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 It’s only because his sister-in-law, visiting his clinic room in 1937, smuggled out his 33 prison notebooks, unpublished until after the war, that we know some of Gramsci’s profound ideas about society, politics, and education.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.


  1. As a member of the Left, I need facts like these to convince my fellow Lefties to reject progressive education and embrace Core Knowledge. Mussolini’s regine supported progressive education –wow. Thank you for publishing this.

    Comment by Ponderosa — February 13, 2013 @ 9:38 pm

  2. Gramsci was probably some of the most interesting reading I did in grad school. What struck me about his theories is how little the upper classes really have vested in education being improved. Living in DC, most parents as long as they can get in a select set of public schools or can afford private schools could care less frankly about education on the other side of the city. It is why we have schools bursting in one part of the city and nearly empty on the other side. It reminds me of something I saw somewhere in the Washington Post that Warren Buffet said to Michelle Rhee when she started as the Chancellor. The only way to get real school reform is to eliminate private schools.

    Comment by DC Parent — February 15, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

  3. @Ponderosa,

    As a moderate from the middle, I too need facts like these to convince my fellow independents to reject progressive – aka voodoo – education and embrace Core Knowledge.

    Together, perhaps we can make a dent in the madness.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 15, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

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  5. DCParent: I disagree. It would be much better to eliminate public schools and attach a voucher to every kid. The public school bureaucracy, from the DOE to the local level, is so huge, so well-funded, so politically radioactive and so ineffective that I’ve come to believe that it can’t be fixed, so it should be eliminated. Private schools should then be required to provide real data on results, and parents can choose what works for each child – even within a family, all kids don’t have the same needs. And, no schools would be required to retain kids who don’t attend regularly, don’t behave etc. The one public school need is for the delinquent population, which should never be allowed to interfere with educational opportunities for the willing.

    Comment by momof4 — February 16, 2013 @ 10:56 am

  6. I should add that I would support the idea that the private schools should use ITBS (or equivalent; suitable for academic level) annually, so as to provide a real comparison. Obviously, SES is huge, but testing for placement at the beginning of the year and for progress at the end should show appropriate gains for all students (which will vary with ability; the higher the IQ, the more progress should be made)

    Comment by momof4 — February 16, 2013 @ 11:00 am

  7. I have a deep appreciation for the work of Core Knowledge Curriculum and I’m convinced of the benefits of content knowledge as a foundation for deeper learning. On the other hand, I recently visited the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelpjia and I witnessed the fruit of a school that employs inquiry based instructional most exclusively and proudly calls its methods constructivist and progressive. I also met a student who was articulate about what and why he was learning

    I’m wondering is there any common ground between these two camps Is there a place for inquiry in a content rich curriculum. Are the modern prophets of constructivism correct when they assert that critical thinking and problem solving are not linear and don’t need a foundation of common content? Are the constructivists off base when they label content focused instruction as standardistos?

    Finally, wouldn’t our schools be stronger if we had a healthy dialogue between these two camps?

    Comment by Dan winters — February 16, 2013 @ 10:22 pm

  8. @Momof4 I think several years ago I would have agreed with you, but I think we privatize/characterize at our peril without asking some very hard questions. I drive over 2 hours a day to get my kids in a better- read wealthier public school. I have tried closer charters, but there are hundreds of applicants for a few spots. DC does not have a middle class, schools, charters and privates essentially cluster according to class. Without understanding how critical the loss of a middle class is, we miss its consequential result in the dysfunction of organizations like public school systems. One reason I like the CK system is that it acknowledges that well off upper and middle classes teach their kids these topics and if you want access to their social milieu and yes jobs you better be able to talk the language.

    Comment by DC Parent — February 19, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

  9. This post makes me uneasy. I would like to see more citations to back up the claim that Gramsci was talking about American-style Progressive education — or that Mussolini supported the same.

    Comment by Harold — February 19, 2013 @ 10:17 pm

  10. Finland has actually implemented Dewey’s recommendations and is providing a strong education, to judge by results.

    I say this as someone who admires, or wants to admire, the work of E.D. Hirsch (and also Gramsci). However, I agree with those who say that Hirsch may not be sufficiently versed in early childhood development. I mean children under the age of seven.

