1. The lives of John Dewey (1859-1952) and Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) could not be of greater contrast in their personal circumstances; the one led a long, active, healthy and free life, whilst the other struggled in difficult social and political circumstances, suffered from ill-health and spent the last 10 years of his life in prison where he nevertheless succeeded in writing on history and philosophy. What makes a comparison fruitful is that both identified the central role that education plays in building a democratic way of life. Their very different experiences, both personal and political form the basis for more than merely a textual comparison: for we can read Gramsci’s Selections from Prison Notebooks against Democracy and Education and vice-versa. Arguably, a comprehensive account of the role of education in democratic life needs to take account ideas from both texts – not as forming a convenient unity but rather as a tension that informs our reflective practice.
2. Gramsci is well-known for elaborating a theory of hegemony in which he noted that for a social group to emerge supreme, two factors are involved: domination – the exercise of coercive power which could include subjugation through armed force; and the exercise of ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ so that such a group “becomes dominant when it exercises power, but even if it holds it firmly in its grasp, it must continue to ‘lead’ as well” (Gramsci, 1971 - SPN: 57-8; see also Anderson, 1976). Hegemony is exercised primarily through the consent given by subaltern groups to the leadership – moral, intellectual, cultural – exercised by dominant groups (Femia, 1981: 31).
3 . Gramsci further suggests that a hegemonic relation is maintained and developed through a directed endeavour that is purposive in a number of respects including re-enforcing the moral authority of those in power; developing perspectives that include some ideas and exclude others; and assisting in the development of a self-identity for persons appropriate to their station in life:
“this form of relationship exists throughout society as a whole and for every individual relative to other individuals ……….It exists between rulers and the ruled, elites and their followers, leaders and the led…………..every relationship of ‘hegemony’ is necessarily an educational relationship”. (SPN: 350, my emphasis)
4. He puts forward the idea that what he terms an ‘educational principle’ comprises the idea of work which “is the specific mode by which man actively participates in natural life in order to transform and socialise it more and more deeply” (SPN: 34). He goes on to say that work involves “theoretical and practical activity” through which a human world is created that is free of magic and superstition and which is populated by people who “appreciate the sum of effort and sacrifice which the present has cost the past and which the future is costing the present and which conceives the contemporary world as a synthesis of the past…..which projects itself into the future.” (ibid) . But this conception is close to Dewey’s pragmatism for which agency “is to maintain the continuity of knowing with an activity which purposefully modifies the environment” (Dewey, 1985, p. 354). Gramsci’s concept of praxis can be interpreted as a historicised pragmatism.
5. From a Gramscian perspective the most significant weakness in Dewey’s approach is a failure to situate a vision of a democratic concept of education within a configuration of culture and power which, as it happens, tends to undermine that vision. The problem is not so much that the democratic vision is hard to realise but that in Dewey’s account we are at a loss to understand why this might be the case. It is for this reason – and this is to cast no doubt on Dewey’s radical credentials – that a deeper, more nuanced account of democracy is needed. It needs to shed light on this initial question: “How does one conceptualise the dual role of education which both maintains a power-cultural complex and also holds out the promise of change?”
6. Yet from a Deweyan perspective, Gramsci’s attachment to what seems to be a conservative pedagogy (see SPN, p. 36) undermines the claims to radicalism and renders the latter’s democratic vision problematic. It is unclear how the experience of subaltern groups can be mobilised in such a way to become educationally significant; rather, their transformation into free agents is hampered by an instructional mode of learning, so beloved by educational conservatives who quote Gramsci at will (see Gove, 2013 and Hirsch, 1996).
7. At the same time, the privileging of experience, apparently advocated by adherents of Dewey, risks merely confirming subalterns in their ‘common sense’ which counter-hegemonic education must confront. (See SPN p. 419 for this important concept). Dewey possibly under-estimates the way in which immersion in subject disciplines may transform subalterns into actors and authors of their own destinies.
8. Dewey’s non-conflictual definitions of democracy (“a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience”, Dewey, 1985, p. 93) and the public (which arises from “all those modes of associated behaviour (which) may have extensive and enduring consequences which involve others beyond those directly engaged in them”, Dewey, 1954, p. 27) can be interpreted as a deepening of Gramsci’s concept of counter-hegemony. For it enables Dewey to formulate conceptions of education and learning that are not merely oppositional and gives us a conception of experience that takes into account consequences and unintended effects which education can uncover and analyse.
9. Both authors strongly favour the common school (Dewey, 1985, p. 265; Gramsci famously criticised the introduction of specialised vocational schools in his own country – see SPN, p. 40) here we can see how the democratic vision of the two men converge, despite theoretical differences.
10. Finally, neither of these thinkers is an easy read; both use compressed prose and the texts of each clearly reflect the cultural/historical context from which they arose. But I hope to show my audience that by reading them both together (a privilege unavailable to either of those gentlemen) we can be the beneficiaries.
Anderson, P. (1976) ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’, New Left Review. 100 (Nov 1976-Jan 1977).
Dewey, J (1985), Democracy and Education (Southern Illinois Press)
Dewey, J (1954), The Public and its Problems (Swallow Press: Ohio University, Athens)
Entwistle, H. (1979) Antonio Gramsci: Conservative Schooling for Radical Politics. London: Routledge.
Femia, J. (1981), Gramsci’s Political Thought. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Gove, M (2013), The Progressive Betrayal, Speech given to the Social Market Foundation, 5 Feb 2013: http://www.smf.co.uk/media/news/michael-gove-speaks-smf/
Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from Prison Notebooks. Translated by Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart. (Referred to as SPN.)
Hirsch, E. D. (1996) The Schools We Need. New York: Anchor Books.