International Gramsci Society Newsletter
Number 9 (March, 1999): 19-26 < prev | tofc | next >  

Radical Heroes: Gramsci, Freire, and the Politics of Adult Education (N.Y. & London: Garland Publishing, 1998)

Debbie Hill (University of Waikato, New Zealand)

For those of us whose research and teaching activities fall broadly under the rubric of "education studies," the writings of Antonio Gramsci and Paulo Freire have always enjoyed a sympathetic and often enthusiastic audience. Educationists who uphold the thesis that education always presupposes an intervention of some sort, frequently appeal to Freire's binary distinction which names such intervention as either positively liberating or negatively domesticating. In like manner, those invoking Gramsci's name most often target his writings on the intellectuals and his concept of hegemony as two of the most salient areas of consideration for a successful theory of progressive social change. Perhaps for this reason, it is rather remarkable that Diana Coben's study represents the first full length (published) undertaking to explore the insights of both thinkers, in tandem, in an attempt to assess the impact of their ideas specifically upon the educational subdomain of adult education. In the light of the popularity and obvious high regard which both theorists have for many years enjoyed within this field, one indeed wonders why such a study did not appear a good many years earlier.

As Coben herself muses, however, adult education is a branch of educational inquiry which has a chequered history, visibly fraught with a conceptual ambiguity which has always surrounded its nature and purpose. Her own comments, born out independently by repeated soundings in the editorial pages of one of the leading journals in the field, International Journal of Lifelong Education (Jarvis 1997: Jarvis & Thomas 1997: Lawson 1998), suggest a discipline that is dominated by practitioners, most of whom tend neither to share a common perception of the social and political outcome of their activities nor who consequently enjoy the solidarity which normally issues from a common professional culture. The predominantly conservative expectations imposed by stringent government funding regulations have undoubtedly put an even greater strain on the discipline. Furthermore, and perhaps even more troublesome for the field, the prevalent heliocentric equation of education with the formalised schooling of children and youth has made adult education an activity which falls (or is perceived to fall) very much on the educational margins. The net result is a fractured and fragmented discipline, one desperately in need of sound [END PAGE 19] theoretical foundations and an overarching coherence of vision and direction. Specifically intent upon exploring both the past and the potential impact which the insights of both Gramsci and Freire have made, and might further be able to make, 'to the development of political theory in the education of adults' (p.5), Radical Heroes: Gramsci, Freire and the Politics of Adult Education is thus Diana Coben's latest offering.

Now, given precisely the problems alluded to above - those of getting clear about what it is that constitutes the core concerns of adult education - I must confess to always having felt a certain degree of unease about how adult educators, in the main, have generally interpreted theory and theorists. For, in so making a distinction between the education of children and the education of adults, deference is usually paid in the literature, for instance, to the phrase, 'the education of adults.' Actively signalling this focus is often taken as a necessary prerequisite to the demarcation of the central business of the subdomain from the 'normal' concerns of other educators. It also provides an easily identifiable teleology or end point: whoever or whatever the concerns to be investigated, their insights will ultimately be interrogated relative to the pragmatic activity of the education of adults. What needs to be noted, however, is that two forms of reductionist thinking tend to occur. The first is that human life is divided into stages; that the adult person one develops into becomes no longer contingent upon the childhood influences to which one has formerly been exposed. There is thus an absence of developmental thought (one could even call this historical thought) applied to adulthood. Second, there is also an accompanying and, some might say, irritating tendency for the 'education of adults' to constitute an activity which is framed predominantly in the same 'schooling' or 'formal teaching' sense which already epitomises the education of children. The concept of education being referred to, therefore, is still relatively 'immature.' That is, it is characteristically narrow in scope, to such an extent that 'education' is normally taken as expressing a utilitarian objective, such as enabling individuals to acquire the skills and dispositions to interact successfully with their material world, and, as is an even more prevalent interpretation, to engage productively in a vocation; one which may or may not offer some degree of personal or social satisfaction.

Rather predictably, and all too frequently, the outcome of such an approach gives justifiable cause for considerable concern. Such reductionistic tendencies mean that there is every danger of imposing certain constraints and strictures upon interpretation, rather than, by contrast, privileging a fundamental respect for rigorous intellectual research and authentic philological interpretation. The subtleties of a theorist's writings and polemic might consequently (as has all too often happened already) become secondary and subordinate to such visible references as the theorist may overtly and explicitly make with regard to the education of adults (narrowly interpreted, as intimated, through a formal teaching lens). In similar manner, insofar as the dominant concerns of adult educators are likely to fall under the shadow of a liberal umbrella, inevitably a further [END PAGE 20] potential threat lies in the prospect of socialist concepts being presented in a suitably 'sanitised' and 'depoliticised' fashion. In short, the 'method' of the vast majority of adult educators has tended towards one of simply interrogating what is said on the surface, the outcome of which is an 'interpretation' which potentially runs the risk of standing in an antithetical relationship to the 'rhythm of thought' of a writer; a point which Gramsci himself so forcefully underlined. It was therefore with these considerations expressly in mind that I sought to examine Coben's central thesis. Both for lack of space and my own personal affinities, I want to highlight her treatment of Gramsci's ideas especially.

