Gramsci and the politics of education.

Author:Mayo, Peter


It would not be amiss to argue that Gramsci stands out among Marxist writers who have written on or whose ideas are relevant to education and culture. He has written directly and systematically on aspects of education, and in the case of schooling, he has furnished us with notes that have the length of almost fully developed essays (see Qs IV and XII). (1) But he has furnished us with many more insights on the educational basis of power than are contained in these notes. Gramsci's entire project surrounding the all-pervasive concept of hegemony, which runs through the Quaderni (Gramsci, 1975), is an educational project. In order to do discuss Gramsci's contribution to the development of the fields of education and culture, one must therefore scour the entire corpus of his works (Borg, Buttigieg and Mayo 2002: 3). In Gramsci's own words, 'Every relationship of "hegemony" is necessarily an educational relationship and occurs not only within a nation, between the various forces of which the nation is composed, but in the international and world-wide field, between complexes of national and continental civilisations' (Gramsci 1971: 666). In short, to miss the educational element (education is here conceived of in its widest context, and not limited to formal institutions) embedded in relations of hegemony is to overlook the central core of hegemony and therefore a crucial aspect of Gramsci's conception of power and the quest for social and political transformation. Education, viewed in its all-encompassing manner, is central to the workings of hegemony (Borg, Buttigieg and Mayo 2002). Those attempting to understand Gramsci's political theory avoid this dimension at their peril.

Intellectuals and the organisation of culture

It would be reductionist therefore to confine any analysis of education to the long notes on the 'Unitarian School' (Baldacchino 2002). I will show that the particular view presented by Gramsci here is most relevant today, and is being reinforced in the contemporary curriculum literature. It would be equally reductionist to confine oneself to these and other pre-prison and prison writings and letters on various aspects of learning in childhood and with adults, including letters concerning the education of his children and niece Edmea (Borg, Buttigieg and Mayo 2002: 3, 4), important though these writings are in terms of the insights they provide into his educational thinking. It would be equally limiting to focus only on these and the factory council theory, notwithstanding its most valuable insights for adult education for industrial democracy, insights which are still relevant today (Livingstone 2002). These are all key works and worthy of being read and reread, since they provide signposts for a critically engaged education. However, they need to be analysed within the broader all-encompassing context for education that is the bulk of Gramsci's oeuvre.

Broadening the educators' profile

In this regard, Gramsci also broadens the notion of the educator or educators. He refers to professional schoolteachers, including those who taught him in his schools, as exemplified in his letters from prison (see Borg, Buttigieg and Mayo: 4). He holds some of those who taught him at the liceo responsible, through their mediocre teaching, for inducing him to move away from the 'exact sciences' and mathematics, for which he had a predilection as a boy; he ended up choosing Greek over maths when given the choice (ibid.) He also refers to his ventures into the broader domains of education, and not only in an organised sense, but also non-formally or informally. He himself was educator and student at a prison school on the prison island of Ustica while awaiting his trial with others, an experience which is said to have left a mark on the history of education on the island itself--the school was open to everyone, including Ustica's inhabitants.

Gramsci's conception of the educator is however broad enough to comprise a variety of practitioners, some of whom might not immediately identify themselves as such. His notion of the educator includes party activists working in the field of workers' education, something he himself engaged in even during his early political career. It would include foremen or supervisors in the context of the factory councils, as conceived of by him in his writings on industrial democracy. It would include people of different technical and cultural backgrounds who were invited as speakers to the Ordine Nuovo group (the group surrounding the similarly named periodical of socialist culture), or who collaborated at the Club di Vita Morale. It can also include any intellectual, whether publically visible or not--those we today call 'public intellectuals,' or those considered subaltern intellectuals. (2) They would serve as opinion leaders and promoters of particular conceptions of the world through their affirmations, strictures and actions. These fall within the range of Gramsci's broad strata of organic intellectuals, who either support the existing state of affairs and hegemonic bloc (the agrarian bloc, in the case of the Mezzogiorno [Southern Italy]), or challenge or renegotiate the relations that keep this set of hegemonic arrangements in place.

Gramsci's conception of the educator can also include so-called 'traditional intellectuals' whose organic purpose seems to be over, since they are residual specimens of an earlier and possibly outdated hegemonic set of arrangements, and therefore assume the appearance of a 'neutral' category, identified by their immanent features, when in effect they can well serve to maintain and legitimise the status quo. They might also lure potentially progressive intellectuals from their immediate cultural context with a status and language that renders them alien to that very same terrain. Ives (2004) has discussed this with respect to intellectuals and language development. These intellectuals absolutise their activity. Organic intellectuals had an important role to play in elaborating and creating connections between the spontaneous grammars (regional languages and dialects) of the popular classes. This was not happening in Gramsci's time. People who would have otherwise provided intellectual leadership among the subaltern classes were being co-opted partly through their being equipped with a normative grammar (various forms of standard language, including esoteric language) that was alien to the subordinated classes. It therefore served to alienate potential organic intellectuals from these classes, rendering them traditional intellectuals instead--intellectuals whose activity appeared, deceptively, to be devoid of any social moorings, when in fact this activity served to consolidate the hegemony of the dominant groups. (3)

This broad notion of educators and, to use a term very much in vogue at present, 'cultural workers', has had an impact on the manner in which educational and cultural activity are being viewed today in progressive sections of the literature on education and culture in the Anglo-American-influenced world. The work of Henry A. Giroux and his notion of'public pedagogy' (Giroux 1999) come to mind here.

The 'public pedagogy' concept best captures Giroux's attempt to extend the notion of education well beyond the important though very limited context of schooling, bearing in mind, once again, Gramsci's dictum that every relationship of hegemony is an educational relationship. In this respect, Giroux, one of the founding figures of what is called 'critical pedagogy' (Giroux 2011), scours a broad terrain in his educational and cultural writings, comprising a variety of pedagogical sites that extend beyond the system of formal education. For Giroux, therefore, educational activity is engaged in by not only professional teachers and academics but also by a broader array of cultural workers that includes journalists and op-ed columnists, community activists and animators, architects, advertisers, photographers, artists, actors, film directors, social activists, religious ministers, musicians and so forth. This partly explains why Giroux gradually moved from writing mainly about public schooling to engaging in lengthy discussions of broader social issues, such as war and corporate power, and various forms of cultural production such as film, cartoons and media news packages. This represents a marked contrast with Girouxs early work around schooling. Gramsci's impact on current progressive and leftist thinking on education and culture is nowhere more clearly represented than in Giroux's work (Mayo 2012).

Education and the state

Education in its broader context is, for Gramsci, an essential feature of the 'ethical state', or the state as educator, if you will. The state and its institutions have a strong educational dimension. The separation between the state and civil society, as well as the separation between civil and political society, in Gramsci's work, is made for purely heuristic purposes. As underlined by Thomas (2009), they are much more integrated than such a heuristic separation would have us believe, hence Gramsci's reference to the integral state. The same applies to the separation between the ideological/consensual and the repressive, or in short force and consent, the twin heads of Macchiavelli's centaur. All this has implications for the field of education, in which...

To continue reading