Gramsci and Education

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Aug 19 08:03:21 MDT 2003

Carmel Borg, Joseph Buttigieg, and Peter Mayo, eds. Gramsci and
Education. Culture and Politics Series. Lanham and Oxford: Rowman &
Littlefield, 2002. ii + 335 pp. Notes. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN
0-7425-0032-2; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 0-7425-0033-0.

Reviewed by Marvin E. Gettleman, Emeritus Professor of History, Brooklyn
Polytechnic University.
Published by H-Education (July, 2003)

The Triumph of Exegesis over Praxis and History

The fifteen essays comprising this book have been written mainly by
radical educational scholars from seven countries in Europe and the
Americas. The book's editors (who also contribute essays) hail from
Notre Dame University in the United States and the University of Malta.
Their common aim is to explicate the educational views of the Italian
Communist scholar-activist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) and to link his
teachings to present-day political and pedagogical issues. Most of
Gramsci's writings on education consist of fragments (Quaderni del
carcere) written during his decade-long confinement in a fascist prison.
There is inevitable overlap and duplication in many of the essays in
Gramsci and Education.

The book contains multiple explications of the ideas found (sometimes in
quite ambiguous form) in Gramsci's prison notebooks, which had to be
consciously distorted by the prisoner in order to deceive the censors.
These explications, using the best current texts, reveal fresh nuances
and insights as well as fruitful implications for pedagogy, but they do
not basically alter the picture of Gramsci presented in older
scholarship. John M. Cammett's 1967 Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of
Italian Communism, set forth the Italian leftist's conception of the
importance of cultural struggle within civil society to prepare the
working class for what, as a Marxist, he considered to be its historical
destiny--to rule under socialism. As shall be mentioned later, the main
shortcoming of the book under review is its relentless focus on the
theories of counter-hegemonic pedagogy. Except for a single essay by
Toronto scholar D. W. Livingston, and a few references regarding the
similarities between the educational experiences of Gramsci and the
Welsh-British radical Raymond Williams, there is almost a total absence
of empirical data on actual sites of current and past pedagogical
practices based on Gramscian or related principles. Except for a
half-dozen anecdotes, none of the essayists address Gramsci's own
teaching of militant workers in Turin.

Perhaps the most useful sections of the book are the vigorous polemics
against conservative educational concepts, such as those in Harold
Entwistle's 1979 book, Antonio Gramsci: Conservative Schooling for
Radical Politics, which attempt to appropriate Gramsci's ideas for the
intertwined projects of a standardized curriculum, rigid disciplinary
rules, and authoritarian pedagogy. Many of the writers of essays in
Gramsci and Education agree, as does this reviewer, that such a
conservative reinterpretation violates the spirit and letter of
Gramsci's pedagogical writings (he was, after all, a dedicated
Communist!), which emphasize the need for working class and radical
pupils, youths, and adults to master the hegemonic tenets of the
bourgeois society. Gramsci believed this knowledge is misused if its
main effect is to contribute to the individual upward social mobility of
a few of the pupils. Such mastery aids the understanding of the existing
systems of oppression and allows for the penetration of their
rationalizations. It also brings the sheer pleasure of learning, as it
did for the impecunious young Gramsci in his native Sardinia and later
in Turin. For some it will also facilitate more effective challenges to
the power of the capitalist ruling classes, which even in fascist
societies cannot rest on physical coercion alone.

In addition to ably refuting right wing distortions of Gramscian ideas,
the analyses offered in this book remain, as has been mentioned,
stubbornly focused on the level of theory, or bromides posing as
theories. Gramsci is frequently portrayed hagiographically, often
alongside the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire as a paragon of popular
education who brought (and brings) revolutionary pedagogical theory to
new heights of subtlety. Stating, restating, and explicating Gramsci's
injunctions about the necessity of grounding theory in practice, the
contributors (with the exception of Livingstone in the essay already
mentioned) mostly ignore these injunctions. Their essays remain doggedly
fixated on the blandishments of theory, sometimes elaborating Gramsci's
theories and later refinements in post-modern argot. For example, Peter
McLaren and three co-authors credit Gramsci's ideas with supplying
teachers with intellectual resources for transforming "schools into
sites of radical reform." But their text quickly abandons any practical
advice on how teachers can effect such a transformation. Instead, along
with other doses of academic jargon, they offer statements like the
following: "We argue for a counter-hegemonic coalition composed of
committed intellectuals whose political links are connected and
articulated through the unification of demands in heterogeneous,
multifaceted, yet focalized anticapitalist struggles" (p. 170). A few
paragraphs later these same authors ridicule the "cabaret avant-gardism
of many postmodern critics" who abandon the socialist project for the
dubious joys of playful theoretical posturing--a charge which could be
made against many of the essays in this book. This reviewer believes
with McLaren and others that privileging the cultural terrain does
slight the importance of economic factors. So the problem with these two
quoted passages is not that they are mutually contradictory. What is
objectionable, however, is how the almost talmudical exegeses of the
Gramscian texts found in this book sidestep the key political questions
of how to create the pedagogical sites (schools, trade union societies,
clubs) where the determination to supplant capitalism can be nurtured.

