The merging of progressivism and critical education

American education is in a Critical state. We all know it, but we may not understand why it’s so bad. What is the point, what’s the goal that those who have fundamentally altered American education are after?

When the Progressive educational reformer John Dewey wrote his pedagogic creed in 1897, he explained how he, “believe[d] that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform… I believe that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction.”

If he could control education to instill into pupils the proper social consciousness, then the “socialistic ideals,” as he called them, would become reality. The objective is very simple – capture and mold the minds of the young so that they do as you want them to do. While Dewey was working towards his vision in America, an Italian Socialist named Antonio Gramsci was writing something very similar in an Italian prison in the 1930s.

Gramsci’s writings were collected into a volume that came to be known as The Prison Notebooks. Notebooks would later be translated into English, and it was these writings that the first Critical Pedagogists would mine for Gramsci’s theory of “cultural hegemony” (cultural domination). Gramsci’s idea was that institutions of education were a key contributor to the cultural hegemonic structure. Through schools, the dominant societal group inculcated its worldview to maintain its domination. Teach the children things that maintain capitalism and capitalism will remain in a position of cultural hegemony. That was the gist of Gramsci’s understanding of cultural hegemony as it relates to education. Gramsci was one of those Marxists seeking to adapt Marx’s theory, and he certainly has a bid for the most influential of those Marxist adapters in the present. Gramsci understood that to usurp the cultural hegemony currently in place, a counter-hegemonic worldview would need to take over the schools. If the counter-hegemonic narrative could control the curriculum of the schools, then whatever it taught would become the new cultural hegemony. It would become the new common sense!

In Ideology and Curriculum (1979), Michael Apple, who I identify as America’s first Critical Pedagogist (Critical Theory of Education), explains that Gramsci knew that cultural control was “an important reproductive force.” “Through the definition, incorporation, and selection,” Apple continued, “of what is considered legitimate or ‘real’ knowledge, through positing a false consensus on what are appropriate facts, skills, hopes, and fears (and the way we all should evaluate them), the economic and cultural apparatus are dialectically linked. Here knowledge is power, but primarily in the hands of those who have it already, who already control cultural capital as well as economic capital.”

Thus, Apple advised educators to take “seriously the passionate involvement Gramsci called for in his notion of the organic intellectual who actively participates in the struggle against hegemony… Our work already serves ideological interests. One has no choice but to be committed.” Quite appropriately, this comes from a chapter titled “Beyond Ideological Reproduction.” That is precisely the Gramscian method. Stop reproducing the existing cultural hegemony by instilling into children the ideas that are counter to that reproduction. When that is accomplished, then the Critical Pedagogists, via a curriculum running counter to the existing cultural hegemony, can establish what they know to be “legitimate or ‘real’ knowledge.” You have no choice educators, “but to be committed” in the effort to break the “economic and cultural apparatus.”

Not long after Michael Apple’s breakout book, two other Critical Pedagogists combined Gramsci’s idea of capturing culture with John Dewey’s educational reformism. Critical Pedagogist Isaac Gottesman explains that “in addition to Gramsci,” Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux (1985) looked to none other than John Dewey, whose work “had been thoroughly pushed aside by critical educational theorists” at that time. Gottesman goes on:

“In Dewey, whose work championed a conception of the public sphere, Aronowitz and Giroux found an ally, one who could help bridge the conversation between a Marxist critical theory and liberal educational reform and thus create conversations among progressives (socialist and liberal) in the field.”

This bridge between Gramsci and Dewey allowed for the joining of forces that placed “schools as significant sites of social struggle,” Gottesman declares. Gottesman concludes by explaining that for Aronowitz and Giroux, Critical Pedagogy,

“rooted itself in the critical Marxist tradition’s conception of the power of human agency and in its theoretical analysis of ideology and culture [there’s Gramsci’s theory], and on the other hand, embraced, counter to the position of many in the Marxist tradition, the possibility of social reform and the realization of democratic socialism through complete engagement with the liberal public sphere and thus the institutions, including the modes of production, of the liberal nation-state [there’s Dewey’s theory]… critical pedagogy was a project committed to socialism through radical reform.” (bold added).

It’s all right there. Gramsci and Dewey fused into one clearly defined goal – Socialism. This goes to show that we shouldn’t think of Dewey and the Progressives in isolation from Gramsci and the Critical Marxist tradition. Two of the most influential Critical Pedagogists, Aronowitz and Giroux in Education Under Siege (1985), certainly didn’t, and we will miss the full picture of the Critical Pedagogists’ scheme if we don’t understand that Dewey and Gramsci were merged by the Critical Pedagogists in their pursuit of Socialism. What we see in the present is a direct result of an educational system directed at achieving Socialism.


John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed,” The School Journal, Vol. 54, No. 3, January 16, 1897.

Michael Apple, Ideology and Curriculum (Third Edition), 1979, published by Routledge Falmer, pgs. 145, 156.

Isaac Gottesman, The Critical Turn in Education, 2016, published by Routledge, pgs. 88-90.

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