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John-Michael Bodi, "Marxism Against Postmodernism in Educational Theory"

"Marxism Against Postmodernism in Educational Theory"

John-Michael Bodi, H-Net

Reviewing Marxism against Postmodernism in Educational Theory, Dave Hill, Peter McLaren, Mike Cole, and Glenn Rikowski, eds.
edition. Lanham and New York: Lexington Books, 2002. x + 341 pp.
Notes, bibliography, index. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-7391-0345-8;
$34.95 (paper), ISBN 0-7391-0346-6.

It is always a uniquely rewarding experience to read current ideas
about philosophy and the human condition especially as they relate
to education as it is affected by capitalism. Most readers will
appreciate this book for its attempts to shed light on the evolution
of thought past postmodernism although the connections to education
are few.In response to the book I must first relate a story. At one point
in my career I taught the social studies curriculum at an
alternative high school in a large inner-city school district in the
United States. The student body (ages sixteen through twenty-two)
was a collection of individuals who decided to drop back in to high
school. Most were drug users, some were drug dealers, some had done
time in a correctional facility, and some had been institutionalized
in mental facilities. One of those students helped me to understand
the practical implications of understanding the postmodern era.

One young fellow, age sixteen, I'll call Black/White or "B/W". I
have created this name for him because he always wore either black
or white or all-black clothes. He applied white make-up to his pale
white face and he dyed his hair jet black and spiked it. He found
his own body hair to be abhorrent. He wrote poetry that he kept to
himself and as far I knew he did not do drugs. His family had had
him committed to a mental facility for about a year because of his
non-conformist behavior and their concerns that he was agoraphobic
as well as suicidal. One of the few times he spoke directly to me
he recounted the day he was sitting in his bedroom at home and "they
came and took (him) away." He said he put up a "good fight" (a
contradiction to his essence I think) but in the end he was
restrained and treated with anti-psychotics.

When I first met him he had been released to his parents about three
months earlier and was reluctantly enrolled in the school. In the
beginning he came somewhat regularly to school but eventually came
less and less. When in class he sat in the back and looked into
space, rarely interacting with the others and only talking when
addressed directly.

One day I discussed Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" with my world
history class and had the students respond to those ideas in any
creative way they liked. Some used the abundant art materials
provided, some wrote essays, some poetry. B/W made eye contact with
me (a very rare occurrence) and began to talk with much more
enthusiasm than I had ever seen before. He told me of a personal
experience when he was outside a store in a highly trafficked retail
business area when he was approached by a "tourist" (his word) who
asked him to pose for a photograph with his family. B/W acquiesced
but was troubled by it. Later that same day he said he "was walking
down the street and was harassed by the cops" because of how he
looked. He asked me why those two things happened to him.

Seeing an opportunity to help B/W think about himself in relation to
the allegory of Plato and the broader context of self in society I
replied, "C'mon B/W, look how you dress, all black and white; and
your hair and make-up. That seems to be your 'shadow' on the wall
of the cave; you look very different and people are curious. If you
don't want people to look at you or if you want the cops to ignore
you, you should dress down some."

He became even more animated, even sitting up, causing others to
look his away, and protested, "This isn't 'how I look,' this is me.
This isn't a costume, this is the real me!"

I sat and thought for a moment before I realized that he was right;
he understood himself, he just did not understand how others saw
him. His interpretation of Plato's allegory was an important step
for him in his path of self-realization, and he taught me directly
about what Lyotard meant when he emphasized "incommensurable
differences." The uniqueness of B/W, for that matter of each of us,
is a singular event and cannot be generalized into a universal. It
is our individual awareness of our individual constructs within the
"metanarratives" of modernity that separates us from others.[1]

How does this relate to the book by Hill et al.? It is my attempt
to put a human face on some occasionally dense writing and deep
thinking about the evolution of our social consciousness as it
relates to social justice and education.

