An “if–then” supposition is helpful in considering Marxist thought in relation to schooling and education. If one thinks that it is possible to construct effective modes of inquiry in spite of the difficulties human beings confront as they seek to understand themselves, each other, communities, societies, the world, and beyond, then Marx and some Marxists may be relevant to students of teaching and learning. As a child of the Enlightenment, Marx believed that the quest for certainty conducted by religionists and their secular allies was ineffective and even dangerous. Instead, his position was that it is possible to use critical rationalism that is grounded in concrete empirical inquiry to form hypotheses that can then be translated into practice. His emphasis was on collective action. Although there are important differences between American pragmatist philosophy and Marx, John Dewey’s term warranted assertibility describes Marx’s position with regard to human abilities to understand “facts,” if not “truths,” about themselves and their environment. This entry looks at how Marxist philosophy viewed human agency and the role of capitalism, as well as the views of some Marxist thinkers on education.
Capacity For Change
Marx’s philosophy is central to bona fide education because the latter must be based upon trust that students’ cognitive abilities are not just so many words and ideas that have little or no correspondence to what is being described, if not mastered. In these postmodernist times, many philosophers and educators insist that words and ideas are just opinions that are not connected to what is talked and thought about. In their view, people are reduced to participating in dominant discourses based on power, not on any superior correspondence to what they seek to describe.
As a philosopher, Marx belongs to a tradition whose contributors hold that systematic inquiry enables people to understand systemic and structural phenomena. Marx believed that finding underlying structures assists in understanding the everyday occurrences that people experience. Similar to other humanists, Marx placed human beings and their welfare at the center of his concerns.
Although some charge that Marx was a determinist, he viewed history as open to human volition. In fact, his version of “historical materialism” can be described quite simply. If people make their own histories through human agency—perhaps neither under conditions of their own choosing, nor just as they like—then this position, or fact, is relevant to contrasting claims made in today’s society and schools. The radical conservative claim is that whatever conditions people face, it is possible and necessary to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. A radical determinist view—perhaps epitomized by B. F. Skinner—asserts that environment is everything; in other words, there can be no successful agency or volition against these odds.
Marx’s middle position is useful to educators who realize that environment, social class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and other factors make it difficult for some students to succeed, in contrast to others who have inherited advantages. These teachers understand that the school and society must become level playing fields. Some of them act on their convictions both within the schools and out in the larger society.
Marx’s conception of correspondence is not similar to idealist or even realist philosophers’ version of it. The Marxist view is based on humans’ ability to change what they study as well as themselves as they do it. There is no correspondence to alleged supernatural constructions of reality; instead, Marx insisted that the human and physical world has been created through people’s labor. If this is the case, then the status quos into which people are born can be overcome as a result of critical analyses, hypothesis formations, and collective human action.
The Role Of Capitalism
In the Marxist view, the capitalist system is historical, not a universal given; it was constructed by the labor of many people over time. It is logical to assume that what has been constructed can be deconstructed and replaced by a new, more equitable, democratic society and school. Education is central to these liberating actions. Moreover, this kind of education is possible only if it is assumed and corroborated that educability and intelligence are widespread in every population. Because Marx believed that human consciousness and ideas were developed through labor as people wrestle with seemingly recalcitrant matter and structure, he concluded that history is not just about the rich and powerful, but instead about ordinary people who have struggled to overcome injustices in the name of “bread and roses” for all.
