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New Left Review I/32, July-August 1965

NLR Editorials

Introduction to Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci’s essay on education, which we print below, was written in prison in 1926. We publish it, not out oj piety, but as a contribution to socialist discussion of education. For Gramsci’s preoccupations in this text coincide significantly with many problems which are still at the centre of educational debate in Britain today: the relations between education and class; vocationalism; the ideology of education; the question of teachers. All these problems were raised by the Gentile Rejorm of Italian education in 1923: The idealist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, Minister of Education in the first Mussolini government, was entrusted with the reform of the Italian school system. He and Croce had developed in the first decades of the century a wide-ranging critique of the existing educational system, stigmatising it as ‘instruction’ not ‘education’, and as narrow, formal and sterile. Gentile and Croce particularly attacked the learning by heart of Latin grammar and of philosophy and literature tnanuals. (Although Gentile became the leading ideologue of Italian fascism, and Croce its most prominent critic, it is striking that their philosophical views on education remained very similar.) The watchwords of the Gentile reform were ‘educativity’ and ‘active education’, and Gramsci’s object in his essay was in part to expose the rhetorical character of these slogans, and to show the practice which lay behind them. The positions which emerge from his criticism of the Gentile reforms should, however, be seen in the light of his own personal situation. The apparently ‘conservative’ eulogy of the old curriculum in fact often represents a device which allowed Gramsci to circumvent the prison censor, by disguising the future (ideal system) as the past in order to criticize the present. In a different way, Gramsci’s insistence on the values of discipline and work in education must also be seen in terms of his own history. He was far from being hostile to the Rousseauesque tradition in education, though he was critical of it. His attitude is best suggested in a remark he made elsewhere: ‘We are still in the romantic phase of the active school, in which aspects of the struggle against mechanical and Jesuitical education have been unhealthily emphasized for reasons of polemical contrast; we must now enter the “classical”, rational phase, and discover in the ends to be attained the natural source of new methods and forms.’ But as the child of a registry office clerk of Albanian origin, living in northern Sardinia, Gramsci was born into one of the most backward peasant environments in Europe. His childhood was extremely hard, and his success in school and university despite constant ill-health, under-nourishment and over-work, was a triumph of intellectual purpose. Something of his individual experience is thus carried over into his repeated emphasis on learning as work. (Just as his childhood experience led him to value so highly an education which combated ‘folklore’ and ‘magic’).

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