Dave Hill, Peter McLaren, Mike Cole, Glenn Rikowski, eds. Marxism against Postmodernism in Educational Theory. Lanham and New York: Lexington Books, 2002. x + 341 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7391-0346-3; $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7391-0345-6.
Reviewed by John-Michael Bodi (School of Education and Allied Studies, Bridgewater State College)
Published on H-Education (January, 2004)
It is always a uniquely rewarding experience to read current ideas about philosophy and the human condition especially as they relate to education as it is affected by capitalism. Most readers will appreciate this book for its attempts to shed light on the evolution of thought past postmodernism although the connections to education are few.
In response to the book I must first relate a story. At one point in my career I taught the social studies curriculum at an alternative high school in a large inner-city school district in the United States. The student body (ages sixteen through twenty-two) was a collection of individuals who decided to drop back in to high school. Most were drug users, some were drug dealers, some had done time in a correctional facility, and some had been institutionalized in mental facilities. One of those students helped me to understand the practical implications of understanding the postmodern era.
One young fellow, age sixteen, I'll call Black/White or "B/W". I have created this name for him because he always wore either black or white or all-black clothes. He applied white make-up to his pale white face and he dyed his hair jet black and spiked it. He found his own body hair to be abhorrent. He wrote poetry that he kept to himself and as far I knew he did not do drugs. His family had had him committed to a mental facility for about a year because of his non-conformist behavior and their concerns that he was agoraphobic as well as suicidal. One of the few times he spoke directly to me he recounted the day he was sitting in his bedroom at home and "they came and took (him) away." He said he put up a "good fight" (a contradiction to his essence I think) but in the end he was restrained and treated with anti-psychotics.
When I first met him he had been released to his parents about three months earlier and was reluctantly enrolled in the school. In the beginning he came somewhat regularly to school but eventually came less and less. When in class he sat in the back and looked into space, rarely interacting with the others and only talking when addressed directly.
One day I discussed Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" with my world history class and had the students respond to those ideas in any creative way they liked. Some used the abundant art materials provided, some wrote essays, some poetry. B/W made eye contact with me (a very rare occurrence) and began to talk with much more enthusiasm than I had ever seen before. He told me of a personal experience when he was outside a store in a highly trafficked retail business area when he was approached by a "tourist" (his word) who asked him to pose for a photograph with his family. B/W acquiesced but was troubled by it. Later that same day he said he "was walking down the street and was harassed by the cops" because of how he looked. He asked me why those two things happened to him.
Seeing an opportunity to help B/W think about himself in relation to the allegory of Plato and the broader context of self in society I replied, "C'mon B/W, look how you dress, all black and white; and your hair and make-up. That seems to be your 'shadow' on the wall of the cave; you look very different and people are curious. If you don't want people to look at you or if you want the cops to ignore you, you should dress down some."
He became even more animated, even sitting up, causing others to look his away, and protested, "This isn't 'how I look,' this is me. This isn't a costume, this is the real me!"
I sat and thought for a moment before I realized that he was right; he understood himself, he just did not understand how others saw him. His interpretation of Plato's allegory was an important step for him in his path of self-realization, and he taught me directly about what Lyotard meant when he emphasized "incommensurable differences." The uniqueness of B/W, for that matter of each of us, is a singular event and cannot be generalized into a universal. It is our individual awareness of our individual constructs within the "metanarratives" of modernity that separates us from others.
How does this relate to the book by Hill et al.? It is my attempt to put a human face on some occasionally dense writing and deep thinking about the evolution of our social consciousness as it relates to social justice and education.
As stated in the first chapter, the book has three themes: an appraisal and critique of postmodernism within educational theory; the explication of Marxist and socialist-feminist alternatives to postmodernism; and human resistance to capital and its associated forms of inequality. The collection is well ordered and makes a logical set of arguments. The essays as a whole, however, do little to describe how educational theory could be more effectively Marxist.