As stated in the first chapter, the book has three themes: an
appraisal and critique of postmodernism within educational theory;
the explication of Marxist and socialist-feminist alternatives to
postmodernism; and human resistance to capital and its associated
forms of inequality. The collection is well ordered and makes a
logical set of arguments. The essays as a whole, however, do little
to describe how educational theory could be more effectively

The various authors of each of the chapters criticize other writers
and theorists and then take broad swipes at the issues raised. For
example, in chapter 2 ("Prelude: Marxist Educational Theory after
Postmodernism") Glenn Rikowski critiques Elizabeth Atkinson's work
and then basically explains the task of radicalizing educational
practice in a capitalist society. Samuel Bowles and Herbert
Gintis's work (Schooling in Capitalist America[1976] and
Learning to Labor [1977]) is referred to as the high point of
Marxist educational theory but then the reader's attention is
shifted to the United Kingdom where socialist underpinnings in
education were originally secured.[2] Michael Neary in his essay,
"Youth, Training and the Politics of 'Cool,'" also provides a
foundational look at how the enculturation of youngsters in Britain
led to the centralizing of its educational system. His is one of
the few essays in this collection that has a real sense of what
being a teenager is like ("Youth is struggling in and against
itself" [p. 154]) and begins to make practical overtures toward
devising means to address the problems of the pervasive influence of
capitalism in our schools.

The argument is made that Marxist educational theory is alive and
well, which is true, but the only evidence of any growing Marxist or
socialist overthrow of the capitalist economy that dominates the
world focuses on the protests at World Trade Organization meetings.
One of the sections of Rikowski's essay is titled "Education after
Seattle and the Tasks Ahead." In it he lists some generic tasks for
school curricula that are routinely addressed elsewhere, e.g.,
mainstream teacher education textbooks such as Joel Spring's
American Education (2003), now in it its eleventh edition.

As much as I admire Peter McLaren's intellect, I must admit I will
probably always have to read his work with a dictionary in hand. I
do not believe that his ideas are particularly innovative but I do
consider his thought to be insightful; I just think he could easily
explain himself with fewer and more accessible words. In the two
essays he contributes with Ramin Farahmandpur ("Breaking Signifying
Chains: A Marxist Position on Postmodernism" and "Recentering Class:
Wither Postmodernism? Toward a Contraband Pedagogy") as well as in
the final chapter ("Postmodernism Adieu: Toward a Politics of Human
Resistance"), the examples he uses to illustrate a point are highly
descriptive but the point he makes is often minor. For example in
"Breaking Signifying Chains" he uses a painting by Hans Holbein the
Younger as a metaphor for the position we should assume (below,
looking up) when viewing or trying to understand the workers'
position when confronting capitalism. His defense of the ubiquitous
influence of Marx is coherent and to the point but wordy when he
states, "Progressive educators need to ask: how does the semiotic
warfare of the postmodern or postcolonial critic reinscribe,
repropose, and recohere capitalist social relations of production
through decentering and rerouting cultural representation?" (p. 44).

In subsequent chapters McLaren and Farahmandpur, and Hill, Mike
Sanders, and Ted Hankin, make the case for having social and
economic class be the definitive benchmarks for social justice
rather than the various divisions we have all come to use (gender,
race, ethnicity, and the like). The essay titled "Recentering
Class" then leads to a beginning discussion of what they call
"contraband pedagogy." Contraband pedagogy is ill-defined, however;
this piece of the chapter is afforded two pages out of thirty and
amounts to a list of what it is not. Hill et al. in "Marxism, Class
Analysis and Postmodernism" best elucidate the argument for
understanding class as a totality and its perspective in the war
against capitalism. They use facts to bolster their argument and
objectively discuss both sides of the issue (supporting the
postmodernist versus relegating it to the dustbin of limited
theories). What I really like about this later chapter (8) is that
the educational research of Sally Brown, Sheila Riddell, and Jill
Duffield is cited and discussed; it gives an authority to the essay
that is lacking in the rest of the book.[3] In the end however, Hill
et al. are only able to promote what the rest of us critical
pedagogues already know and do: "we are suggesting that
schools--and education and cultural workers in general--should
encourage critical thinking and critical reflection, based on and
predicated on a metanarrative of social justice and a morality and
ethic of egalitarianism" (p. 184).

Mike Cole and Dave Hill make a coherent and sound case for refuting
the co-option of postmodernism in their essay (chapter 5),
"'Resistance Postmodernism'--Progressive Politics or Rhetorical Left
Posturing?" In it they are highly critical of Patti Lather's view
that postmodernism is a duality, one being "reactionary," the other
"resistant" or "progressive." Reactionism is quickly contrasted with
"resistance," a distinction that carries the argument forward with
clarity and a convincing rationale for constructing a "continuum' of
these connected endpoints. Regardless of how postmodernism per se
is described and explained, they argue, it is a perspective that has
lost its viability for instigating social change. Instead, they
promote the metanarrative of Marxism and/or neo-Marxism as a more
useful platform to critique the inequities in societies worldwide.