The editors and many of the contributors to Gramsci and Education are
among the most learned and insightful students of Gramscian and
Freireian texts, but they seem to be obsessive devotees of theory alone.
There is little connection with a rich and growing literature on how
left-wing movements before, during, and after Gramsci's time attempted
to prepare the working class for their presumed eventual hegemonic role
when socialism actually is achieved. Only an oblique reference in one of
the few outstanding essays in this collection, Stanley Aronowitz's
"Gramsci's Theory of Education: Schooling and Beyond," deals with the
sensitive subject of education in countries where socialist parties
actually took power--and, sadly, in which liberatory pedagogy was
noteworthy mainly for its absence. The educational practices of
oppositional Socialist and Communist parties in the capitalist world go
unnoticed in this book. The extensive studies of revolutionary
prosyletization being carried out by Maurice Carrez and his colleagues
at l'Institut d'Histoire Contemporaine in Dijon, France,[1] and the
Project on the Comparative International History of Left Education are
apparently unknown to the editors and contributors to Gramsci and
Education.[2] Neither does any of the superb work of Danielle
Tartakowsky on French Communist education, Stuart MacIntyre on British
Communist pedagogy, or Sandro Bellassi on the schools of the Italian
Communist Party receive any attention in these essays.

Studies of the American scene--educational projects of the Latin
American left, as well as those in North America--are similarly
neglected. For example, John L. Hammond's outstanding 1998 book Fighting
to Learn: Popular Education and Guerrilla War in El Salvador is absent
from the theory-saturated essay on "Popular Education in Latin America."
Even the United States, not usually recognized as a pioneer in left
projects (pedagogical or otherwise), produced noteworthy educational
efforts, as Richard J. Altenbaugh demonstrates in his 1990 book on labor
colleges, Education for Struggle. North American Communists between 1923
and 1957 created a network of adult labor schools which was perhaps the
most extensive program of adult education carried out anywhere in the
Americas before regular colleges discovered the cash cow of continuing
education.[3] Recent attempts to revive the faltering AFL-CIO by
training college-educated organizers would be a useful laboratory for
the study of how Gramscian-Freireian-Alinskyian (and yes, even Deweyite)
perspectives operate in the real world and would be a welcome respite
from the sterile theoretical investigations, punctuated by rhetorical
radical exhortations, that make up much of this book. As Aronowitz
points out in his sensible, down-to-earth essay, American academics tend
to be alienated from the trade union movement, even on unionized
campuses. This may help explain why the radical authors of many of these
essays seem to operate in an intellectual universe that excludes not
only contemporary issues, but also the political struggles of the past
from which much can be learned.

Theory-struck readers may want to consult Gramsci and Education for its
up-to-date textual exegeses of the stirring formulations in the Quaderni
del carcere, but historians who look for contextualizations of Gramscian
pedagogy will be disappointed, while left teachers who want to instill
in their students the determination to fight capitalist injustice will
also find thin gruel here. Primarily, the book inadvertently shows how
dedication to the polishing of Gramsci's concepts, while ignoring the
praxis to which Gramsci insisted theory should be closely tethered,
produces an immensely learned, well-intentioned, and boring betrayal of
that master's principles.


[1]. See Cahiers d'Histoire 79 (2000).

[2]. In 1999, the Project on the Comparative International History of
Left Education produced a special issue of the Belgian journal
Paedagogica Historica on the origins of European left education.

[3]. See this reviewer's essays in Michael E. Brown, Randy Martin, Frank
Rosengarten, and George Snedeker, eds., New Studies in the Politics and
Culture of U.S. Communism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993); and in
Science & Society (Fall 2002).


The Marxism list:

More information about the Marxism mailing list