Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Gramsci on Education

One of the points Gramsci emphasises in his notes on intellectuals (see the previous post) is the links between increasing intellectual specialisation and the division of labour. This is the starting point for Gramsci's brief notes, grouped in the Selections under 'The Organisation of Education and Culture' and 'In Search of the Educational Principle'. The piece begins:
It may be observed in general that in modern civilisation all practical activities have become so complex, and the sciences so interwoven with everyday life, that each practical activity tends to create a new type of school for its own executives and specialists and hence to create a body of specialist intellectuals at a higher level to teach in these schools (Gramsci 1971, p.26).
In the Italy of Gramsci's day, education had prior to Mussolini been divided by class. There was a distinction between vocational schooling, which to all intents and purposes were for proletarian and semi-proletarian layers of Italian society; and the classical schools which offered an undifferentiated and universalist education befitting the class born to rule.

As industrial capitalism took hold in the 19th century the demands of unceasing expansion and technological advancement required a new type of urban intellectual. As we saw previously these professionals tended to be drawn from the big city bourgeoisie and other urban middling layers. Furthermore, rather than benefiting from a traditional classical education these entered and graduated from new (non-manual) technical schools. While the end result of proletarian vocational education was to equip them with basic skills and habits to enter industry, the urban professionals learned how to organise it.

A consequence of this was to erode "disinterested" general education. What elements of it fed into the vocationally-oriented education of the many were put under pressure and gradually expunged. General education became even more a property of elites. This situation of course was not unique to fascist Italy - today it is increasingly difficult to defend academic disciplines not immediately connected with "usefulness" defined almost exclusively in neoliberal terms.

This link between education, class and capital is not the only one. There are other ties that bind too. In the first place, specialisation in the division of labour has a tendency to generate their own 'post-scholastic' institutions. These act as bearers of disciplinary culture, carry news about the latest developments, and are generally the public (expert) face to outsiders. These bodies are important for all forms of governance too. Gramsci reduces deliberative political bodies to two functions (whether they are democratic or not is immaterial). The first is their essential deliberative functions. The second are 'technical-cultural activities', that is complex and sometimes very technical issues they need to make decisions on. Often this is beyond their immediate competence and requires experts to analyse and make recommendations about the issues - which is where the professionals of the post-scholastic institutions come in.

It is difficult to see how this mediating role of expertise can be avoided - even the mass democracy of technologically advanced socialist societies will have to make use of specialist knowledge by 'lay' delegates and representatives. But in capitalism, this mediation is one means by which the system erodes the depth and quality of democratic decision making. Expertise, which is united by its informal disciplinary bodies, is in reality distributed across bureaucracies consisting of universities, think tanks, consultancies, enterprises, etc. Despite the disinterested, "free-floating" conceit of intellectualism, they are bound by a thousand and one bureaucratic links to public and private finance, which has the effect of defining/conditioning the parameters of expert scrutiny and the recommendations they make. Therefore when politicians turn to experts for advice, the latter's mediation helps align the (often unspoken) interests of capital with the outlook of politicians.

As an alternative to education geared around the needs of capital, Gramsci advocates a more comprehensive system drawing on vocational and classical education. He upholds a distinction between primary and secondary education. In the first phase of schooling it should provide information about rights and responsibilities and inculcate a basic world view at odds with folklorist superstition (which was still a live issue in early 20th century Italy, particularly in the countryside). Primary schooling should also be prefaced with pre-schooling. Gramsci notes that the cultural backgrounds of parents do matter - children of city dwellers come to school better habituated to the rhythms of education and school discipline (those with a background in the intellectual strata even more so). Pre-schooling can potentially "level-up" children without this background advantage.

In secondary education there is a renewed emphasis on 'humanism', which Gramsci identifies with the inculcation of the moral discipline and independent intellectual activity necessary for specialisation. Hence secondary education needs to be creative, but with limits placed on intellectual libertarianism. It must expand the individual personality and potential of its pupils appropriate to the demands of a technologically sophisticated society, but do so on the basis of a common morality. For Gramsci, the latter is inculcated in the primary phase - authority, instruction and discipline are important, but this form of comprehensive education will only really work if the result is 'dynamic' conformism.

In the second section of his notes on education, Gramsci returns to the education system prior to the fascist era (Italian education was significantly reformed by the 1923 Gentile Reform). The vocationalist education "enjoyed" by the working class and peasantry taught some of the basics of natural science, and some ideas around rights and responsibilities. For Gramsci the science was designed to prepare children for the 'realm of things', and the latter the state and civil society. Both helped move the child away from notions of natural philosophy and aimed to construct an appreciation of society - of understanding the world and how society has the power to change it. In other words, for Gramsci, the guiding principle of this education was work.