The various authors of each of the chapters criticize other writers and theorists and then take broad swipes at the issues raised. For example, in chapter 2 ("Prelude: Marxist Educational Theory after Postmodernism") Glenn Rikowski critiques Elizabeth Atkinson's work and then basically explains the task of radicalizing educational practice in a capitalist society. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis's work (Schooling in Capitalist America  and Learning to Labor ) is referred to as the high point of Marxist educational theory but then the reader's attention is shifted to the United Kingdom where socialist underpinnings in education were originally secured. Michael Neary in his essay, "Youth, Training and the Politics of 'Cool,'" also provides a foundational look at how the enculturation of youngsters in Britain led to the centralizing of its educational system. His is one of the few essays in this collection that has a real sense of what being a teenager is like ("Youth is struggling in and against itself" [p. 154]) and begins to make practical overtures toward devising means to address the problems of the pervasive influence of capitalism in our schools.
The argument is made that Marxist educational theory is alive and well, which is true, but the only evidence of any growing Marxist or socialist overthrow of the capitalist economy that dominates the world focuses on the protests at World Trade Organization meetings. One of the sections of Rikowski's essay is titled "Education after Seattle and the Tasks Ahead." In it he lists some generic tasks for school curricula that are routinely addressed elsewhere, e.g., mainstream teacher education textbooks such as Joel Spring's American Education (2003), now in it its eleventh edition.
As much as I admire Peter McLaren's intellect, I must admit I will probably always have to read his work with a dictionary in hand. I do not believe that his ideas are particularly innovative but I do consider his thought to be insightful; I just think he could easily explain himself with fewer and more accessible words. In the two essays he contributes with Ramin Farahmandpur ("Breaking Signifying Chains: A Marxist Position on Postmodernism" and "Recentering Class: Wither Postmodernism? Toward a Contraband Pedagogy") as well as in the final chapter ("Postmodernism Adieu: Toward a Politics of Human Resistance"), the examples he uses to illustrate a point are highly descriptive but the point he makes is often minor. For example in "Breaking Signifying Chains" he uses a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger as a metaphor for the position we should assume (below, looking up) when viewing or trying to understand the workers' position when confronting capitalism. His defense of the ubiquitous influence of Marx is coherent and to the point but wordy when he states:
"Progressive educators need to ask: how does the semiotic warfare of the postmodern or postcolonial critic reinscribe, repropose, and recohere capitalist social relations of production through decentering and rerouting cultural representation?" (p. 44)
In subsequent chapters McLaren and Farahmandpur, and Hill, Mike Sanders, and Ted Hankin, make the case for having social and economic class be the definitive benchmarks for social justice rather than the various divisions we have all come to use (gender, race, ethnicity, and the like). The essay titled "Recentering Class" then leads to a beginning discussion of what they call "contraband pedagogy." Contraband pedagogy is ill-defined, however; this piece of the chapter is afforded two pages out of thirty and amounts to a list of what it is not. Hill et al. in "Marxism, Class Analysis and Postmodernism" best elucidate the argument for understanding class as a totality and its perspective in the war against capitalism. They use facts to bolster their argument and objectively discuss both sides of the issue (supporting the postmodernist versus relegating it to the dustbin of limited theories). What I really like about this later chapter (8) is that the educational research of Sally Brown, Sheila Riddell, and Jill Duffield is cited and discussed; it gives an authority to the essay that is lacking in the rest of the book. In the end however, Hill et al. are only able to promote what the rest of us critical pedagogues already know and do: "we are suggesting that schools--and education and cultural workers in general--should encourage critical thinking and critical reflection, based on and predicated on a metanarrative of social justice and a morality and ethic of egalitarianism" (p. 184).
Mike Cole and Dave Hill make a coherent and sound case for refuting the co-option of postmodernism in their essay (chapter 5), "'Resistance Postmodernism'--Progressive Politics or Rhetorical Left Posturing?" In it they are highly critical of Patti Lather's view that postmodernism is a duality, one being "reactionary," the other "resistant" or "progressive." Reactionism is quickly contrasted with "resistance," a distinction that carries the argument forward with clarity and a convincing rationale for constructing a "continuum' of these connected endpoints. Regardless of how postmodernism per se is described and explained, they argue, it is a perspective that has lost its viability for instigating social change. Instead, they promote the metanarrative of Marxism and/or neo-Marxism as a more useful platform to critique the inequities in societies worldwide.
