Carmel Borg, Joseph Buttigieg, Peter Mayo, eds. Gramsci and Education. Lanham and Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002. ii + 335 pp. $41.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7425-0033-4; $91.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7425-0032-7.
Reviewed by Marvin E. Gettleman (Emeritus Professor of History, Brooklyn Polytechnic University)
Published on H-Education (July, 2003)
The Triumph of Exegesis over Praxis and History
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, and the Project on the Comparative International History of Left Education are apparently unknown to the editors and contributors to Gramsci and Education. 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. 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.
. See Cahiers d'Histoire 79 (2000).
. 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.
. 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).
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Marvin E. Gettleman. Review of Borg, Carmel; Buttigieg, Joseph; Mayo, Peter, eds., Gramsci and Education.
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