Antonio Who?

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 13th, 2013

Michael Gove, the British Secretary of State for Education, is a man who reads serious books on education and follows their arguments. In a remarkable speech the other night, he mentioned some of the intellectual influences that have caused him to shake up the British educational world by insisting that students begin learning facts again. One of those influences was our own Daniel Willingham, and he even quoted from a 1996 book by me. But he said that the greatest intellectual influences on his educational thought were the writings of Antonio Gramsci. So here we have a Tory cabinet minister singing the praises of one of the most revered Communist thinkers of the 20th century. What gives?

I don’t doubt that Michael Gove might have an impish sense of humor and take pleasure in suggesting to his shadow opponents in the Labour party and in the anti-fact party of educators: “Look I’m just supporting what the most profound leftist thinker of the 20th century had to say about education.” But Gove’s main aim was deadly serious. Gramsci was an astonishingly prescient and penetrating thinker whose work is all the more remarkable since it was written under depressing conditions—in prison, where he languished because his writing and journalistic work in the 1920s were so cogent and influential that Mussolini’s fascistic regime seized him in 1927 with the avowed purpose of silencing him. There he remained for eight years, until his ill health brought him to a sanitarium in 1934, and to a clinic in 1937, where he died. He was allowed to write, but not, of course, to let anyone see his writing. It’s only because his sister-in-law, visiting his clinic room in 1937, smuggled out his 33 prison notebooks, unpublished until after the war, that we know some of Gramsci’s profound ideas about society, politics, and education.

He rightly predicted that in the future, most work would entail intellectual work, and that political and economic power would reside with the educated. Especially notable was his critique of progressive education, which became the official educational doctrine of the fascist regime. Despite progressivism’s high claims to “child-centered natural development,” “deep understanding,” and “independent thought,” its anti-bookish tendencies, Gramsci said, were socially retrograde. “Il bambino non è un gomitolo di lana da sgomitolare, ma la parte del complesso mondo storico su cui l’ambiente e la società esercitano la loro coercizione”. “The child is not a ball of yarn to be unwound, but part of a complex historical world in which the environment is a society that exercises its own coercions.” Under progressivism, the children of the rich would continue to possess the knowledge they needed to wield the levers of power (because they would always have multiple opportunities for bookish learning), while the children of the poor would remain in their subordinate poverty.

Hence, what was needed, Gramsci said was a single “formative school” for all students rich or poor that would stress foundational knowledge in literature, science, history and the arts, in a demanding common curriculum. Only in later grades should there be practical trainings in technical and job related subjects. What Gramsci was in fact proposing was the American Common-School idea of the 19th century. And in fact his scuola formativaunica is sometimes translated as “common school.”

In sum, Gramsci favored the kind of knowledge-based schooling that Michael Gove is proposing. He would also favor the Common Core State Standards in the United States, so long as these were implemented as a specific knowledge-based curriculum, and were freed from the anti-intellectual and socially retrograde effects of what Gramsci disdainfully called “teoria dello sgomitolamento”—“the unravelling theory,” best translated as “constructivism”—the anti-broad knowledge, anti-guided learning theory that still dominates many teacher training schools in the United States.