International Gramsci Society Newsletter
Number 4 (April, 1995): 2-9 < prev | toc | next >  

The 'Turn to Gramsci' in Adult Education: A Review

Peter Mayo (University of Malta)

This article will focus on the importance being attached to Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) in a section of the published literature, in English, on adult education. It is mainly that section of the literature which deals with radical adult education. Writers pertaining to this particular school of adult education see potential in Gramsci's writings and actions primarily because the Italian theorist himself regarded forms of adult education as having an important role to play in a 'war of position' intended to confront, surround and eventually supersede the bourgeois state.

These writers derive inspiration from Gramsci' s own writings concerning the Factory Council Movement, conceived as a politically educative movement, and those other writings, by the Italian theorist, which emphasise the need to generate institutions and associations of proletarian culture. Furthermore, they also stress his role as a committed adult educator, and here one should mention his involvement in workers education circles, including the Club Vita Morale, and in the setting up of an Institute of Proletarian Culture, the PCI's correspondence school and the scuola dei confinati (school for prisoners) at Ustica. Gramsci must have regarded radical adult education agencies as capable of playing an important part in that process of wide ranging social organisation and cultural influence which is carried out across the entire complex of 'civil society' and which is intended to challenge and provide an alternative to capitalist social relations of production. Gramsci has shown how these relations are sustained and their contradictions concealed by congenial ideas and practices in most spheres of social life, including the most intimate ones.

Because of its flexibility and its potential to be carried out apart from the state and dominant institutions (often in clandestine settings), possibly within the context of a larger movement striving for social change, adult education constitutes an excellent means of developing views that challenge hegemonic ideas and practices and of unveiling the underlying contradictions within the dominant ideology. It also must have appeared to Gramsci and his followers to constitute an important terrain wherein a social group aspiring [END PAGE 2] to power can generate some of the ideas which can lead to the creation of an historic bloc . It constitutes an important terrain wherein a lot of the "intense labour of criticism", which, according to Gramsci, must precede a revolution, can take place.

Gramsci's work is often referred to in English language books that contribute to the radical debate on adult education. In a study (or, more precisely, a collation of studies) on nonformal education in Latin America, Carlos Alberto Torres (1990) devotes an entire section to Gramsci's theory of the State as part of the framework for analysis in this book. In another book dealing with the same topic, Thomas J. La Belle (1986) states emphatically that Gramsci is the most cited Marxist theorist in the area of popular education . He then goes on to demonstrate the relevance of Gramsci's ideas, concerning the organisation of workers through the Factory Councils, to the task of organising the masses through popular education (185). Frank Youngman (1986), stresses the importance of research into Gramsci's educational activities in Turin. He argues that research into these activities would be useful for the development of a socialist theory of adult education (233, 234).

The potential in Gramsci's writings is explored not only in connection with socialism, but also in connection with activities relating to various social movements. In a much cited work, Jane L. Thompson (1983) refers to Gramsci in the course of her review of continuing education provision and the effect of such provision on women. She argues:

There is one small light amidst the general gloom, however, which, if we are to accept Gramsci's optimism, can be a focus for development. Gramsci was convinced that despite the all pervasive power of ruling groups, which he called hegemony, education has an important part to play in challenging its ubiquity - especially adult education, which he regarded as political education. Gramsci's analysis was formulated in the context of factory councils and working class industrial struggles, but the same conviction that education has the potential to affect political consciousness holds good. For women the opportunity of education can be enormously significant (97).

These are a few examples of works, within the radical debate on adult education, in which Gramsci and his ideas are taken up. However, it would be most useful, at this stage, to turn to works which deal at length with Gramsci's ideas and their relevance to adult education. One of the earliest articles, in this respect, is probably that by Tom Lovett (1978) who dwells on community education among the working class in Northern Ireland and who argues, in this article, that progressive adult education should be developed in the context of social movements of workers (Jackson, 1981, 81). Harold Entwistle (1979) makes one of the first major contributions in the English Language. His contribution is a chapter in a well researched book, which draws on a variety of primary and secondary sources in Italian, that [END PAGE 3] stirred controversy for its interpretation of Gramsci's view of schooling. It argues that Gramsci advocated a conservative schooling for a radical politics, a view which is shared by others, notably the Brazilian philosopher, Dermeval Saviani (cf.Da Silva & McLaren , 1993) and, among recent writers on the issue, Guy B. Senese (1991). Entwistle's interpretation of Gramsci led to a number of reactions in education journals, especially those expressed by Henry Giroux, Douglas Holly and Quintin Hoare in a review symposium, centering around the book, published in a 1980 issue of the British Journal of Sociology of Education (307- 325). It also led to reactions in the literature on adult education, notably a couple of articles in the widely circulated Convergence, the journal of the International Council for Adult Education (cf. Alden, 1981; Jackson, 1981). The chapter on adult education, in Entwistle's book, directly follows the controversial section on schooling wherein the author stresses that Gramsci insisted on a school curriculum which emphasised rigour and 'disinterested' knowledge, highlighting in the process the virtues of the classical curriculum. The imparting of knowledge and the creation of educational experiences intimately tied to political and class struggle was, according to Entwistle's interpretation of Gramsci's work, to be the domain of politically committed adult education. This therefore constitutes a section on its own, in the book, a section which deals with Gramsci's writings on political education, the formation of intellectuals (on this issue and its relevance to adult education, see Hommen, 1986), culture, the factory councils and technical and vocational education.