    Comment by Harold — February 19, 2013 @ 10:19 pm

  11. I see no evidence whatsoever that Mussolini supported progressive education at any time. Such a statement is stunningly contrary to fact:

    Comment by Harold — February 20, 2013 @ 12:17 am

  12. A retraction is in order from Mr. Hirsch.

    Comment by Harold — February 20, 2013 @ 12:18 am

  13. What education under Mussolini was really like: pre-military training for 8- to 18-year-olds and indoctrination on racial superiority and the undesirability of democracy:

    Comment by Harold — February 20, 2013 @ 12:37 am

  14. According to a commenter on Gove in Ballots and Bullets:

    …[W]hat Gramsci was advocating was an education which fostered critical self-reflection amongst the working class about the conditions of its own exploitation. What Michael Gove is advocating is a traditional education which suppresses critical reflection by inculcating an “official” knowledge “national pride”, “the canon”,etc, the resources not to critically reflect collectively on systemic inequaity, but to individually get oneself ahead in the race for cultural and economic capital.

    Once you have this latter philosophy of education, education no longer has any value in itself, it becomes entirely dependent on the market in which it is an exchangeable commodity, it becomes post-modern and this inevitably erodes the classical principles which Gove appears to want to preserve.

    Comment by Harold — February 20, 2013 @ 12:49 am

  15. @Harold- While I agree you can take the post-modern approach to Gramsci by viewing knowledge as solely an instrument of power as many do, or you can say that the central insight that Marxist writers provide today are the venues and structures of power that can be cracked opened and used by the poor and working classes to build a middle class. The insight I gained from Gramsci years back in grad school was the idea of the 10 percent, that the bottom had to believe there was a slim chance to get to the top so the capitalist class would so by allowing 10% through. That still is about right if you are on the bottom. But if we take that central insight that there are tools that allow that 10% and open up those tools then there can be change. That to me is the insight I think you can gain from looking at writers like Gramsci. Selective yes, but very few of us need be slavish to the man, but instead need to see the insights they can bring us to modern times.

    Comment by DC Parent — February 20, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

  16. Harold, I just took a look at the book you cited, and it says nothing about pedagogical theories applied in schools (and it wouldn’t – it’s a history book written for teenagers or tweens).

    Comment by Hainish — February 20, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

  17. The challenge from Harold and from others that Gramsci couldn’t possibly mean American or British-style progressivism in attacking the new “organic” methods of Mussolini’s minister Giovanni Gentile has a long history. The researcher Harold Entwistle was roundly attacked for writing a book on Gramsci which demonstrated exactly that.

    The uneasiness is easily explained. Progressive education is supposed to be politically progressive. Dewey was a political progressive. And here we have Giovanni Gentile, Mussolini’s education minister, a fascist educational progressive. That is in itself is sufficient proof that there’s no necessary connection between the two, and it’s in fact something of a lexical oddity that the word progressive means social justice in one domain and natural growth in the other.

    Central figures in this controversy are Gentile and Dewey. In 1922, Gentile’s book The Reform of Education was published in the United States. (In 1923, he became Il Duce’s education minister.) Dewey knew and mildly admired the book, though he thought it was a bit too abstract.

    Here’s a snippet from Gentile that gives the flavour:

    Away with pre-established programmes then of any description! Spiritual activity works only in the plenitude of freedom. Horace asks: _Currente rota cur urceus exit?_[the wheel turns and out comes a pot.] We answer: Whether an _urceus_ or not, what always comes from the _rota_ is something which cannot be foreseen, for the very simple reason that what is foreseen is not the future but the past, which we (as in the case of experimental sciences) project into the future, whereas the spirit is a creation which occurs not in time but in a never-setting present. So every abstract discussion of the possible content of education in general, or of any given particular school, must appear crude and absurd, if we recall that education reflects the historical development of the spirit. What we need to do is to wait, observe, and have faith.

    There are plenty of passages in Dewey with the same confidence in the working out of the unknown future.