"Postmodernism ... serves the interests of capital's current
hegemonic project, particularly with respect to its interrelated
attempts to discredit mass ideologies, such as socialism, to
disempower mass groups who are structurally oppressed, and to
privilege consumption and greed over production and solidarity." (p.

Postmodernism is inherently reactionary because of its inability to
move beyond the "truth" (my term) of its lack of focus.
Jean-Francois Lyotard, in his book The Postmodern Condition,
clearly articulated the view that postmodernism is about pluralism
and fragmentation. The modern period is bankrupt, he said, because
the metanarratives of the past assume a progression toward social
enlightenment and emancipation, and an all-encompassing theory of
the human condition. But metanarratives are those all-encompassing
theories and philosophies that bind us into our pre-destined roles
that are unjust.[4]

One of the recurring themes throughout the book is a continuous
critique of capitalism and its pervasive influence on our lives
worldwide. The discussion of the globalization of the economy as it
evolved under U.S. Presidents Reagan to Bush II and English Prime
Ministers Thatcher and Blair becomes almost pedantic as Cole and
Hill contrast the current U.S. President Bush and Tony Blair with
(of all people) Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky. The "third way"
promoted by Blair and Clinton is described as "neoliberalism with a
smiley face." A greater emphasis in the collection is on the
protests at the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization
(WTO), which led to other anti-capitalist protests worldwide, and an
overwhelming concern about the influence of international
corporations with regards to social justice for the workers than
much at all about educational theory in a real sense.

In a dated essay, Michael Apple and Geoff Whitty (chapter 4,
"Structuring the Postmodern in Education Policy") put forth a
rhetorical and "polemical" (their term) argument for deconstructing
educational policy with "critical action." The common good as
articulated by the conservative right, they say, seeks to unite
cultural and economic aspects of school life and leadership; this is
done by attempting to "depluralize" society where our differences
are transcended and the most qualified rise to the top. Ironically,
they claim that in England and Wales the devolution of power to the
schools has led to a centralizing of authority in the form of a
national curriculum that includes "choice."

"[A]nalyses that celebrate fragmentation and the atomization of
decision-making at the expense of social planning and government
intervention may merely be replacing one oppressive master narrative
with another, that of the market. Furthermore, the espousal of
heterogeneity, pluralism and local narratives as the basis of a new
social order is still seen by many sociologists as mistaking
phenomenal form for structural relations." (p. 80)

"Postmodernism" then is being used by the establishment to validate
its attempt to hold on to its power and agendas. As a theory and
practice, postmodernism is unable to address any of these larger
issues simply because as postmodernists deconstruct (everything)
they are then unable to "reconstruct" any kind of social-democratic
system in its place that has any chance of being successful;
therefore postmodernism is essentially reactionary. Marxism on the
other hand has a vision and a feasible one at that.

I agree with Rikowski when he suggests that teachers should describe
clearly to the students that education is seen by capitalists as
"labor power enhancement." Once teachers, trainers, and other
educators understand this fact as the basis for education advanced
by the power elites, then critical pedagogy would make
"representatives of capital even more afraid, very afraid, through
uncovering their worst fear through educational programs which
'think the-really-unthinkable'" (p. 135). His discussion of human
nature and postmodernist view of what it means to be human clearly
articulates the vapid over-intellectualization of postmodernism. He
says, "First, the concept of 'posthuman' appears to be premised upon
some naturalistic conception of the 'human,' which implies an
unwarranted essentialism.... [B]ut the posthuman points toward a
fundamental surpassing of the 'human'.... [T]hen the posthuman
theorists are never ever in a position to say whether the post- has
really arrived, that the 'human' is history" (pp. 116, 117).

Further, he interprets the economics of Marx leading to the "student
as commodity" argument oft-described elsewhere. Toward that end he
reminds us of McLaren's urgency to rescue critical pedagogy from the
"neo-Kantian Left liberalism" that has become "just another
classroom technique." The theoretical/historical argument is made
well here but our understanding of this perspective is mainstream

One of the most oft-repeated criticisms of Marxism as a philosophy
and its interpretation for social change is its neglect of the
issues of race, identity, and gender equality. Virtually all of the
contributors address that censure but Jenny Bourne ("Racism,
Postmodernism and Flight from Class") and Jane Kelly ("Women, Work
and the Family: Or Why Postmodernism Cannot Explain the Links")
respond most directly and adequately. Bourne rips the
postmodernists up one side and down the other, essentially making
the case that they are not only "pretentious" but "obscurantist."
Her review of the most problematic postmodernist literature based in
practice only serves to denigrate those who have tried to do
something with youngsters. For example, her heaviest criticism is
directed at Phil Cohen who promotes a curriculum of anti-racism by
avoiding discussions of reason about the issue, and promoting the
notion that white working-class youth is the bigger victim of racism
today. Although I do not disagree with Bourne here I think she
might have presented her views more diplomatically.