"Postmodernism ... serves the interests of capital's current hegemonic project, particularly with respect to its interrelated attempts to discredit mass ideologies, such as socialism, to disempower mass groups who are structurally oppressed, and to privilege consumption and greed over production and solidarity." (p. 91)
Postmodernism is inherently reactionary because of its inability to move beyond the "truth" (my term) of its lack of focus. Jean-Francois Lyotard, in his book The Postmodern Condition, clearly articulated the view that postmodernism is about pluralism and fragmentation. The modern period is bankrupt he said because the metanarratives of the past assume a progression toward social enlightenment and emancipation, and an all-encompassing theory of the human condition. But metanarratives are those all-encompassing theories and philosophies that bind us into our pre-destined roles that are unjust.
One of the recurring themes throughout the book is a continuous critique of capitalism and its pervasive influence on our lives worldwide. The discussion of the globalization of the economy as it evolved under U.S. Presidents Reagan to Bush II and English Prime Ministers Thatcher and Blair becomes almost pedantic as Cole and Hill contrast the current U.S. President Bush and Tony Blair with (of all people) Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky. The "third way" promoted by Blair and Clinton is described as "neoliberalism with a smiley face." A greater emphasis in the collection is on the protests at the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which led to other anti-capitalist protests worldwide, and an overwhelming concern about the influence of international corporations with regards to social justice for the workers than much at all about educational theory in a real sense.
In a dated essay, Michael Apple and Geoff Whitty (chapter 4, "Structuring the Postmodern in Education Policy") put forth a rhetorical and "polemical" (their term) argument for deconstructing educational policy with "critical action." The common good as articulated by the conservative right, they say, seeks to unite cultural and economic aspects of school life and leadership; this is done by attempting to "depluralize" society where our differences are transcended and the most qualified rise to the top. Ironically, they claim that in England and Wales the devolution of power to the schools has led to a centralizing of authority in the form of a national curriculum that includes "choice."
"[A]nalyses that celebrate fragmentation and the atomization of decision-making at the expense of social planning and government intervention may merely be replacing one oppressive master narrative with another, that of the market. Furthermore, the espousal of heterogeneity, pluralism and local narratives as the basis of a new social order is still seen by many sociologists as mistaking phenomenal form for structural relations." (p. 80)
"Postmodernism" then is being used by the establishment to validate its attempt to hold on to its power and agendas. As a theory and practice, postmodernism is unable to address any of these larger issues simply because as postmodernists deconstruct (everything) they are then unable to "reconstruct" any kind of social-democratic system in its place that has any chance of being successful; therefore postmodernism is essentially reactionary. Marxism on the other hand has a vision and a feasible one at that.
I agree with Rikowski when he suggests that teachers should describe clearly to the students that education is seen by capitalists as "labor power enhancement." Once teachers, trainers, and other educators understand this fact as the basis for education advanced by the power elites, then critical pedagogy would make "representatives of capital even more afraid, very afraid, through uncovering their worst fear through educational programs which 'think the-really-unthinkable'" (p. 135). His discussion of human nature and postmodernist view of what it means to be human clearly articulates the vapid over-intellectualization of postmodernism. He says:
"First, the concept of 'posthuman' appears to be premised upon some naturalistic conception of the 'human,' which implies an unwarranted essentialism.... [B]ut the posthuman points toward a fundamental surpassing of the 'human'.... [T]hen the posthuman theorists are never ever in a position to say whether the post- has really arrived, that the 'human' is history." (pp. 116, 117)
Further, he interprets the economics of Marx leading to the "student as commodity" argument oft-described elsewhere. Toward that end he reminds us of McLaren's urgency to rescue critical pedagogy from the "neo-Kantian Left liberalism" that has become "just another classroom technique." The theoretical/historical argument is made well here but our understanding of this perspective is mainstream thought.
One of the most oft-repeated criticisms of Marxism as a philosophy and its interpretation for social change is its neglect of the issues of race, identity, and gender equality. Virtually all of the contributors address that censure but Jenny Bourne ("Racism, Postmodernism and Flight from Class") and Jane Kelly ("Women, Work and the Family: Or Why Postmodernism Cannot Explain the Links") respond most directly and adequately. Bourne rips the postmodernists up one side and down the other, essentially making the case that they are not only "pretentious" but "obscurantist." Her review of the most problematic postmodernist literature based in practice only serves to denigrate those who have tried to do something with youngsters. For example, her heaviest criticism is directed at Phil Cohen who promotes a curriculum of anti-racism by avoiding discussions of reason about the issue, and promoting the notion that white working-class youth is the bigger victim of racism today. Although I do not disagree with Bourne here I think she might have presented her views more diplomatically.
