thoughts on Gramsci, Egypt and US education today

February 11, 2011

I am thinking about the Egyptian people’s revolution after reading the first half of Kate Crehan’s Gramsci, Culture and Anthropology (2002). I see parallels to teacher education in response to the hegemony that permeates US education today.  Some thoughts to share:

Gramsci was an activist, focused on the “radical transformation of capitalistic society” (p 71). When considering the concept of ‘culture’ from a Gramscian perspective, it is critical to recognize the revolutionary and political orientation that underlies his interest in the concept. His primary concern was a question: ‘what is it about how people live and imagine their lives in particular times and places that advances or hampers progress to this more equitable and just order?” (p71).

Gramsci explains “I have a Socratic idea of culture; I believe that it means thinking well, whatever one thinks, and therefore acting well, whatever one does” (p 73). He goes on to say that

“Culture is something quite different. It is organization, discipline of one’s inner self, a coming to terms with one’s own personality; it is the attainment of a higher awareness, with the aid of which one succeeds in understanding one’s historical value, one’s own function in life, one’s own rights and obligations” (Selections from Prison Writings I, 10-13, p 74).

Crehan helps us see boundaries within Gramsci’s definition of culture- the existence of critical self-knowledge, focused on understanding the self in relation to other people and with that understanding, a recognition of the rights and obligations that come with those relations. She points to Gramsci’s own words to identify the “ultimate aim: to know oneself better through others and know others better through oneself” (Selection from Prison Writings I, 10-13, p 74).

Hegemony is another concept that for Gramsci is fluid and flexible rather than rigidly defined. “The reason for this, [Crehan] would suggest, is that rather than being a precisely bounded theoretical concept, hegemony for Gramsci simply names the problem- that of how the power relations underpinning various forms of inequality are produced and reproduced.” (Crehan, p. 104, emphasis mine) Gramsci speaks to the relationship between culture and economic relationships- and the tensions between classes as societies negotiate the value of goods and services and the rules that govern their trade. The concept of hegemony provides a lens through which we can identify and critically examine the power dynamics and the roles people adopt, as groups and as individuals that perpetuate and entrench the very dynamics that create them.

Crehan also points out that: “For Gramsci power relations can be seen as occupying a continuum with direct coercion through brute force at one pole and willing consent on the other. (Crehan, p 101) This notion of ‘willing consent’ is a concept that benefits from critical examination as well, as often groups may appear, to the outside observer to be exploited, they do not necessarily see themselves as being subjugated and therefore, to that observer, seem complacent in their acceptance of the power dynamics and oppression. The interplay between power, economics, class and social dynamics and perception are complex. When those complexities get challenged within economic crisis, it can be easy to identify the crisis as the cause of subjugated peoples becoming aware of their subjugation and challenging the power and economic forces that keep them as an underclass. Gramsci points out in his prison notebooks (Selections from Prison Notebooks: 184) that it is not necessarily the economic crisis itself that produces these historical events, but ‘they can simply create a terrain more favourable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought, and certain ways of posing and resolving questions involving the entire subsequent development of national life.” (Crehan, p 77)

Two key wonderings come to mind when I consider the thoughts these initial chapters raise for me. If Gramsci is right, and the power dynamics and social relationships co-exist in various manners, how can and do people counter them in a manner that can promote change? If dominant and subordinate groups are always in tension and therefore in negotiation with one another in efforts to navigate the dynamics of power and privilege to promote change or maintain status-quo… how do we as a society engage in the conversation (or revolution) to shift those dynamics to a more equitable distribution of power and wealth? From his own words, I begin to see a path.

“In other words, the dominant group is co-ordinated concretely with the general interests of the subordinate groups, and the life of the State is conceived of as a continuous process of formation and superseding of unstable equilibria (on the juridical plane) between the interests of the fundamental group and those of the subordinate groups- equilibria in which the interests of the dominant group prevail, but only up to a certain point, i.e. stopping short of narrowly corporate economic interest.” (Selections from Prison Notebooks, 181-2, p 93)

Thinking about Egypt
This brings me to reflect on both Gramsci’s illumination of the inter-relationship between economics and historical events, combined with his observations of the interaction between dominant and subordinate groups to establish equilibria. I am finding this particularly relevant as I observe and seek to understand the turmoil and revolution in progress today, in the Middle East.

Changing Economics in the Middle East (via beyondbrics)

The economic trends captured in the above table, particularly in light of GDP growth and inflation, shed light on a possible interpretation for why ongoing unrest in the Middle East region has shifted to a specific revolt and protest in Egypt today. There is room for important critical analysis of the fact that Egypt in particular has experienced large price increases (above 10.0% change on the consumer price index). In addition, Egypt has experienced significant growth (represented on the lower axis- the Egyptian GDP growth was over 6%). History is being made in the moment and in time we will see if Gramsci’s observations and ideas are accurate in the case of the current Egyptian uprisings, but, at the present time, increased growth and decreased prices could very well be the historical events creating the ‘favourable terrain’ that are spurring the people of Egypt to come together, across classes, against the dictatorial regime that currently holds control of the power relations in Egypt.

Connections to teacher education
Ultimately this brings me to think about teacher education, and what teacher educators can do to promote the self-reflection and awareness necessary to combat institutional inequity and provide culturally responsive education in their schools. I am seeing a critical connection to Gramsci’s idea in his prison writings that “we must form some idea of nature and its laws in order to come to know the laws governing the mind. And we must learn all this without losing sight of the ultimate aim: to know oneself better through others and know others better through oneself.” (Crehan, p 74)

Identifying specific content and pedagogy for our adult learners who are teachers that provides them content and opportunities for reflection in which they can better understand themselves and others, and ultimately, support them to provide more equitable access to learning in their classrooms.

As currently demonstrated loudly in Egypt, and lived, often silently here in US schools, class struggle between dominant and subordinate groups of people permeates the social dynamics and affects access across those groups. Critically examining hegemony, culture, class and power in the moment, between specific peoples, is essential if we are to identify the elements that keep the structures in place and perhaps, hopefully, the avenues towards shift and change.

“For Gramsci, as for Marx, at the heart of recorded human history is class struggle, with classes emerging as as conscious actors out of basic economic relations and vying with each other for domination. A dominant class or alliance of classes is one that has succeeded in bringing into being hegemonic culture that in fact embodies their worldview, but that appears not to represent simply their interests, but those of society as a whole. It should be stressed, however, that no hegemonic culture, no matter how complete its power appears to be, is ever totally stable and free from contradictions; its reproduction can never be taken for granted. Any hegemony represents no more than a particular moment in the onrush of history with its contending forces.” (Crehan, p. 97)


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