Of Gove and Gramsci: Hegemony for Hearts and Minds

When Michael Gove came out as a fan of Antonio Gramsci – the thinker known in certain sections of academia as “the last acceptable Marxist” – there was of course outrage from the left. “Michael,” they cried, “you have, if you ever read him, missed the point.” But clearly, so did they. Gove, it has become clear over the course of his dismembering of the education system, very much understands Gramsci. Because we, who stand against this government’s wanton destruction of the welfare state, are not fighting a war of facts. As Chavs… author Owen Jones rightly points out on a regular basis; were that the case, after four years of calamitous cuts and pig-headed privatisation, we would surely have won by now.

Gove understands and fears Gramsci.

This is a battle of ideas and ideology, and the Education Secretary knows it. Culture connects on a human level and draws out debates on supposed common sense; it carries the potential to lay bare the hegemonic drip of dominant capitalist ideas into perceived ‘nature’. That brings with it the potential to challenge the ideology of the status-quo. It’s why Gove has been on the offensive regarding material that unfavourably describes the needless slaughter of the First World War – and it’s precisely why he has been tasked with the wholesale evisceration of critical thought in the curriculum. Notoriously, to great public dismay, this includes the removal of John Steinbeck – a fierce critic of the staple capitalist myth of the American Dream – from English Literature modules. But of course Gove’s butchery of the curriculum was never going to end with ‘Of Mice and Men’.

What has been less well publicised, is that Gove’s insidious claws have crept around the necks of a huge swathe of other subjects in the dark of night. Suddenly, numerous social and culture-based subjects at GCSE and A-Level find their air-supply being murderously squeezed shut – including, amongst others; Expressive Arts, Performing Arts, Humanities, and saddest – from my perspective as a soon-to-be PhD student of the discipline – Film Studies. Gove has for some time been courting the opinions of ‘experts’ who believe the only reason students pass GCSEs is slipping standards (despite various social experiments proving the otherwise) – but until recently was unable to present them any concrete results.

As of 2017 however, Ofqual, the qualifications attack-dog, is planning to remove all subjects that cannot meet reformed criteria modelled on Gove’s demands. This criteria consists at GCSE level of “demanding and fulfilling content” that builds a strong foundation for, above all else, “employment” – and at A-Level of being “robust and internationally comparable” (again, read, “geared towards competing for employment”). The changes, inevitably, have been cheered on by the papers, crowing in victory of the removal of “soft subjects” – but what’s really happening here is the final stage of the government’s plan for education geared solely toward the whims of the free market. Because the new standards that Gove champed and stamped for so long to see implemented will require substantial spending on the part of exam boards.

For subjects which already carry less vocational pull, and generally have lower participation rates, that is the death-knell – for the profit-oriented boards simply will not see them as worth the investment. Michael Gove knows that – meaning those subjects will become the preserve of the selective domain of private schools once more. In turn that will see a knock-on effect at University level. A decrease in ordinary students given an opportunity to pursue those fields, combined with the government’s marketization of higher education, will lead to the subjects’ irradiation in all but the elite establishments of Oxbridge. Those who can afford to will continue to study them as a ‘luxury’, but those who can afford to think like that aren’t a threat to Gove, his government or the wealthy chums he’s stripping and selling the curriculum for.

Social and cultural studies collectivise the human experience – introduce ordinary people to that mix and the potential become far more ‘dangerous’. Subjects like Philosophy and Film Studies exist beyond certainty, beyond measurable statistics and tangible quantities – they bring together popular narratives, themes and assumptions, and allow them to be scrutinised in comparison to our material circumstances. But more than that, they bring together our hopes, aspirations and dreams, and contrast them to this nightmare reality. They allow us not only to see through the fraud and masquerade of the vampiric ideology which governs and exploits our lives – but these subjects help us to dream of a better future in opposition to this present. Because there is no “rigorous” or “demanding” right answer to be found – and as such anything becomes possible and permissible.

That’s why I have no doubt that resistance to these ‘reforms’ cannot and will not be limited to simply signing begging letters on change.com. Rather, we who resist must strike with teachers, march on the capital with the People’s Assembly on the 21st of June, and engage with the anti-austerity movement in all its shapes and forums. We who resist have the tools to understand that we must join the fight, not just for a halt to this government, but for an improvement from the next – and they are tools that I have no doubt we will use. So it’s not the case that Michael Gove is too stupid to understand our subjects, and so he wants them axed – or indeed that he has misread Gramsci. It is rather that he read and understood it all might spell the end for his kind’s way of life – and he was rightly terrified of the lot.

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