    Gramsci lived through the same European influences as Dewey and Gentile: Herbart, Pestalozzi, and Froebel. The new methods were taking over not just in Italy and the US, but also in England, and Germany. But overshadowing all these pedagogical thinkers all was the larger, critical influence of Hegel whose prestige in late 19th and early 20th century was unparalleled. The new education was similar in all countries and places where people called themselves neo-Hegelians – in the American Midwest—with Dewey and Harris—as well as in Rome, London, and Berlin. Gentile is normally described as a Neo-Hegelian, and so, with justice, is Dewey. His little 1897 book on Hegel holds the seeds of his thought. Considering the volume of stuff Hegel wrote, and my own year-long graduate work on Hegel, and considering the intricacies of his vocabulary and thought, this could be a too-long blog. But it won’t be. The short of it is that Hegel claim to show the beneficence and progressiveness of natural processes in the human sphere, and his optimism had enormous prestige among late 19th and early 20th century thinkers.

    When Gove mentioned Gramsci’s critique of progressivism he knew he’d get a rise from the left, and he succeeded. My blog got a rise from Harold, which I hope I’ve answered. Certainly the American version of progressivism turned out more individualistic in its flavour, and the fascist version turned out more statist. Yet key educational ideas such as active inner growth from within the child are identical in the two versions of progressivism. Gramsci argued that that progressivism’s disparagement of imposing facts on young minds, whether propounded by fascists or by democrats would be politically unprogressive, and would lead to social injustice, with the strong and the rich preserved on top. History has proved him right.

    Comment by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. — February 20, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

  18. Professor Hirsch,

    You have created a straw man out of progressivism.

    To say that Dewey and Gentile had something in common may be an isolated fact, but downplays the big picture.

    Not only Hegel, but everyone in the nineteenth century believed in Progress (see J.B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress, 1905 (?) and in the organic development of the individual. It is reductive to the point of distortion to attribute all of the differences between Dewey and Gentile as due to the “individualism” of the one, and the “statism” of the other.

    As far as Gentile, his big reform (according to Italian wikipedia), was to recommend that all children have the same education for the first five years. According to Gentile, these first five years were to consist predominantly of instruction in the Catholic religion.

    After that, the Liceo would train a select group of leaders (the elite) in philosophy (just like what Gramsci recommended, though not for the elite only in Gramsci’s case), while the masses would continue to get religious and vocational instruction. Italian wiki states that according to Gentile’s centralizing and hierarchical plan the elite licei would stress a classical and humanistic curriculum (I.e., Greek and Latin) with the sciences taking a secondary role.

    Mussolini broke with Gentile in 1928 and got rid of the Licei’s emphasis on philosophy, which the Church considered excessively secular, and, after the invasion of Ethiopia he made the schools more and more explicitly racist and militaristic.

    If you go to any expensive private school today in the USA, instead of seeing children reciting Latin declensions to the thwack of the schoolmaster’s switch , as would have been the case during the boyhoods of Dewey and Gentile, you will see classrooms organized more along the lines recommended by Dewey. Especially schools where the wealthy send their kids, which may even include gardening, cooking, and handwork in the curriculum, as Dewey recommended. And is it really any wonder that everyone wanted to get rid of the old method, with its heavy dependence on corporal punishment, and total neglect of modern languages and contemporary society?

    Look, I believe in content. I also think teaching classical languages and modern languages is a great thing and should be revived But I also think think hands-on activities are important, as Dewey recommended.

    The problem with US education is caused by two things, lack of willingness to spend money and, domination of the corporate testing and publishing industries.

    You really should come out and denounce these greedy fakers.

    Comment by Harold — February 20, 2013 @ 9:39 pm

  19. La riforma Gentile come approvata nel 1923 non sopravvisse che pochi anni[2][3]: dopo i Patti Lateranensi le idee del filosofo vennero considerate troppo laiche[4], mentre Mussolini la considerò successivamente: “un errore dovuto ai tempi e alla forma mentis dell’allora ministro”[5], in quanto una scuola che trasmetteva ideali borghesi e sfornava troppi laureati. L’opera di smantellamento dei vari decreti era già ben avviata nell’autunno del 1928 tanto che lo stesso ex ministro pubblicò una propria presa di posizione sul Corriere, ma questo non servì a molto: i “ritocchi” come definiti dall’Osservatore Romano si protrassero sino al luglio del ’33[6].
    Anche questa sistemazione definita “definitiva” dallo stesso Mussolini, non sopravvisse al cambiamento di mentalità del dittatore seguito alla conclusione della campagna d’Etiopia[7]. I cambiamenti che si volevano apportare furono delineati ne “La carta della scuola” (1939), una proposta di riforma complessiva del sistema scolastico dovuta all’allora ministro della Pubblica Istruzione Giuseppe Bottai che, però, a causa dello scoppio della seconda guerra mondiale, rimase in gran parte sulla carta.
    Si arriverà poi, dopo lunghe trattative tra DC e PSI, alla legge n.1859 del 31 dicembre 1962, che riprendeva alcune idee della Carta nei confronti di scuola media ed istruzione professionale.

