Marxism and Educational Theory

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Mike Cole, Routledge £24.99

Politicians may have screwed up our communities with their wars, privatisations and diminished civil liberties. But it seems that public servants are legally obliged to clean up the consequent mess of poverty and despair. From September 2008 Ofsted will be inspecting your local school to see how well staff are doing with the task of achieving Community Cohesion.

At the same time McDonald's will be co-sponsoring some of the first vocational diplomas for post-16 year-olds, under a prime minister who promised the City of London at the Mansion House, a week before his accession to number 10, that every state school will have a private partner within five years.

So, in this idiosyncratic mix of personal memoir, agitational guide and theoretical history, Mike Cole sets out to explain precisely what capitalism expects of its education systems, and underscore the value of Marxism in challenging those priorities.

Cole opens with a survey of utopian socialism and its critique by scientific Marxists.

He then describes how Nietzsche's writings underpin much that has become recent academic orthodoxy as post-structuralism and post-modernism, especially in the field of education. It's a messy job due to the vague and often ludicrous abstractions peddled by post-modernist pioneers. But the breathless pace of Cole's trek sometimes needs a reflective pause.

For example, I would suggest (somewhat heretically as a fellow Marxist) that the likes of Jean Baudrillard often offer accurate descriptions of lives led under neoliberal era imperialism, even if the explanatory and prescriptive powers are lacking.

For example, the virtual cyberspace world comprising much contemporary youth culture - social networking, musical and dramatic arts, gaming, and more scandalous pastimes - exhibits much of the randomness, chance and superficiality that post-modernist writers champion. Marxists choose not to celebrate or submit to this anarchic, celebrity-venerating culture, but we are undeniably immersed in it.

The book goes on to contest a range of thinkers dismissive of Marxism, such as the 'responsible anarchist', Elizabeth Atkinson. But Cole is no 'academic Marxist' obsessed with the 'theoretical struggle', though a little Marxist theory does not go amiss in contemporary educational discourse. The anti-intellectualism of contemporary culture has an impact on teachers, their training and daily practice as much as anyone. As many staffroom radicals know to their cost, merely asking questions of the drivel served up by most over-paid external consultants is nowadays regularly deemed insubordination by management hacks.

Yet however fit we keep ourselves theoretically, we have to be tested in actual struggle. I would therefore have liked Cole to give more room to Antonio Gramsci, especially his notion of the 'organic intellectual'. Although it was a prescription for the ideal Communist Party cadre it is also a useful model for political trade unionists, and educators in particular; embedded in the rank and file of class struggle, conscious of both its history and theory but positioned to shape its future.

With education workers globally and at all levels being proletarianised at a rate of knots, Gramsci has an urgent resonance. As does this book. Peter McLaren's foreword starts from the obscenities of British and US warmongering, exactly the right backcloth against which we can assess education's role in our lives.