Gramsci’s grammar and Dewey’s dialectic.

James Donald’s ‘Dewey-eyed optimism’

Over 20 years ago I read a short review article which re-examined the relationship between knowledge, skill, vocationalism and a broad liberal education. It helped me see that progressive educators could value knowledge and tradition as well as equality and democracy. It helped confirm my view that a good education has to both embrace the canon and challenge it and that learning is dialectical in that it constantly pits the known against the unknown.

The article was James Donald’s Dewey-eyed optimism: The possibility of democratic education in the March/April 1992 edition of New Left Review (which was unusual in publishing two articles on education). It led me back to James Donald’s contribution to Is there anyone here from Education? which he co-edited in 1983 and his brilliant Sentimental Education from 1992. It also led me further back to John Dewey and Antonio Gramsci.

In the article, Donald considers the view of Dewey and others on the role of public education in creating and nurturing a democratic society. Rather than deriving the education system from fixed assumptions about human nature, identity or community, John Dewey writing in 1916 recommends an experimental approach which values continuous critical reflection about the way we do things and which allows for the possibility of social change. Several decades later, Richard Johnson, working at Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1980’s develops the idea that schools are cultural institutions and imagines forms of education which do not impose a single identity in a diverse society but which are able to construct community through dialogue.

Reading this heady ‘democratic constructivism’ it was easy to get excited by the idea of the school as a site for building democratic and egalitarian social relations and to see our job as teachers as helping to build, or at least model, a better world from the bottom up. I’m still motivated by this while being reminded daily that we and our students inhabit the world as it is and that the materials for a better world are not always lying around in neat stacks waiting for us to pick them up.

It also occurred to me that accommodating and exploring difference requires some shared values, a common set of assumptions and skills in order for learners to venture out of their comfort zone. Strong affiliation to class, culture, religion etc. can provide a grounded confidence but this needs to be combined with an openness to difference, dialogue and conflict or it can be limiting and debilitating rather than liberating and affirming. Public education is a vital setting for building shared values as well as exploring difference.

And what of the place of knowledge in all this? James Donald asks whether public education can produce the ‘really useful knowledge’ which we all need. He turns to Antonio Gramsci, writing in the 1930’s, who emphasised the role of the school and teacher in instituting cultural norms, values and hierarchies. Donald wants to marry this need for tradition and knowledge with the practical Deweyan construction project. In his words ‘individual agency is always authorized in relation to such norms…education must involve the sceptical articulation of tradition – a necessarily recursive and experimental process.’

It seems to me that, to use the terms of the Trivium as recently refreshed by Martin Robinson, Donald is saying that we need to teach both grammar; the essential foundational, canonical knowledge, structure and rules, and the dialectic; the testing, questioning, challenging, ‘taking on’ and if necessary dismantling of that knowledge. So perhaps we need a democratic traditionalism as well as a dialectical radicalism: Gramsci’s grammar plus Dewey’s dialectic.

In the section on ‘radical vocationalism’ Donald is critical of the contemporary vocationalism which was based on spurious claims to deliver economic goods and is in fact de-skilling and an undermining educational practices. He argues for a democratic, modern and intellectual education for all which is not about preparing certain students for low-level occupations but makes it a priority for young people to understand work and the economy.

Claims that the right kind of vocational education will solve our economic problems are still being made and they are as spurious as ever. The divide between general/academic and vocational pathways is still alive and well and parity of esteem as elusive as ever. We would do well to consider the suggestion that a liberal, cultural and practical education for all young people may well be the best preparation we can give them for the labour market.

Donald is also critical of the ‘creativity and self-expression’ tendency among progressive educators. He regards the ‘disabling idea that education should be about the full expression of the development of people’s creative potential’ as being a ‘vaguely hedonist, vaguely puritan notion of teaching as therapy’. He feels that, together with the ‘rhetoric of education as displaced politics’ this ‘has been the undoing of so much progressive work’.

Donald is right to warn against the voluntary displacing of the teacher as a source of academic knowledge and cultural authority and he was doing so at a time when this was a far from common position. From displaced teachers to ‘displaced politics’, it is always worth being reminded that our aims should be developmental and universalist and not about reproducing existing inequalities or promoting any particular political view. Whether in citizenship or enterprise education or any other area, we need to avoid the many opportunities to indoctrinate which education offers while bearing in mind that education cannot be free of all ideology, even a basic consensus statement of national values has some ideological basis.

James Donald finds nothing outmoded in Dewey or Gramsci, in fact he regards them as ‘the only possible dynamic of democratic education’. I think he has a lot to offer a contemporary readership, above all the possibility of a synthesis of progressive and traditional strands of educational thinking which could really move the debate forward.

See also:

Learning to love Liberal Education

Review of Martin Robinson’s Trivium

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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