If Marx’s philosophy is credible, then social and material structures and barriers that are encountered need not be viewed as “just the way it is.” Hegemony is used by the powers that be to convince subaltern and oppressed people that the status quos are not only good for everyone but also part of the very nature of things. It is proclaimed that there are no alternatives to these “natural” and “universal” laws and conditions. During these times of economic, political, social, and educational reaction, some seek to convince people that poverty as well as massive school failure represents natural and even inevitable occurrences. Marx and the best Marxists—among others—disagree. They argue that the capitalist system is the most causal with regard to the state of the U.S. government, civil society, culture, and schools. As a result of this argument, Marxists insist that the system itself must be overcome in order to achieve education aimed at more democratic empowerment for everyone, social justice, respect for and even embracing diversity—and the potential for more people acting altruistically, if not “caringly.” Marx saw modernism—in which capitalism is embedded—as a problem to be solved. Although he despised the capitalist system, he is somewhat comfortable with the dynamics it projects into roiling modernist societies. Marx, through his writings, is a great portrayer of modern times. Many Marxists do not accept the term postmodernist because capitalism is still dominant. Marx is comfortable with keeping various and even contradictory ideas, beliefs, and desires in mind instead of retreating to absolutes and indefensible certainties.
Marx wrote little about education because he realized that in the capitalist countries during his lifetime, it would be virtually impossible to have schools that were responsive to the democratic imperative because of the capitalist imperative’s overwhelming power.
Secular public schools might seek to establish facts that are warranted to assert, rather than so-called truths. In doing so, Marxist thought would provide valuable tools. Marx’s great “energizing myth” was developed from his theoretical and empirical studies. It is characterized by verbal pictures of the working-class’s emergence onto the historical stage. This occurred because of its wresting power from oppressors—the capitalist-based ruling class. This possible victory was presented as the fulfillment of bona fide democracy as the proletariat endured and overcame the fierce contradictions that capitalism forced on the modernist period.
Antonio Gramsci, Marxist theoretician and activist, did focus more on formal education in the Italy of his time. He understood well the role of schooling in assisting nondemocratic capitalist hegemony in his country and elsewhere; however, he realized education’s liberatory potential. His life is an example of how even one who is wretchedly poor can use hegemonic schooling to figure out how things could be different and better. Gramsci’s political-educational project sought to develop “organic intellectuals” from among the working class who would have the ability and determination to provide leadership so that working people could see through the hegemony under which they suffered. He and his comrades’ goal was to deconstruct the capitalist order and rebuild a new one that would be deeply democratic and based on a “new humanism.”
As a member of the working class, Gramsci knew that studying was hard work. However, most Italian youth were already working hard on job sites; therefore, if it could be demonstrated that there are continuities between physical and mental labor, then the deprived youth could become more confident of their abilities and potential. Gramsci sought to demystify academic work so that it would no longer be viewed as an activity that only upper-class students could accomplish.
Gramsci knew that everyone has a culture and intellectual prowess; moreover, people all operate in various contexts that are comprised of ideas and portrayals of how things became and are and how they might/should be changed. He respected what working-class youth already knew. Gramsci started from the student perspective and, like Dewey, viewed the learning process as movement toward self-realization within the actual social and physical worlds. Gramsci’s belief in people’s abilities and further educability is crucial to his insistence that the main goal of education should be self-governance in a democratic, just society. Democracy means rule by the people. Gramsci held that the capitalist system and its class-state governance made bona fide democracy impossible.
Marshall Berman writes about the “Popular Front” in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. He suggests that its greatest achievement was creating images of genuine democratic community. Berman refers to Studs Terkel, an American leftist critic, as living in and epitomizing the vast mural. This ideal community was not like the New Jerusalem of the Puritans or the Populist ideal of an agrarian past. Instead, it was modern, industrial, and ethnically and racially diverse, and it had room for even more people who wanted to join those who had already pushed their way onto the historical stage—one that had formerly been occupied by their self-appointed “betters.” As Berman interprets him, Marx views the worldwide working class as a community waiting to happen. Creating and joining unions is portrayed not just a feature of special-interest politics but as a necessary—if not sufficient—activity that helped to educate the human race. This education would help people discover who they are and to confront the descriptive “what is” with the normative “what could/should be.” Marx and Gramsci believed that the vast working class of the world would understand—would get it— “by and by.”
- Berman, M. (1999). Adventures in Marxism. London: Verso.
- Brosio, R. A. (2000). Philosophical scaffolding for the construction of critical democratic education. New York: Peter Lang.
- Le Blanc, P. (1996). From Marx to Gramsci. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.
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