Michael Gove has had to abandon his plans to scrap the GCSE, which is fine by me, though many of his other hare-brained schemes still remain; bibles, yachts, performance pay, the downgrading of arts education… it’s a long list. The proposed Baccalaureate was, of course, a return in all but name of the old O Level /CSE system of two-tier education. Gove’s aim, like all the Coalition ministers, is to destroy all egalitarian influence in public life. In this case he means to destroy all remnants of comprehensive education.
The weird thing is he claims inspiration from Jade Goody and Antonio Gramsci in doing it. To be honest I think we’ll skip Goody and talk about Gramsci if that’s all the same to you?
Firstly, regarding Gove on Gramsci we must remember that we dealing with possibly the first Generation X government. Funny though that idea may be at first look at various cabinet figures: Michael Gove, born 1967: David Cameron, born 1966: George Osborne, 1971: Nick Clegg, 1967: Danny Alexander, 1972: Jeremy Hunt, 1966. The one of the points about Generation X is it values cultural omnivorism. We have a somewhat deracinated ruling class (described in a recent George Monbiot article) that is semi-detached from its own tradition. Our rulers are as likely to be culturally influenced by Morrissey and Marr as Edward Gibbon and Winston Churchill. In this sense Gove, a relatively lower-class upstart compared to Cameron or Osborne, is simply one-upping his comrades.
But conservatives sometimes quote Gramsci approvingly, or at least as a worthy adversary. Here’s Melanie Phillips on so called Cultural Marxism. Gramsci is simultaneously the nice Marxist who admitted the working class would never take control of the means of production (a funny thing for the man who edited the paper of the Turin Workers Councils) and the man who said socialists should sneakily capture society’s cultural institutions and use them for subversion. It’s an astonishingly crude version of the Eurocommunist interpretation of the Prison Notebooks, but that’s Melanie Phillips for you.
In the most well-known version of the Prison Notebooks there is a short section on education. Gramsci based his ideas firstly on his own experience as an impoverished student but also on his time as editor of L’Ordine Nuovo, the leading socialist paper in
in the 1910s
and 20s, education in a much broader sense. Turin
Gramsci’s attack on the 1923 education act, which promoted a supposedly active and humanistic education over the old style, which was more about rote learning, can be interpreted as a conservative eulogy. What Gramsci was attacking was a mode of education biased toward the ruling class children, those who start with every advantage in life. Humanistic education is ruling class education. It’s what young men and women get at private schools. It's where they learn how to rule. Antonio Gramsci was not against humanistic education, he was for workers power. But the foundation of humanistic education is instructive education, literacy, numeracy, scientific understanding, geography, citizenship and so on. At every stage working class children often get the worst deal from the education system, they often have the disadvantage of a non-intellectual upbringing, they have to work harder to achieve the same results as their bourgeois classmates.
The question about education is not rote learning versus humanism, exams versus continuing assessment, etc, but to what end are these ideas put. From cutting Bookstart to jacking up university fees and shunting students away from ‘useless’ arts degrees, the current government is trying to deny poorer students the fruits of education. This is Austerity in action; the re-composition of class power in favour of the capitalist class.