Jane Kelly, on the other hand, while critiquing the postmodernists
as "bourgeois" decides to not "deal with the postfeminist agenda,
nor with those feminists who adopt postmodernism hook, line and
sinker, for both of these are easy targets. Rather, I want to
concentrate on feminist writers who take a critical stance toward
postmodernism, but who try to draw out what they regard as useful to
a feminist analysis and discard what is not" (p. 213).

In a subsection of her larger essay (titled "Useful Theory: Marxism,
Socialism and the Liberation of Women"), Kelly underscores the
bigger point echoed by the rest of the authors: all divisions
(race, gender, sexual identity, etc.) should be subsumed under
"solidarity with the working class." This is not to say that she
assumes the role of the "good minority"; instead, I would argue that
she helps the argument by keeping us focused on the bigger task of
combating worldwide capitalism which enslaves us all. And then in
another subsection (titled "Here and Now: Women, Work and the
Family") she recognizes the reality of gender inequality (i.e.,
lower pay for equal work) and suggests specific goals:

"Firstly, it is important to recruit women into trade unions so that
the existing gender divisions and pay differentials can be fought.
Secondly, in order to facilitate women's paid work, we should
campaign for free creches and nurseries, for both maternity and
paternity leave and for women's reproductive rights. Thirdly, we
should be fighting against privatizations in the public sector and
cuts in the welfare state, to retain what are mainly female jobs and
also to ensure that women are not forced into the role of unpaid
carers." (p. 231)

Her essay finishes with a relatively upbeat but poignant message.
"Without that link between real experience and ways of understanding
it--praxis--we are on the road to nowhere" (p. 232). The only area
I wish she would have addressed is the different but equally
important issue for feminist-Marxists--the historical experience of
women as second-class citizens in socialist organizations.

This collection of essays is a clear and well articulated foundation
for dismissing postmodernism as a theory for fomenting social
change. Postmodernism has indeed been co-opted by multinational
corporations, neo-conservatives, and neo-liberals for the purposes
of sounding relevant with regards to understanding the reality of
our times. The schools are just one of the front lines in our
battles against the hegemony of capitalism.

I have come to learn from my real-life experiences in the schools
(initially B/W) and elsewhere that control of our current lives is
in the hands of those who direct and manage the economic realities
of the world. If we were to pause and reflect as these writers have
done in this collection of essays, we would soon be driven to
political action and hopefully a more meaningful existence. I look
forward to those who will write cogent educational theory based on
this perspective so that future teachers, their students, and our
societies might be changed for the betterment of all humankind.


[1]. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff
Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 1984).

[2]. For a current defense of this argument (and soon-to-be
often-referenced study), see Kevin Manton's Socialism and Education
in Britain: 1883-1902
(London and Portland: Woburn Press, 2001).

[3]. Sally Brown, Jill Duffield, and Sheila Riddell, "School
Effectiveness Research: The Policy Makers' Tool for School
Improvement?" European Educational Research Association Bulletin
(March 1995); and "Classroom Approaches to Learning and Teaching:
The Social Class Dimension," paper presented to the European
Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Seville, Spain,
1997. See also Jill Duffield, "School Support for Lower Achieving
Pupils," British Journal of Special Education 25, no. 3 (February
1998): pp. 126-134; "Unequal Opportunities of Don't Mention the
(Class) War," paper presented at the Scottish Educational Research
Association (SERA) Conference, Dundee, Scotland, 1998; and "Learning
Experiences, Effective Schools and Social Context," Support for
13, no. 1 (February 1998): pp. 3-8.

[4]. The Postmodern Condition.

[5]. Some of the mainstream sources on this topic include Edward
Stevens, George H. Wood, and James J. Sheehan's introductory text
Justice, Ideology, and Education: An Introduction to the Social
Foundations of Education,
4th ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2002); and
Joan Wink's Critical Pedagogy: Notes from the Real World, 2nd ed.
(New York: Longman, 2000).

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