As is the case with many texts, we learn that Coben's investigation is a significantly modified and updated version of her 1992 doctoral dissertation. In keeping with her stated purpose, she is primarily interested in surveying the value which adult educators have placed upon the respective contributions of both theorists. To this end, she readily admits that much of the literature search for her study has been informed by citation index holdings in which were targeted key adult education journals, an approach which therefore largely excluded material written specifically from a philosophical, historical or other similar 'non-adult education specific' perspective. The advantages of this more directed search, however, are that they reveal information which is a more than adequate confirmation of Coben's instinctive impression that both Gramsci and Freire rank as leading figures of tremendous standing within the discipline. For, interestingly, according to Coben's figures, Gramsci and Freire poll 'among the top twenty-five most frequently quoted authors,' with Freire actually heading the list in first equal ranking with Malcolm Knowles (pp.5- 6). But it is precisely this phenomenon - that both do enjoy an almost cult-like status - which consequently creates a sense of considerable unease for Coben. As is perhaps cryptically intimated by her book's title, central to her investigation is whether, indeed, such 'hero'-like status is actually warranted. Implying that critical theory demands a following of dissenters rather than disciples, such hero worship is all rather disconcerting, to Coben's mind, at least. For this reason, whilst both theorists have been doubtless inspirational, she concludes - particularly Freire whom she describes as having 'huge symbolic importance to a marginalised and underresourced field' (p.205) - Coben also reluctantly concedes that this enthusiasm is predominantly misplaced; built on a reputation, no less, of 'casual second-hand acquaintance' rather than first-hand authoritative knowledge of their original writings (p.203).

In this assessment, Coben is unquestionably right. With reference to Gramscian scholarship, Joseph Buttigieg has astutely highlighted this very point when he argued recently that quantitative measures of the number of scholars citing Gramsci's work should in no way be taken as indicative that Gramsci's works were indeed ever read, much less understood (Buttigieg 1994: p.99). What I was looking for, by extension, was whether Coben's own understanding of Gramsci's work was any more considered than many of those whose interpretations she herself [END PAGE 21] had (strategically) sought to critique. Did her research display a first-hand authoritative knowledge of Gramsci's polemical and literary objective? Sadly, I was rather disappointed. Although Coben does acknowledge that Gramsci was not an adult educator per se (p.50, p.200), there are nonetheless consistent, and I would argue, disconcerting attempts within her narrative to translate his polemic into the discourse of the typical adult educator outlined above. Although it can be easily argued that Gramsci's life and work belies an exceptionally broad and robust concept of education, to name this concern as activity which was primarily devoted to the 'education of adults' to my mind attests to a reductionistic metamorphosis of industry and effort which was inextricably, first and foremost for Gramsci, cultural and political. And this is precisely Gramsci's message. The cultural and political is 'educational' in ways which theorists are, I suspect, only just now beginning to seriously consider. The force of my criticism against Coben's analysis thus rests principally on a distinction I clearly see between Gramsci's overall purpose and Coben's subsequent contemporary perception of this same purpose. What might more profitably be referred to as 'the problem of education' within Gramsci's writings - the problem of how to intervene in history to create a future for the many rather than a privileged few - is translated rather more simplistically in Coben's text. As Joe Kincheloe intimates in his preface, Coben's attempted avoidance of 'appropriating' either Freire or Gramsci in ways in which they, themselves, might otherwise have approved, is possibly a partial explanation (p.viii). My own reaction is very plain: beneath the celebrated 'openness' of the writings of both theorists lies a very definite mode of thought and social commitment. Capturing the essence of this position is therefore, in my view, an unnegotiable prerequisite.