Jane Kelly, on the other hand, while critiquing the postmodernists as "bourgeois" decides to not
"deal with the postfeminist agenda, nor with those feminists who adopt postmodernism hook, line and sinker, for both of these are easy targets. Rather, I want to concentrate on feminist writers who take a critical stance toward postmodernism, but who try to draw out what they regard as useful to a feminist analysis and discard what is not." (p. 213)
In a subsection of her larger essay (titled "Useful Theory: Marxism, Socialism and the Liberation of Women"), Kelly underscores the bigger point echoed by the rest of the authors: all divisions (race, gender, sexual identity, etc.) should be subsumed under "solidarity with the working class." This is not to say that she assumes the role of the "good minority"; instead, I would argue that she helps the argument by keeping us focused on the bigger task of combating worldwide capitalism which enslaves us all. And then in another subsection (titled "Here and Now: Women, Work and the Family") she recognizes the reality of gender inequality (i.e., lower pay for equal work) and suggests specific goals:
"Firstly, it is important to recruit women into trade unions so that the existing gender divisions and pay differentials can be fought. Secondly, in order to facilitate women's paid work, we should campaign for free cr=ches and nurseries, for both maternity and paternity leave and for women's reproductive rights. Thirdly, we should be fighting against privatizations in the public sector and cuts in the welfare state, to retain what are mainly female jobs and also to ensure that women are not forced into the role of unpaid carers." (p. 231)
Her essay finishes with a relatively upbeat but poignant message. "Without that link between real experience and ways of understanding it--praxis--we are on the road to nowhere" (p. 232). The only area I wish she would have addressed is the different but equally important issue for feminist-Marxists--the historical experience of women as second-class citizens in socialist organizations.
This collection of essays is a clear and well articulated foundation for dismissing postmodernism as a theory for fomenting social change. Postmodernism has indeed been co-opted by multinational corporations, neo-conservatives, and neo-liberals for the purposes of sounding relevant with regards to understanding the reality of our times. The schools are just one of the front lines in our battles against the hegemony of capitalism.
I have come to learn from my real-life experiences in the schools (initially B/W) and elsewhere that control of our current lives is in the hands of those who direct and manage the economic realities of the world. If we were to pause and reflect as these writers have done in this collection of essays, we would soon be driven to political action and hopefully a more meaningful existence. I look forward to those who will write cogent educational theory based on this perspective so that future teachers, their students, and our societies might be changed for the betterment of all humankind.
. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984).
. For a current defense of this argument (and soon-to-be often-referenced study), see Kevin Manton's Socialism and Education in Britain: 1883-1902 (London and Portland: Woburn Press, 2001).
. Sally Brown, Jill Duffield, and Sheila Riddell, "School Effectiveness Research: The Policy Makers' Tool for School Improvement?" European Educational Research Association Bulletin (March 1995); and "Classroom Approaches to Learning and Teaching: The Social Class Dimension," paper presented to the European Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Seville, Spain, 1997. See also Jill Duffield, "School Support for Lower Achieving Pupils," British Journal of Special Education 25:3 (February 1998): pp. 126-134; "Unequal Opportunities of Don't Mention the (Class) War," paper presented at the Scottish Educational Research Association (SERA) Conference, Dundee, Scotland, 1998; and "Learning Experiences, Effective Schools and Social Context," Support for Learning 13:1 (February 1998): pp. 3-8.
. The Postmodern Condition
. Some of the mainstream sources on this topic include Edward Stevens, George H. Wood, and James J. Sheehan's introductory text Justice, Ideology, and Education: An Introduction fo the Social Foundations of Education, 4th ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2002); and Joan Wink's Critical Pedagogy: Notes from the Real World, 2nd ed. (New York: Longman, 2000).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
John-Michael Bodi. Review of Hill, Dave; McLaren, Peter; Cole, Mike; Rikowski, Glenn, eds., Marxism against Postmodernism in Educational Theory.
H-Education, H-Net Reviews.
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