However, whatever model of education one favours Gramsci was fully aware it is not received in a vacuum - hence his argument for pre-schooling. But even then this will not and cannot engineer 'dynamically conformist' pupils. He explains:
The individual consciousness of the overwhelming majority of children reflects social and cultural relations which are different from and antagonistic to those which are represented in the school curricula: thus the "certain" of an advanced culture becomes "true" in the framework of a fossilised and anachronistic culture. There is no unity between school and life, and so there is no automatic unity between instruction and education (p.35)
Therefore hunting for an ideal method of teaching that will produce the right results (an assumption that undergirds most right wing grumbles about what's wrong with schooling in Britain) is as pointless as it is idealist. Bridging the gap between education and instruction can only be done by the teacher's practice, and for it to work they need to be aware of the gulf between their culture and society and that of their charges. The discipline and conformism necessary to imbibe formal education may (and often is) in direct contradiction with the life experiences of the pupils. As any teacher will tell you, there's nothing more difficult than teaching children who don't want to learn.

And this presents a fundamental problem socialist politics has to overcome. For large sections of the working class, there is a general lack of social competencies appropriate to the mores and discipline of formal education. And yet we need to build the capacity for intellectual work within our class to develop Marxist concepts AND the millions of organic intellectuals through which the class can become conscious of its interests.

Whether you can argue Gramsci's analysis of the situation in early 20th century Italy is appropriate to early 21st century Britain is a matter for debate. While it is true formal education is a complete turn off for significant layers of working class people, it is also true the workforce has never been more highly educated as at present. According to the 2001 Census, 30 per cent of the work force have no qualifications while 20 percent are university graduates or have a higher qualification. We may be a long way off Labour's target of 50 per cent, but undoubtedly the numbers have increased since this data was collected. So while the culture clash problem Gramsci identifies has not gone away, it would appear to be less of a problem now.

But of course, there is a related problem. Despite a highly educated work force class consciousness remains at an historic low. People are being educated, but not politically. The difficulty of propagating socialist politics, working class history, and suffusing our class with the confidence to act for itself remains - and is probably even more acute than it was in Gramsci's day.

A list of posts in this series on the Selections from the Prison Notebooks can be found here.


Hannisburg said...

As a trainee teacher, this entry was obviously of interest to me. I agree, largely, with what you're saying in as much as vocational qualifications breed workers. However, the focus seems to be on everybody having a fitting education, and to be fair, everyone starts off on an even footing in terms of being taught the classic subjects, but it's later on that this idea of 'vocational qualifications' comes into play and divides classes of children up. Arguably because the government want everyone to have lots of bits of paper, regardless of what they say; regardless of what they mean. It might not cast me in an excellent light when I say this, but ultimately, not every child is capable of studying classical subjects and surely by introducing the vocational degree, it does give them some aspirations beyond whatever they've grown up witnessing their parents doing. That said, the Every Child Matters scheme is bringing about a new educational realm, where children are much more cared and catered for. So arguably, the world is their oyster, but as you say, there's nothing harder than trying to teach people who don't want to learn.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

EDL supporters need Gramsci!

EFComrade said...

A very interesting post which flows brilliantly from a drunken conversation I had with a socialist students member yesterday.

Why is it that education has improved and expanded but that the consciousness of working class people is at one of its lowest points in history?

I think it can generally be atriuted to academia, which in general is shit. It is extremely ridgid time consuming and generally offputting. for all those reasons it stops people from delving deeper into subjects. I find that this can be reduced by having a more left-wing lecturer which I have seen borne out not just in left-wing students but others as well. However it is still within the framework of a caitalist education system.

The real question though is how to change it in the here and now, adult education has and continues to e severely cut and university education is very much like a production line for young students. Older students who go to univeristy are generally those who have been seeking out there own personal education outside of the confines of academia already and are in the minoirity.

aberfoyle said...

Compulsory unionism may give back the basic understanding of class, a school of reality.To ask a 18 year old why did not get an education,they would probably say what for their aint no jobs,and them that are are minimum wage or casual.Yet to enhance their quality as employable,they can join the middle classes and get a student loan,and if after their six month poly course at their expense, they find employment in a minimum wage job,then possibly they may wake up to the fact that not only are they working class and exploited,but have paid for the privelage.

EddM said...

Speaking as someone at a supposedly good university, it still amazes me how little anyone talks about anything of significance. Having An Opinion is socially frowned upon, except within small circles.

There's certainly a divide between "Education", "Politics" and "Life" which this system does everything it can to encourage.