From my own reading of Gramsci's work, the application of the dialectical method is one which permeates Gramsci's entire corpus. It is his 'philosophy of praxis' which, by its very employment, represented the practice of Marxism in its authentic form; that is, Marxism freed from either the shackles of an excessive idealist interpretation (that merely 'thinking' social change would create it) or, as underlying his critique of Bukharin's sociological method, of extreme positivist interpretation (i.e. social change was beyond the compass of human agency). We find in Gramsci's philosophy, as a subsequent result, a constant interrogation between practice (reality) and knowledge of that practice - whether idealist, positivist, fascist or any other - which underscores the construction of a theoretical interpretation of a concrete situation adequate for a political force to intervene; given the potential of an historical epoch, of course. 'The philosophy of praxis is precisely the concrete historicisation of philosophy and its identification with history', Gramsci was at pains to stress (Gramsci in Hoare & Nowell Smith 1971: p.436). His thesis is nothing less than an advocacy for the 'gnoseology of politics' (Buci-Glucksmann 1980: p.10) - the dialectical unity of objective conditions and human initiative; the thesis both of the apparatus of philosophical and cultural hegemony and the animation of an educational apparatus with its [END PAGE 22] programmes, methods of teaching and types of personnel necessary to counter the hegemony of the bourgeoisie. Above all, it is a thesis which is intent on tempering power with morality. To this effect, Gramsci wrote in an article on June 15, 1918 (cited in Germino 1990: p. 79): "The problem is moral more than it is [a question of] mechanical organisation: it is a problem of responsibility, of culture, of the deepening of the socialist consciousness."

Yet, despite the depth of critique which Gramsci's method brings to existing concepts and modes of thinking, Coben's interpretation of hegemony and the role of the intellectuals (which constitutes the focus for most of her discussion on Gramsci's contribution in chapter two) is neither framed in dialectical terms (despite her repeated references to the dialectic) nor informed by a theory of culture and politics which the philosophy of praxis sought to engender. Instead, it is an amalgam of opinion based chiefly on second-hand interpretation. Hegemony is eventually reduced to a reformist concept, insofar as it is principally interpreted as a theory of alliance and substitution (after Laclau and Mouffe 1985): where previous marginalised groups form a new 'historic/al bloc' to replace that of the old. By way of stark relief against Gramsci's imperative of intellectual and moral reform, there is little indication that Coben's perception of 'social change' encapsulates qualitative change in the way in which Gramsci so constantly envisaged. For, despite Coben's continual reference to the creation of 'a revolutionary hegemony,' there is a decided absence of discussion as to the nature of such revolution and the crucial distinction which Gramsci drew between the democratic model of liberal capitalism and the creation of the self-regulated society to which all Gramsci's lifetime endeavours were specifically focused. Indeed, to the extent to which Coben argues that the cause for which Gramsci lived and died 'seems all but to have collapsed' (p.203), his most endearing legacy, at least according to Coben, is that, 'He teaches us to see the education of adults as a multifaceted activity, part of the complex set of institutions and forces of civil society which constitute the bulwarks of the state and potentially form part of the revolutionary terrain' (p.50). In similar, and all too simplistic, fashion, she further records; 'he shows us, through his example, how to learn from defeat, carry on working and survive, at least for a while, under the most difficult circumstances' (p.50).

Regarding her interpretation of the role of the intellectuals in facilitating social change, Coben seems especially bothered that adult educators often take a leading role in what can only be described by her as something akin to a 'conversion' experience. For, in light of the above, - that the cause for which Gramsci lived and died seems one which is now 'spent' - Coben expresses considerable uncertainty over whether any cause can now be considered a common one (p.222). In this regard, that the adult educator 'sets an agenda' (which Coben claims is sometimes hidden), in Coben's mind at least, is indicative that the student's own values and perspective on the world are somehow perceived as 'deficient.' This is, in a strong sense, a concern about paternalism and the grounds for paternalistic interference in general terms. Yet, despite all the posturing and Coben's [END PAGE 23] profound reticence regarding Freire's rationale and method of intervention, in particular, the ground is never opened up to fully interrogate this crucial issue. Such a discussion, I suggest, should have accompanied her exegesis. Instead, her preference is to offer brief and superficial comment.