While Entwistle's chapter is the first lengthy study on the subject in English, Timothy Ireland's monograph (1987), in the well known University of Manchester monograph series, is the first full scale publication entirely devoted to the relevance of Gramsci's ideas to adult education. It deals specifically with the influence of Antonio Gramsci on popular education in Brazil. He carries out his study at a delicate moment in Brazilian history as the former Portuguese colony embarked on a period of transition from authoritarian (military) to civilian rule. One of the many points he makes in this monograph is the fragmented nature of the popular education movement. It lacks a 'Modern Prince', a unifying organisation. He asks the following questions:

Can we assume that a multiplicity of unconnected efforts will eventually, through a kind of 'snowball' effect, contribute to strong and representative working class organisations capable of uniting in a new historic bloc those forces struggling for a transformation of society? Or is the kind of strong revolutionary working class party which Gramsci envisaged central to this process of canalising the struggle and destroying narrow sectarian interests? Is there any one party capable of such a task - the Workers' Party, the Brazilian Communist Party, the Communist Party of Brazil, etc. - or is the [END PAGE 4] multiplicity of sectarian parties of the Left evidence that such a party remains to be created? (66, 67).

He returns to these questions in the concluding part of the monograph.

Ireland's thorough investigation of the Gramscian influence on Brazilian popular education, an influence which extends to popular education throughout Latin America, would be very useful reading for anyone embarking on a project comparing or synthesising the work of Gramsci and Freire, the latter being the one important adult educator in relation to whose work Gramsci is often analysed (Allman, 1988; Ransome, 1992: 183-185; Leonard, 1993; Coben, 1992; Mayo, 1994, 1994a, 1994b). Freire himself draws on Gramsci in his works and we come across a sustained discussion on the Italian theorist and his influence on Latin American intellectuals in his 'talking book' with the Chilean, Antonio Faundez (1989). The Gramscian influence in this book could be felt in the discussion on the role of intellectuals as mediators between party and masses, the need to convert "common sense" to "good sense"(made in the context of a discussion on popular culture) and the concept of "national popular".

As regards published work which attempts to draw the ideas of Gramsci and Freire together, in relation to adult education, I would mention my own and Paula Allman's (1988) chapter in a volume edited by Tom Lovett. The works by Ransome (1992) and Leonard (1993) do not deal specifically with adult education. One of my pieces (Mayo, 1994a) explores elements for a synthesis of Gramsci's and Freire's ideas relevant to radical adult education. Another (Mayo, 1994b), extracted from my Ph.D. thesis (Mayo, 1994), underlines what I perceive as their limitations which, I feel, need to be recognised before one incorporates their ideas into a contemporary project of radical adult education. In her chapter, Allman draws on the ideas of Gramsci and Freire, alongside those of Illich, in the context of a sustained discussion on ideology. This is an issue with which she and participants in a diploma course, that she coordinated at the University of Nottingham, had to contend as they sought signposts for a socialist approach to adult education. Allman sees adult education as part of the "prefigurative work" which, Gramsci insisted, had to precede every revolution. The task he set himself, and presumably the task to be faced in a process of adult education inspired by Gramsci, involves a dialectical engagement with the "material conditions present at the time of analysis, i.e. an insistence on conceptualising the dialectic movement of material and social forces"(105). This involves an analysis of the material expressions of ideology as present in our relations and practices. Freire's dialogical process of conscientisation would serve as a most appropriate pedagogical vehicle for such transformative learning to take place. [END PAGE 5]

In another paper, dealing specifically with the relevance of Gramsci's writing and action to radical workers' education, W. John Morgan (1987) provides a comprehensive account of Gramsci' s life and central ideas, notably those of Hegemony and the State, Intellectuals and the role of the Party. He underlines their relevance to counter hegemonic adult education practice. Morgan highlights aspects of Gramsci's own involvement in adult education, with particular emphasis on the Factory Council Movement and the prison school created at Ustica. In his discussion on the issue of Intellectuals, Morgan, citing Entwistle, underlines Gramsci's belief that the proletariat is very slow at producing its stratum of organic intellectuals, the reasons for which lie "in the lack of resources and opportunity available to the working class" (p. 303). He argues that the proletariat has few institutions of its own and that education, religion, leisure, etc. are often in the hands of the dominant class--i.e., "segments" of the latter's hegemonic control. In his view, "adult education presents an opportunity to break through this mesh and explains why Gramsci insisted on the conscious, active, educational intervention of the workers' party" ( 303).