    Gentile’s reforms, as approved in 1923, lasted but a few years. After the Lateran Pact, the philosopher’s ideas were considered too secular, while Mussolini considered them successively: “a error that reflected the times and the mentality of the then-minister [Gentile]“, inasmuch as [in Mussolini's opinion] the schools transmitted bourgeois ideals and churned out too many graduates. The work of dismantling the various reforms was well under way by the autumn of 1928, to the point where the ex-minister published a justification of his position in the pages of the Corriere, but to little avail: the “touch ups”, as the [Vatican newspaper], L’Osservatore Romano, called them, were protracted until July of 1933.

    This (according to Mussolini) “definitive” reorganization, however, did not survive the dictator’s change in attitude after the conclusion of the Ethiopian campaign. The changes he had in mind were outlined in the 1939 “Carta della scuola” (Paper on Education), which proposed a comprehensive reform of the school system. This was the work of the minister of Public Instruction at the time Giuseppe Bottai, and, on account of the outbreak of World War 2, remained mostly on paper.

    In 1962, after long negotiations between the Christian Democrats and the Italian Socialist Party, law 1859 was agreed upon, which adopted some ideas from the “Carta della Scuola” regarding middle and vocational education.

    Comment by Harold — February 20, 2013 @ 10:43 pm

  20. Here is the link “Gentile’s Reform”:

    “middle school” — I should have said.

    And no one, sir, who has or who values children would disparage for a moment the works of the humanitarian reformers, Comenius. Froebel, and Pestalozzi.

    Comment by Harold — February 21, 2013 @ 2:59 am

  21. “You have created a straw man out of progressivism.
    To say that Dewey and Gentile had something in common may be an isolated fact,
    but downplays the big picture.”

    Harold, Harold, as I read the causes of the verbal decline since the 1960s, supported by estimable historians, I see progressivism as being the big picture in the United States. And I see Gramsci’s point about anti-fact education as a cause of social injustice as being the big picture. No one would disagree with you about the utility of hands-on teaching in the context of a coherent factual education – certainly not Gramsci. I see the rest of the discussion concerning Mussolini’s dismissal of Gentile etc. etc. as a debatable side issue, whereas I think your defense of progressivism as just being estimable sensible hands-on pedagogy (which all sides like in proper measure) evades the anti-fact preaching and practice of the movement — and the dire effects it has had along the lines Gramsci predicted.

    Comment by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. — February 21, 2013 @ 9:37 am

  22. I believe in progress and I believe in regress. Gentile’s idea of reform was religious (i.e., no) education for the many and a classical education for a few select the leaders. This is not progressive, if you ask me.

    Gramsci wanted to “level up” rather than dumb down. Those are the facts.

    It is also a fact that all right-thinking people wanted (and still want) to reform education, because education has been in crisis since the Renaissance. And that from the first, intelligent people realized that educational reforms have to be developmentally appropriate.

    Why has there been a verbal decline?

    What about Sesame Street, a huge marketing success, which modeled its lessons on TV commercials and popularized the notion of education as a competitive race?

    What about Ronald Reagan administration’s ruling that commercial TV cartoons constituted “educational programing” and that ketchup was a vegetable?

    What about the children’s book publishing industry, pours out books that are little more than greeting cards,

    What about the firing of school librarians and the defunding of municipal libraries? What about the savage inequalities — where “urban” schools have no playground, no recess and aides booming at kindergarteners through a bull-horn, while suburban schools are the equivalent of country clubs with better libraries than many city neighborhoods?

    What about the ubiquity of business — with “economics” (so-called) becoming the normative ideal and the marginalization of history and culture? What about privatization?

    Follow the money. Dewey is not the villain here.

    Comment by Harold — February 21, 2013 @ 1:14 pm

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