Jailed by Mussolini, Antonio Gramsci wrote 32 notebooks, written over 11 years in prison but they were not published in English until the 1970s. If you hear the word ‘hegemony’ it is likely to have come from someone who has read, or just as likely not read but unknowingly quoting Gramsci.
As a Marxist his focus was on cultural and ideological forces in society. Informal education along with defined roles for intellectuals and redefining schools, are all main themes for Gramsci as he took Marxism and updated its theories in the light of 20th century evidence. The physical conflict between the classes became a mental conflict, where ideas were weapons, perpetuated through institutions, especially educational institutions. He was to have a great influence on radical educational theorists such as Freire and Illich.
Traditional Marxism saw class control and conflict as one of domination and coercion. Gramsci saw that this was not subtle enough to explain the status quo and thought that values, morals and social institutions kept class structures in place. The common consciousness unwittingly adopts these beliefs and this preserves inequalities and domination. Two forces operate here; first coercive institutions such as the armed services, police, government and legislature, second non-coercive institutions such as schools, churches, trade unions, social clubs and the family. Interestingly, schools straddled both categories with their coercive curriculum, standards, qualifications and compulsion but also non-coercively through informal education, the hidden curriculum.
Power for the ruling classes, comes not from force but ideological manipulation and control. Schools and education play a major role in perpetuating this hegemony, reinforcing the social norms of dominance and obedience. The fact that different classes tend to have different schools is evidence that this dynamic is operative. Schools, he thought, should give all pupils a common grounding, free from social differences and we should be wary of vocational schools for the poor and academic schools for the rich. Everyone should have a good, grounded education, a comprehensive education. In many ways the UKs comprehensive system had its roots in Gramsci. Like Dewey, and many others, he saw learning as being active through activities. However, he was no Rousseau-like romantic. Children, he recognised, did not take naturally to learning.
Intellectuals, for example academics, are often seen as being above and apart from the ruling classes but Gramsci doubted this and saw some as perpetuating the system. Indeed, some intellectuals are the product of this class consciousness and their role is precisely the continuation of the current system. His solution was to encourage intellectuals from other class backgrounds to participate in political activity. This opened the door for a more enlightened view of education and change, a counter to the brutality of the anti-intellectualism of many communists.
Schools need to produce well-rounded participants in society, but also intellectuals who would act as a brake on the power of the ruling classes and exercise their power through education. The educated individual could act critically to change society and play a significant role in society. Education was therefore a powerful source of ideas and action in a society with the capability of changing society for the better. This was a powerful force in 20th century socialist thinking, where intellectuals, and worker’s education, were regarded as being at the vanguard of working class consciousness and struggle.
Gramsci related Marxism directly to the institutions of education and saw them as playing a key role in the ideological revolution, although his theorizing is still deeply rooted in the Marxist historicism, so successfully demolished by Popper. The role of intellectuals, not merely academic, in changing society, was also recognised. Many would argue that this sort of academic Marxism had a deleterious effect on schooling, politicising education and schools. Others would still argue that an egalitarian educational system is far from realised and that Gramsci’s ideas still have huge currency in modern debates on education and schooling. As with so much of this debate, the danger lies in strong ideological positions being taken at the expense of innovative practice and realism.
Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Boggs, C. (1976) Gramsci’s Marxism. London: Pluto Press.
Entwistle, H. (1979). Antonio Gramsci: Conservative schooling for radical politics. London: Routledge.
Carmel Borg et al (2003) Gramsci & Education Rowman & Littlefield.
Jones S. Gramsci, Routledge Critical Thinkers, Routledge.
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