My own view is that had she truly explored the full implications of the dialectical method employed by both theorists, Coben may have concluded that the degree of overlap between Gramsci and Freire's vision more closely intersects than credit is given. Both wrestle - albeit in their own unique (but not incommensurable) way - with the most decisive dichotomy of a 'democratic' way of life: between the goal of autonomous human existence and a hegemonic form of life in which all of us find ourselves unwittingly immersed. That the liberal democratic ideal is the most effective 'ideological bluff' ever to have been mounted in the defence of capital is one of the most pertinent 'problematics' commonly pursued by both our theorists. Similarly, how to create an authentic, 'living' democracy to maximise human autonomy is likewise, very clearly, a mutual concern. Whilst it is a concern that is humanistic, as Coben notes, it is also a concern, more importantly, socialist in essence. Just as Gramsci expressed his anxiety that in the phrase, 'historical materialism', the accent should be laid squarely on the former term - 'historical' - one could equally argue that for all Gramsci's affinities, affinities which effectively make him a 'humanistic socialist,' the accent should undoubtedly fall on the latter term - his socialist commitment. And this is precisely where my key criticism of Coben's work lies. In my view, Coben's attempt to reconcile both Gramsci and Freire's insights with what is now commonly known as the 'politics of difference' lies at the heart of most of these reductions and points of discrepancy. Insofar as this new politics effectively constitutes a de facto liberal view of politics - despite accompanying protestations by supporters that it signals something new - I submit that it cannot but involve an inevitable downplaying of socialist commitment on behalf of a theorist. Indeed, as is evidenced by the many recent attempts to declare Gramsci inspirational to post-Marxist, post-liberal politics (Golding 1992: Holub 1992: Laclau and Mouffe 1985), such distancing is now an essential prerequisite in order to render Gramsci's 'contribution' sufficiently malleable to what is predominantly an individualistic politics. Hence, in Coben's pages, we rather (unsurprisingly) witness numerous instances (especially in chapter four) of Coben 'talking past' other radical educators - Peter Mayo, Paula Allman and John Wallis, for example. Moreover, this preference may go some way towards explaining a decided absence of interaction with primary source material. The periodical appearance of isolated elements of Gramsci's theory is but a small concession to this omission; particularly as these elements are never adequately related back to the theoretical and cultural context from whence they emerged to any satisfactory or satisfying extent. The many instances of Coben 'thinking aloud' are, moreover, indicative that Coben is either [END PAGE 24] ignorant of Gramsci's meaning or, alternately, chooses to temper the full force of his intention, given these changing, 'post-Marxist' times. Unhappily, the net result is a generally incoherent and 'woolly' explication. Meaning appears to be 'second-guessed.' Confusion often prevails.

My final assessment of Coben's work is that the questions which she advances in the course of her study display, in an unfortunate and all too frequent fashion, an absence of engagement; particularly with regard to the broader educational ideas which the work of both Gramsci and Freire so richly express. For, to my mind, at least, issuing from Gramsci's scholarship are repeated warnings of the need for the critical interrogation of every ounce of our cultural practice. Insofar as every social interaction belies an expenditure of educational energy, urgent analysis needs to be undertaken into the multitude of ways by which people learn and are socially shaped. Culture produces who or what we are - or are not. The cultural field in its entirety should therefore be the field of the adult educator's object of inquiry. It was for Gramsci. Which is precisely why a portrait of Gramsci as 'the educator' working with 'the student,' in my view, so starkly signifies an absence of engagement with Gramsci's very method itself: not only an absence for which Coben is partially guilty, but also, perhaps more troubling, an absence on the part of the majority of adult educators who truly profess a commitment to radical social change in broader terms. Consistently, by a general and repeated failure to conceive of their core business as the study of all aspects of human engagement from the cradle to the grave, adult educators exercise nothing short of a form of conceptual - and therefore practice-driven - censorship. Regrettably, Coben's text neither does sufficient justice to her 'radical heroes' nor authentically sketches, in contemporary fashion, what they truly can contribute. More 'optimism of the will' may perhaps remedy this deficiency: but, might I suggest, only if accompanied by a healthy measure of genuine conceptual interrogation. In this regard, the very concept of education itself needs to be exposed to rigorous and continuous critique (see Hill 1998: Oliver 1998). To equate education with formal teaching and learning is the most effective 'ideological bluff' to plague our discipline - precisely because it is this reduction which is most hidden from our everyday educational gaze.


Buci-Glucksmann, C. (1980). Gramsci and the State. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Buttigieg, J. A. (1994). Philology and Politics: Returning to the Text of Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks. Boundary 2, XXI, 2, 98-138. Germino, D. L. (1990). Antonio Gramsci: Architect of a New Politics. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Golding, S. (1992). Gramsci's Democratic Theory: Contributions to a Post-Liberal Democracy. Toronto: University of Toronto. [END PAGE 25]

Hill, D. (1998). In Freire's Footsteps: Neoliberalism and the Domestication of Education. New Zealand Journal of Adult Learning, 26, 1, 48-55.

Hoare, Q & Nowell Smith, G. (1971). Selections From The Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International Publishers.

Holub, R. (1992). Antonio Gramsci: Beyond Marxism and Postmodernism. New York/London: Routledge.

Jarvis, P. (1997). Editorial (The Learning Society). International Journal of Lifelong Education, 16, 4, 263.

Jarvis, P. and Thomas, J. E. (1997). Editorial. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 16, 6, 473.

Laclau, E. & Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London/New York: Verso.

Lawson, K. H. (1998). Guest Editorial. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 17, 3, 155.

Oliver, R. G. (1998). Discussion: The Ideological Reduction of Education. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 30, 3, 299-302.   ^ return to top ^ < prev | tofc | next >