Community engagement: Contexts

Community Engagement


While the ‘extra-mural’ tradition of adult and continuing education is still residually active in some universities (Bristol is one example) and vigorously alive in the work of The Open University and Birkbeck, University of London, by and large the old ‘Continuing Education’ departments fell victim during the 1990s to the twin pressures of certification and university re-structuring. As universities struggle to demonstrate ‘impact’ and their value to their communities, it is worth recalling that the symbiotic historical relations of English and the extension movement extend back into the last decades of the nineteenth century. By the time of the formalisation of the extra-mural departments after the Second World War, English (largely as literature, but also in the hands of Raymond Williams, working for the Oxford Delegacy in Sussex, as a kind of proto-cultural studies) had become one of the most popular elements within WEA (Workers’ Educational Association) and extra-mural provision. This was often to the acute distress of those who believed Economics and Politics should be at the centre of the curriculum, and that the growing vogue for English was a sign of unhealthy bourgeois individualism and the colonisation of a manly tradition by someone known as ‘the housewife’.

The Value of Difficulty

If we are to enter into dialogues with wider communities, we need to be aware of the barriers which even an apparently fairly accessible subject erects around itself. From early on, the proponents of English felt the need to mark it off as different enough from the ordinary activities of readers to warrant being a degree subject. That difference was reasonably obvious where English was defined in terms of linguistic, textual, and historical scholarship. It became increasingly obvious during the rise of literary criticism. One of the paradoxes of English Studies as it took shape in the mid-twentieth century was that its practices and discourses made it increasingly inaccessible to readers outside the academy. If we are to understand what our subject might achieve in the world ‘beyond the classroom’, we need to appreciate both the often necessary role of difficulty in the subject, and the way in which our practices present social and cultural barriers.