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Sunday, 16 January 2011





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Marxism and linguistic communication - 4

Last week, I underlined the importance of Antonio Gramsci as a Marxist thinker who has much to offer to us in terms of understanding the problematic of linguistic communication. In today's column, I wish to pursue that line of inquiry further by focusing on his idea of education and the importance of education in relation to the central issues of linguistic communication. Gramsci was an educator who repeatedly stressed the value of education in social renewal and the creation of organic intellectuals. His ideas on education are vitally interconnected with his themes of state, civil society, hegemony, intellectuals and so on. He succeeded, for the most part, in opening the reluctant eyes of intellectuals in Italy to the importance of pedagogy as a creative effort of paramount importance.

There is no other term, as I indicated last week that is at the centre of Gramsci's thought as hegemony. Its continuing germaneness and applicability to contemporary discussions of state, politics, culture, social, transformation has been repeatedly demonstrated by discerning commentators. This concept is inseparably linked to his notion of education. When we discuss Gramsci's ideas on education, we run up against two formidable difficulties. The first is that his formulations are scattered over a wide range of writings, and very often they sought to address, or grew out of, specific issues in Italy. The second is that, we cannot obtain a true and balanced picture of his understanding of the importance of education unless we take into consideration his total body of writings and the central vision he sought to project. As a consequence of the failure of certain commentators such as H. Entwistle and E. D. Hirsch to recognize the importance of these caveats, they have ended up with one-sided and misleading formulations of Gramsci's approach to education.

Antonio Gramsci saw education as a means of critical self-reflection and sympathetic understanding of others. While he appreciated the importance of factual knowledge and rigour and discipline in pedagogy, he was keen to stress this criticality of outlook combined with empathy and situated understandings of others. As he remarked, 'to know oneself means to be oneself, to distinguish oneself, to get out of chaos, to be an element of order and of one's own discipline in pursuit of a ideal. And one cannot achieve this without knowing others, their history, the succession of efforts they made to be what they are, to create the civilization they have created and which we want to replace with our own.' This attitude of mind sheds valuable light on the revolutionary and humanistic (it is unfortunate that they are posited by some theorists as antithetic) education that Gramsci sought to install and propagate.

As I stated earlier, Gramsci thought of education in the context of hegemony. The mutuality, reciprocity, between teacher and student was an aspect of pedagogy that he constantly stressed, and it is indeed in keeping with his larger social vision. He said that, 'this problem ( the question of collectively attaining a single cultural climate) can and must be related to the modern way of considering educational doctrine and practice, according to which relationships between teacher and pupil is active and reciprocal so that every teacher is always a pupil and every pupil a teacher. ' He then goes on to assert that, 'but the educational relationship should not be restricted to the field of strictly scholastic relationships...this form of relationship exists throughout society as a whole and for every individual relative to other individuals'. .

There was, no doubt, an idealistic strain in Gramsci's thinking; however, it was tempered with a hard-nosed pragmatism. Hence his emphasis on discipline and order. He thought of education as a means of enabling organic intellectuals from the working class who would be in a position to offer intellectual and moral leadership and usher in the much-needed social transformations. It was his considered opinion that if children from the working class or peasant backgrounds were to evolve into organic intellectuals, they had to acquire a self-discipline and self-control. As he remarked, 'if our aim is to produce a new stratum of intellectuals, including those capable of the highest degree of specialization, from a social group which has not traditionally developed the appropriate attitude, then we have unprecedented difficulties to overcome.'

Antonio Gramsci in discussing the importance of education focused attention in both adolescent schooling and adult education. In many ways, his most insightful observations are on the importance of, and the need to cultivate, adult education. This is hardly surprising in view of the fact that he excelled as an adult educator. He was closely involved with the Factory Council Movement, worker's education circles, the Institute of Proletarian Culture, and correspondence schools and schools for prisoners. His notion of adult education was closely linked to ideas of critical thinking, consciousness-raising and political understanding. As one commentator observed, 'Gramsci was convinced that despite the all pervasive power of ruling groups, which he called hegemony, education has an important role to play in challenging its ubiquity - especially adult education, which he regarded as political education. Gramsci's analysis took shape in the context of factory councils and working class industrial struggles, but the same conviction that education has the potential to affect political consciousness holds good.'

