Antonio Gramsci, one of the most important Marxists, theorized on many aspects of Italian society and culture in the early part of the twentieth century. Among his key ideas were the notions that a system of political and cultural dominance, which he called hegemony, maintained an elite in power and that education was a tool of that elite to control the rest of society.
Gramsci was born into a society that was geographically divided between the rich industrial North and the poorer, rural South. Gramsci did well enough in school to earn himself a scholarship at the University of Turin. It was here, in prewar Italian society, that he developed his communist ideas. He became politically active and worked as a journalist and party member of the Italian Socialist Party. During this time, the Russian Revolution took place in 1917, with the proletariat overthrowing the bourgeoisie. His ideas were becoming more radical and vocal, so much so that Mussolini threw Gramsci into jail. Gramsci spent the last nine years of his life behind bars, ironically writing his most important work in the Prison Notebooks, the majority of which was smuggled out of jail and later published in Russia.
Gramsci’s key idea was hegemony, a notion that underlined how a dominant system of political and cultural values, beliefs, and morality controlled society and helped maintain those in power. Education helped maintain the ideological hegemony. Gramsci highlighted how education systems were divided between classical and vocational methods of schooling. The classical schools were for the dominant classes and the intellectuals, and the vocational schools for the working classes.
Gramsci saw how schooling and the number of people being educated was growing. He suggested that vocational schools were becoming more specialized to deal with newer, modern methods of industrial activity. This created new forms of indoctrination and exploitation, both in the classroom and the workplace. Gramsci pondered on how this change in education would shape Italy’s future. Would this be an opportunity for simple social reform or more radical revolution?
Gramsci was interested in the role and function of the intellectual. If revolution was to take place, then academic intellectuals would have to be won over with ideological arguments. The school and the teacher were agents in this process. Gramsci wrote about the moral development of pupils and the aims that the school set itself. Unfortunately for Gramsci, this was being hegemonically controlled during the 1920s and 1930s by the Italian fascist state.
Gramsci’s solution to this education problem was for schools to be organized like a college, along progressive lines, free from state control and discipline. The common school would be built upon the comprehensive principle, reflected in aspects of culture and therefore in Gramsci’s belief, ultimately changing society along socialist lines. Whether educational change could lead to revolution is, of course, debatable. One thing that Gramsci considered was why European working classes had failed to develop revolutionary consciousness post-1917. Hegemony controlled that impulse, and education was one means of preserving the powerful elites, he thought.
Gramsci’s theories are still important today and can be applied to educational contexts. His theoretical framework offers an argument for how the powerful arrive and stay in power and provides a wider understanding about how the possibility of a hegemonic shift can theoretically change education systems, cultures, and societies.
- Gramsci, A. (1990). Selections from political writings, 1910– 1920. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Jones, P., & Jones, S. (2006). Antonio Gramsci. New York: Routledge.
- Nowell-Smith, G. (Ed.). (1973). Antonio Gramsci: Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
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