Gove the Gramscian?

Michael Gove has announced his two biggest influences on his philosophy of education. Jade Goody (of Big Brother fame) and… Antonio Gramsci. Now, people much smarter and more clued up than I have already covered this, but I had to say my piece.

He’s mental. The (generally successful) attempt by the right to co-opt the language and action of the left has been well documented, but this has to be taking it one step too far. It’s one thing to say as a conservative that you admire Marx for whatever reason, for example, but to specifically invoke an outwardly Marxist thinker on a specific project is suicide except in a couple of cases:

  • You are the master of satire
  • You are 100% certain no one will know that you have messed up.
  • You actually know what you’re talking about
  • You’re openly Marxist yourself.

Now, I’m fairly certain Gove is none of the above. What’s more, it is painfully obvious that he has perhaps read a few pages of Gramsci (or maybe even a few

This is the bloke Gove didn’t read enough of.

pages of someone’s report of Gramsci) to come to this conclusion. Marxists and critical theorists bang on about understanding context (historical, material etc.) for good reason – it’s a really important component to how they see the world. This is something Gove really should have done.

For example, in the 1974 version of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks there is a chapter called On Education. Before we even get to Gramsci’s writings, there is an interesting note in the translator’s introduction:

‘The apparently “conservative” eulogy of the old curriculum in fact often represents a device which allowed Gramsci to circumvent the prison censor, by disguising the future (ideal system) as the past in order to criticise the present’ (Hoare, 1974: 24 – emphasis added)

This surely is the biggest warning you can be given not to take things at face value.

The first Guardian piece linked above reports Gove as saying Gramsci defended and promoted classical education – the kind he wants to go back to with the reinstatement of traditional O-Levels and A-Levels (you can see my feelings on that here). This is a depressing (and I can only hope unintentional) misreading of Gramsci. Take, for example, Gramsci’s description of traditional education:

The fundamental division into classical and vocational (professional) schools was a rational formula: the vocational school for the instrumental classes, the classical school for the dominant classes and the intellectuals (Gramsci, 1974: 26)

and

The tendency today is to abolish every type of schooling that is “disinterested” (not serving immediate interests) or “formative”… Instead, there is a steady growth of specialised vocational schools, in which the pupil’s destiny and future activity are determined in advance (Gramsci, 1974: 27)

Gramsci goes on to advocate a more ‘comprehensive’ form of education, ‘imparting a general, humanistic, formative culture’.

So what should we take from the above quotes? Firstly, Gramsci is preoccupied with the idea of organic and traditional intellectuals – intellectuals borne from their class, and who represent that class, and intellectuals who appear ‘disinterested’ and pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake. This cannot be distanced from the problem of ideology – i.e. what is knowledge for its own sake in a system run via class interests, and from what class can a ‘traditional’ intellectual rise?

These class interests divide organic and traditional intellectuals, but they have also traditionally been represented through the education system. The classical school (Gove’s school) exists to educate on the academic subjects, on culture and so on. The professional/vocational school exists to educate workers for particular tasks.

This is a two tier system that should not be unfamiliar to any of us. It is the ‘bog standard’ comp versus the Grammar school and the public school. It is the ‘poly’, versus the Redbrick, versus the ‘ancient’ university.

Moving to the second quote, we can see echoes of the general move toward education fulfilling a particular instrumental goal: produce a ‘competitive’ workforce. Gramsci does in fact defend a general cultural education for all, but not in the respect Gove wants to. For Gramsci (and, I’d argue, Gramscians) one of the goals of education is to realise critique – to become aware of your socio-political context (almost like class consciousness, but with more cultural elements). If the sum of your education is riveting and bricklaying, and you enter a job with ridiculously long and/or tiring hours, when will you have the time or the inclination to realise that general education yourself? This is not to say people never do transcend this problem, but I’d argue it doesn’t happen enough.

The bloke who should have read more Gramsci

You can argue that a strong way to perpetuate power asymmetries, perhaps manifested in class, is to determine future activity in advance. This is supposed to be a relatively short piece, so I will resist bringing up data on different classes’ attitudes on education, or stats on social mobility and so on. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that such a system that Gove argues Gramsci upholds in fact keep subaltern classes (in more general terms I like to say ‘vulnerable’ or ‘powerless’ groups) in the position they are. The paradoxical use of social capital in social policy and human/cultural capital in education policy is testament to this.

For Gramsci to uphold such a system simply does not make sense. In the context of the rest of his work, it would be wholly counter intuitive. So if Gove is invoking Gramsci, he is doing it through being the exemplar of Gramsci’s critique.

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