Gramsci talked about common sense and good sense. By common sense he referred to the generality of opinions, prejudices, conceptions and misconceptions entertained by the public. By good sense he alluded to the informed opinions and approaches that the public has the potentiality to attain to. It was indeed his conviction that the common sense can be transmuted into good sense through education.

Gramsci's approach to education is closely connected to his understanding of verbal communication. For pedagogy to work constructively in directing students onto the productive pathways, it is evident that communication is important. Going beyond these immediate practical necessities, Gramsci saw the importance of communication as a vital segment of his theoretical architecture. Gramsci stressed the importance of education in disclosing the nexus between culture and power, knowledge production and identity formation, material forces and ideational products. How everydayness is permeated by issues of class is another insight that, according to him, education can help to disclose. He saw culture as the site for struggle, for negotiation of meaning and education had a central role to play in directing the attention of the oppressed class towards these inescapable realities.

The elucidation of culture and its political consequences, the impact on daily life, has to receive the utmost attention of educationists. What this means is that he was keen to bring to light to general public the various attempts that were being made to subordinate education to the imperatives of capitalism by fashioning it into a private good. Therefore, the kind of politically-informed cultural pedagogy that he advocated was important in transformation public education into a public good. Such an approach holds great promise for widening the areas of intersection between education and democratic social transformation.

As I stated earlier, there are some commentators of a conservative disposition who are quick to use his ideas in propagating their reactionary views by emphasizing Gramsci's putative encouragement of discipline and factual learning.

However, this is misleading; he was opposed to what he termed 'mechanical precision.' As he suggested, 'a school which does not mortgage the child's future, a school that does not force the child's will, his intelligence and growing awareness to run along the track to a predetermined station - a school of freedom and free initiative, not a school of slavery and mechanical precision. The children of proletariat too should have all possibilities open to them; they should be able to develop their own individuality in the optimal way and hence in the most productive way for both themselves and society.'

Gramsci's philosophy of education has to be understood in the context of his larger elucidations of society. He saw schooling as a significant mode of political education that has to be evaluated in relation to the dominant social institutions of power and the dynamics of cultural formation. A point that Gramsci stressed is deeply relevant to modern educationists. He demonstrated the significance of education as a modality of fashioning independent-minded and critically-oriented social subjects rather than apolitical consuming subjects.

It was Gramsci's view that education was inseparably linked to political understanding. He believed that education was not confined to schools, although they constituted an important institution; there were many other sites in which education took place.

One of the central aims of education, as he saw it, was to produce organic leaders from the oppressed classes who would be in a position to offer intellectual and moral leadership to their fellow citizens. For this to happen in a fruitful way, Gramsci believed that we need to pay close attention to the occurrences of everyday life and how people's social imaginary was inflected by popular culture.

Hence, his educational ambitions, especially adult education, had much to do with critically exploring the nature and significance of everydayness and popular culture. Modern scholars of cultural studies, such as Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, have found his writings so inspiring because of this fact,

Antonio Gramsci's philosophy of education underlined the importance of broad-based consciousness-raising. He focused on universities, higher seats of learning, schools as well as other public sites of popular pedagogy. This feeds into his conviction that for democracies to function effectively and productively, enlightened citizens with a sense of responsibility and dedication are vital. It is indeed their participation in the democratic process and their critical outlook that ensures the flourishing of democratic polities. Hence, it is only logical that Gramsci should place so much emphasis on the question of education.

The model of education that Antonio Gramsci espoused is closely linked to his model of linguistic communication that I referred to last week. He examined communication in terms of promoting a critical frame of mind, uncovering ideological influences and class oppressions.

He once remarked, 'each time that in one way or another, the question of language comes to the fore, that signifies that a series of other problems is about to emerge, the formation and enlarging of the ruling class, the necessity to establish more intimate and sure relations between the ruling groups and the national popular masses, that is, the reorganization of cultural hegemony.' This statement has great implications for literacy. He established a close contact between literacy and politics and pointed to the complex way in which literacy is intertwined with ideology.

According to him, the way literacy was conceived and projected had less to do with the ability to read and write than with the ability to secure legitimization of oppressive and exploitative social relations. As a well-known educationist asserted, Gramsci viewed literacy as both a concept and a social practice that must be linked historically to configurations of knowledge and power, on the one hand, and the political and cultural struggle over language and experience on the other.'