A year later, another paper on Gramsci appeared in the same journal. For the most part, the author, Paul F. Armstrong (1988), dwells on some of the most popular concepts in Gramsci's and Marxian thought, namely the relationship between the dominant ideas and the ruling class, the non deterministic relationship between base and superstructure, Hegemony, the production of consciousness and Praxis. The last section deals specifically with Gramsci and the education of adults. The main point is that Gramsci conceived of adult education "as a significant vehicle" in the process of challenging the "dominant hegemony"(158) and as the means of enabling intellectuals to remain organic to the working class. Since he had little faith in traditional adult education institutions, such as the popular universities, Gramsci primarily conceived of adult education, in this context, as "informal political education, which happened in the community and in the work place, especially in factory councils" (158). In this respect, the chapters, ' Political Education and Common Sense', in Adamson (1980), 'Political Consciousness: education and the intellectuals', in Ransome (1992), and Federico Mancini's (1973) discussion paper on the Factory Councils become important reading material for anyone interested in this aspect of Gramsci's contribution to adult education theory.

The issue of "Adult Political Education" is also taken up by Diana Coben (1994) in the context of a very recently published discussion on Antonio Gramsci and Adult Education. It constitutes the penultimate section of a paper in which Coben, quoting Gramsci at source, outlines some of his major concepts, notably those of an "educative politics", Hegemony and the Intellectuals. She provides a condensed account of Gramsci's own involvement as an adult educator and starts off the section on Adult Political Education with A. Green's [END PAGE 6] description of Gramsci as a "tireless popular educator". In this section, she highlights Gramsci's well known critique of the kind of education for the working class provided by the popular universities. She also highlights Gramsci's view that, in adult political education, carried out within the context of a revolutionary movement, the task is to facilitate the process whereby learners move from 'common sense' to 'good sense'. This paper contains edited extracts from her Ph.D. thesis (Coben, 1992) which will be published in abridged form by Garland Publ., New York, and which, judging from the title, looks like being a valuable addition to the published literature on Gramsci and adult education.

A quite recent paper on Gramsci to appear in an adult education journal is that by Ursula Apitzsch (1993) from the University of Frankfurt. The focus, in this paper, is on Gramsci's writings on migration and the issue of the South. She regards these writings as very relevant to the current debate on multiculturalism in as much as Gramsci:

. . . views emigration and immigration processes as social phenomena of one and the same Italian society; . . . thinks from the perspective of those countries from which there is high migration, bearing in mind the spread of Italian labour over the whole world; . . . wants to see the culturally particular, in its marginalised and folklorised form, defended as 'collective memory' and integrated into a new, modern form of civil society (civiltà) (137, 138).

Apitzsch argues the point stressed time and again in the critical literature on multiculturalism, namely that as long as the population of wealthy industrial countries is underclassed by immigrants, the promotion of cultural identity serves the purpose of subordination under the dominant culture. Multiculturalism becomes the means whereby the dominant culture is set up as the invisible norm defined in relation to the marginalised 'other'. And Gramsci's writings on the idea of 'subaltern social strata' and his critiques of totalising terms like 'national culture' would be relevant to a critical consideration of this issue in that they remind us of the contexts which bind the 'many cultures', in a given national society, to the country's structures of domination.

Though interesting and topical, this article has one shortcoming. There is no specific reference to adult education. At no stage does the author draw out the implications for radical adult education practice in areas where the issue of multiculturalism has to be confronted, notably language classes for immigrants or community development projects among specific ethnic groups.

Apitzsch's article does emphasise, however, the relevance of Gramscian scholarship to some of the most pertinent issues of this day and age. Together with numerous other writings, which relate his ideas to a variety of struggles for social change, this article shows that Gramsci's ideas can be taken up in non reductionist, non class essentialist ways. The [END PAGE 7] majority of the articles cited here, however, do stress the social class factor in the struggle for social change. The excesses of some of the contemporary postmodern literature, which invokes the Sardinian, while considering class politics as passè, have not, as yet, contaminated most of the writings, in English, on Gramsci and adult education. In these writings, class politics, the central feature of Gramsci's work, remains firmly in the foreground.


