of Keywords is supplemented by an accompanying exhibition at Tate Liverpool and which together provide a both a textual and visual means for new generations of activists to absorb the power and subtlety  of Williams' 1976 classic.

The first issue of the book contained 110 micro-analyses of the etymological, political and cultural trajectories of selected keywords: words without it is difficult to interpret dominant influences on our historical and contemporary lives. Thus the '76 first edition included such analyses of the words "bourgeois", "bureaucracy" and capitalism".

Without such interpretation (whether supplied by Williams or those who came before him), and accompanied of course with supplementary material and applied contextual relevance, legions of Ruskin's students would have been incapable of resuming or moving on to occupy vanguard positions in trade union, social and political movements internationally.

Andy Beckett's article in last weekend's Observer on the Williams re-issue helps re-focus the continuing relevance of Williams to the on-going work of Ruskin with current students:

"On the surface it was a history of language and ideas; underneath it was a history of England's economy, politics and society since the late middle ages. The rise of the middle class and the free market, the industrial revolution, the effects of democracy and leftwing dissent, the increasing Americanisation and atomisation of 20th-century England – all these themes recur in Williams's economical discussions of his chosen words."

Over time Ruskin College has (I would hope) become itself either a keyword, or perhaps a byword, for radical education supplied within the context of a distinct ethos and mission. I can confirm honestly that staff hold fierce to that mission of enabling  working class women and men to capture and apply their own understanding of primary keywords as part of the historic fight for social and economic justice.

Happy birthday Ruskin College.

In Solidarity


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