He goes on to make the added point that, 'for Gramsci, literacy was a double-edged sword; though it generally represented a signifier monopolized by the ruling classes for the perpetuation of relations of repression and domination, it could also be wielded for the purpose of self and social empowerment.'

Gramsci appropriately focused on the idea of critical literacy. Critical literacy was an ideal that had to be achieved through ideological clarification as well as social organization. When paying attention to its ideological sedimentations, critical literacy had to be perceived as a mode of shaping one's view of the world. Therefore, critical literacy, according to Gramsci, had to be understood as a consciousness-raising project that furthered the resolve and strategies of social transformation. In other words, critical literacy had to be seen as a necessary precursor of social renewal.

Gramsci was of the opinion that literacy had an organizing dimension as well. What he implied by this is that critical literacy was inextricably linked to the material and political condition s of possibility that facilitated the work of educationists and community organizers. Throughout his life Gramsci was searching for effective modes of counter-education that would hasten social transformation. Critical literacy and critical pedagogy were vital adjuncts of this effort. I have chosen to describe at length Gramsci's focus on literacy because it is pivotal to understanding his approach to linguistic communication. After all, literacy is the foundation stone of verbal communication.

Gramsci's approach to education in the broad sense of the term has much to say about linguistic communication. Both at the level of praxis and concept, education is vitally connected to linguistic communication. The question that arises, then, is in what way does Gramsci's understanding of education and linguistic communication help us in our attempts at literary analysis? In order to answer this question, we need to examine the ways in which Gramsci approached culture in general

Gramsci's views on hegemony, civil society, education, linguistic communication point to a renewed understanding of culture and cultural productions. This is a topic of inordinate interest to literary critics. Raymond Williams, the eminent literary critic and cultural theorist was enormously influenced by Garmsci's writings. He formulated the following description of culture that clearly bears the traces of Gramscian thinking. Williams said that culture is 'a whole body of practices and expectations, over the whole of living; our sense and assignments of energy, our shaping perceptions of our selves and our world. It is a lived system of meanings and values - constitutive and constituting - which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally conforming.' This definition points to a notion of culture that is infrangibly linked to cultural materialism. It seems to me that Gramsci's writings paved the way towards such an understanding.

Let us apply what we have said so far to a concrete example. Martin Wickremasinghe's trilogy of novels - Gamperaliya, Kaliyugaya, Yuganthaya - marks a watershed in the evolution of Sinhala fiction. In Kaliyugaya Martin Wickremasinghe reconfigures the predicament of a family that had chosen to move away from its traditional points of cultural anchorage and absorb rapidly westernized and urbanized ways of living as a strategy of self-advancement. The conflict between Allan and his parents as well as that between Nanda and Anula serves to give figurality to this predicament. The way Wickremasinghe depicts these conflicts displays his acute cultural sensitivity and nuanced understanding of Sri Lankan life. The experience of the city is crucial to the meaning of the novel. The writer underlines effectively the argument that the city is decidedly a product of culture, but also a producer of culture.

Being a generator of social modernization, cities influence and shape the emergent patterns of culture even as they reflect certain dominant contours of those cultures. The American sociologist Robert Park once characterized the city as a state of mind, while Raymond Williams described it as a state of consciousness. The understanding of city as state of mind, as shared consciousness is precisely what gives depth and definition to the ways of behavior, attitudes of mind of characters such as Piyal, Anula and Nanda in Kaliyugaya. The city itself rises from the pages of the novel with the power and motivations of a created character. How Martin Wucjremasinghe achieves this deserves careful consideration.

It is here that the formulations of Antonio Gramsci regarding hegemony, education, linguistic communication can prove to be of great value. In order to understand Wickremasinghe's achievement, we need to analyze his language in terms of ideology, promotion of hegemony that Gramsci insisted on; at the same time, we need to subject the novel to a cultural materialist reading that Gramsci advocated instead of the lame and lackluster summaries of the plot and broad generalizations that normally pass for Sinhala literary criticism.

Gramsci's writings enable us to construct a cultural materialistic framework of analysis of creative literature that pays particular attention to the intersection of language and ideology. Such an approach will enable us to fashion a kind of cultural criticism that Martin Wickremasinghe clearly favored. Indeed it would be a meaningful extension of his critical ambitions.


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