ADAMSON, W. 1980, Hegemony and Revolution: Antonio Gramsci's Political and Cultural Theory, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, University of California Press.

ALDEN, H. 1981, 'Gramsci's Theoretical Legacy'. Convergence, Vol. X1V, No. 3, pp. 91 - 94.

ALLMAN, P. 1988, 'Gramsci, Freire and Illich: Their contributions to education for socialism'. LOVETT, T. (ed.), Radical Approaches to Adult Education. A Reader, London, Routledge.

APITZSCH, U. 1993, 'Gramsci and the Current Debate on Multicultural Education'. Studies in the Education of Adults, Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 136 - 145.

ARMSTRONG, P. 1988, 'L'Ordine Nuovo: The Legacy of Antonio Gramsci and the Education of Adults'. International Journal of Lifelong Education, Vol. 7, No. 4., pp. 249- 259.

COBEN, D. 1992, Radical Heroes: Gramsci, Freire and the Liberal Tradition in Adult Education, Ph.D. thesis, University of Kent at Canterbury.

COBEN, D. 1994, 'Antonio Gramsci and the Education of Adults' in Adult Education and Social Change, a collection of papers presented at the European Research Seminar of the European Society for Research on the Education of Adults (ESREA), Lahti, Finland, 7-11 August.

DA SILVA, T and MCLAREN, P. 1993, ' Knowledge Under Siege. The Brazilian Debate'. MCLAREN, P and LEONARD, P (eds.). Paulo Freire: A Critical Encounter, New York and London, Routledge.

ENTWISTLE, H. 1979, Antonio Gramsci: Conservative Schooling for Radical Politics, London, Boston, Henley, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

FREIRE, P and FAUNDEZ, A. 1989, Learning to Question. A Pedagogy of Liberation, Geneva, World Council of Churches. [END PAGE 8]

HOMMEN, LEIF 1986. On the "Organic Intellectualism" of Antonio Gramsci: A Study of the Concept as a Contribution to the Politics of Adult Education. Master of Continuing Education thesis, College of Education, University of Saskatchewan.

IRELAND, T. 1987, Antonio Gramsci and Adult Education: Reflections on the Brazilian Experience, Manchester, Manchester University Press.

JACKSON, T. 1981, 'The Influence of Gramsci on Adult Education'. Convergence, Vol. 14. No. 3, pp. 81 - 86.

LA BELLE, T. J. 1986, Non Formal Education in Latin America and the Caribbean - Stability, Reform or Revolution?, New York, Praeger.

LEONARD, P. 1993, 'Critical Pedagogy and State Welfare - Intellectual encounters with Freire and Gramsci, 1974-86'. MCLAREN, P. AND LEONARD, P (eds.). Paulo Freire: A Critical Encounter, New York and London, Routledge. LOVETT, T. 1978,'The Challenge of Community Education in Social and Political Change'. Convergence, Vol. 11, No.1.

MANCINI, F. 1973, Worker Democracy and Political Party in Gramsci's Thinking, Bologna, School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University Press.

MAYO, P. 1994, Synthesising Gramsci and Freire: Possibilities for a Theory of Transformative Adult Education, Ph.D. thesis, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education / University of Toronto.

MAYO, P. 1994a , 'Synthesising Gramsci and Freire: Possibilities for a Theory of Radical Adult Education'. International Journal of Lifelong Education , Vol 13. No. 2.

MAYO, P. 1994b, 'Gramsci, Freire and Radical Adult Education: A Few Blind Spots,' Humanity & Society, Vol.18, No. 3.

MORGAN, W. J. 1987, 'The pedagogical politics of Antonio Gramsci - "Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will". International Journal of Lifelong Education ,Vol. 6, No.4, pp. 295 - 308.

RANSOME, P. 1992, Antonio Gramsci. A New Introduction, London, Harvester/Wheatsheaf.

SENESE, G. B. 1991, 'Warnings on Resistance and the Language of Possibility: Gramsci and a Pedagogy from the Surreal'. Educational Theory , Winter,Vol. 41 No.1, pp. 13 - 22.

THOMPSON, J. L. 1983, Learning Liberation: Women's Response to Men's Education , London, Croom Helm.

TORRES, C. A. 1990, The Politics of Nonformal Education in Latin America, New York, Praeger.

YOUNGMAN, F. 1986, Adult Education and Socialist Pedagogy, Kent, Croom Helm.   ^ return to top ^ < prev | toc | next >