Gove and Gramsci: method vs. methodology
I’m thinking of announcing a competitor to Godwin’s law of the internet. This will be Rentoul’s law: in respect of any subject matter taken up for analysis by John Rentoul, John Rentoul will be wrong in his analysis of that subject matter.
The occasion for John Rentoul’s latest silliness is a speech by Gove, in which he claims to be an admirer of Antonio Gramsci. That may be so, if by admiration you mean ‘useful for looking up to see if there are any handy quotes to back me up’.
Thus, when Gove claims Gramsci’s prison notebook writings on education as support for his ‘traditional’ education agenda, he quotes his American guru Ed Hirsch:
Gramsci held that political progressivism demanded educational conservatism. The oppressed class should be taught to master the tools of power and authority – the ability to read, write and communicate – and to gain enough traditional knowledge to understand the worlds of nature and culture surrounding them. Children, particularly the children of the poor, should not be encouraged to flourish “naturally”, which would keep them ignorant and make them slaves of emotion. They should learn the value of hard work, gain the knowledge that leads to understanding and master the traditional culture in order to command its rhetoric, as Gramsci himself had learned to do.
Fair enough, as long as we remember that Gramsci wrote in the context of his concern that:
elements of struggle against the Jesuitical and mechanical school should not be unhealthily exaggerated – through a desire to distinguish themselves from the latter, for polemical reasons.
That is, Gramsci was specifically concerned that the kickback from Education minister Gentile 1923 Act (which imposed a strict, ‘traditional’ system of studies and examination geared to the selection of a small governing elite, with the result that attendance at secondary school dropped by around one third in the next three years) had been too great. Of course the censorship probably stopped a fuller analysis of the fascistisation of schooling post 1926.
But then Gove seeks to use this as a defence of:
children learning to read using traditional phonic methods, times tables and poetry learnt by heart, grammar and spelling rigorously policed, the narrative of British history properly taught.
What Gove leaves out here, though, is Gramsci’s desire that schools should then build on the basics:
The creative school is the culmination of the active school. In the first phase the aims is to discipline, hence also to level out – to obtain a certain kind of “conformism” which may be called “dynamic”. In the creative phase on the basis of what has been achieved on the “collectivisation” of the social type, the aim is to expand the personality, by now autonomous and responsible, but with a solid and homogenous social conscience.
Gove, for his part, is largely uninterested in this ‘creative’ phase. This is reflected in the continuation of his ‘core knowledge’ approach the national curriculum, under which ‘creative’ history projects, where analytical process is as important as content is lost in favour of learning what Churchill did when. Of course ‘creative’ child-developing education is actually what modern schools do pretty well (and in fact this is recognised in the OECD PISA reports that Gove has been so keen to misuse otherwise, with English 15 year olds performing very well on the ‘reflect and evaluate’ subscale of the reading assessment).
Gove is happy to keep setting up “progressive” education as the enemy of real, Gramscian liberation for the poor, even though Gramsci never suggested that traditional ‘chalk and talk’ educational methods were, of themselves, emancipatory. All he suggested was that too unstructured an approach for younger children might be a step too far, and that they needed to grasp the basics of numeracy, literacy and oracy first. This is something no sensible teacher is likely to dispute, but it doesn’t mean these basic have to be taught as they were in the 1930s (excepting the phonics-only obsession of course).
To suggest that to learn of traditions and norms (as a route to empowerment) is the same as to learn in ‘traditional’ way is a failure to distinguish methodology and method.
In the end, then, Gove’s use of Gramsci to his own hegemonic ends is clever, and fundamentally dishonest, as you’d expect by now.
Not that this is likely to bother John Rentoul, who thinks that Gove is only really continuing Labour’s policies, and that:
the idea that Gove is an ideologue reckless with evidence is just rubbish, and his Social Market Foundation speech is a detailed rebuttal of it. The argument for the English baccalaureate (although why it has to be called that I don’t know) is powerful.
Ah, Rentoul’s law there again.