Antonio Gramsci, Schooling and Education
The Encyclopedia of Informal Education
By hegemony, Gramsci meant the permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality that has the effect of supporting the status quo in power relations. Hegemony in this sense might be defined as an 'organising principle' that is diffused by the process of socialisation into every area of daily life. To the extent that this prevailing consciousness is internalised by the population it becomes part of what is generally called 'common sense' so that the philosophy, culture and morality of the ruling elite comes to appear as the natural order of things. [Boggs 1976 p39]
Marx’s basic division of society into a base represented by the economic structure and a superstructure represented by the institutions and beliefs prevalent in society was accepted by most Marxists familiar with the concepts. Gramsci took this a step further when he divided the superstructure into those institutions that were overtly coercive and those that were not. The coercive ones, which were basically the public institutions such as the government, police, armed forces and the legal system he regarded as the state or political society and the non-coercive ones were the others such as the churches, the schools, trade unions, political parties, cultural associations, clubs, the family etc. which he regarded as civil society. To some extent, schools could fit into both categories. Parts of school life are quite clearly coercive (compulsory education, the national curriculum, national standards and qualifications) whilst others are not (the hidden curriculum).
So for Gramsci, society was made up of the relations of production (capital v labour); the state or political society (coercive institutions) and civil society (all other non-coercive institutions).
Gramsci's analysis went much further than any previous Marxist theory to provide an understanding of why the European working class had on the whole failed to develop revolutionary consciousness after the First World War and had instead moved towards reformism ie tinkering with the system rather than working towards overthrowing it. It was a far more subtle theory of power than any of his contemporaries and went a long way to explain how the ruling class ruled.
Now, if Gramsci was correct that the ruling class maintained its domination by the consent of the mass of the people and only used its coercive apparatuses, the forces of law and order, as a last resort, what were the consequences for Marxists who wished to see the overthrow of that same ruling class? If the hegemony of the ruling capitalist class resulted from an ideological bond between the rulers and the ruled, what strategy needed to be employed? The answer to those questions was that those who wished to break that ideological bond had to build up a ‘counter hegemony’ to that of the ruling class. They had to see structural change and ideological change as part of the same struggle. The labour process was at the core of the class struggle but it was the ideological struggle that had to be addressed if the mass of the people were to come to a consciousness that allowed them to question their political and economic masters right to rule. It was popular consensus in civil society that had to be challenged and in this we can see a role for informal education.
Overcoming popular consensus, however, is not easy. Ideological hegemony meant that the majority of the population accepted what was happening in society as ‘common sense’ or as ‘the only way of running society’. There may have been complaints about the way things were run and people looked for improvements or reforms but the basic beliefs and value system underpinning society were seen as either neutral or of general applicability in relation to the class structure of society. Marxists would have seen people constantly asking for a bigger slice of the cake when the real issue was ownership of the bakery.
This brings me to my second theme. Gramsci saw the role of the intellectual as a crucial one in the context of creating a counter hegemony. He was clear that the transformation from capitalism to socialism required mass participation. There was no question that socialism could be brought about by an elite group of dedicated revolutionaries acting for the working class. It had to be the work of the majority of the population conscious of what they were doing and not an organised party leadership. The revolution led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 was not the model suitable for Western Europe or indeed any advanced industrialised country. The Leninist model took place in a backward country with a huge peasantry and a tiny working class. The result was that the mass of the population were not involved. For Gramsci, mass consciousness was essential and the role of the intellectual was crucial.
It is important at this juncture to note that when Gramsci wrote about intellectuals, he was not referring solely to the boffins and academics that sat in ivory towers or wrote erudite pieces for academic journals only read by others of the same ilk. His definition went much further and he spread his net much wider.
Gramsci’s notebooks are quite clear on the matter. He writes that "all men are intellectuals" [and presumably women] "but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals". What he meant by that was that everyone has an intellect and uses it but not all are intellectuals by social function. He explains this by stating that "everyone at some time fries a couple of eggs or sews up a tear in a jacket, we do not necessarily say that everyone is a cook or a tailor". Each social group that comes into existence creates within itself one or more strata of intellectuals that gives it meaning, that helps to bind it together and helps it function. They can take the form of managers, civil servants, the clergy, professors and teachers, technicians and scientists, lawyers, doctors etc. Essentially, they have developed organically alongside the ruling class and function for the benefit of the ruling class. Gramsci maintained that the notion of intellectuals as being a distinct social category independent of class was a myth.
He identified two types of intellectuals - traditional and organic. Traditional intellectuals are those who do regard themselves as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group and are regarded as such by the population at large. They seem autonomous and independent. They give themselves an aura of historical continuity despite all the social upheavals that they might go through. The clergy are an example of that as are the men of letters, the philosophers and professors. These are what we tend to think of when we think of intellectuals. Although they like to think of themselves as independent of ruling groups, this is usually a myth and an illusion. They are essentially conservative allied to and assisting the ruling group in society.
The second type is the organic intellectual. This is the group mentioned earlier that grows organically with the dominant social group, the ruling class, and is their thinking and organising element. For Gramsci it was important to see them for what they were. They were produced by the educational system to perform a function for the dominant social group in society. It is through this group that the ruling class maintains its hegemony over the rest of society.
To Read the Entire Essay and Access More Resources