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Education as an agent for change

Mike Cole’s book on Marxism and education theory is an opportunity to assess some of the most burning issues in contemporary society. Review by Spyros Themelis.

Mike Cole is a committed and passionate believer in a socialist alternative and an active educator who has consistently fought for social change. This is made crystal clear in the first chapter where Cole “introduces” himself to the reader through a brief recounting of the major steps in his professional, intellectual and personal life.

He then moves on to discuss the origins of socialism through the presentation of Utopian Socialism, which influenced Marx and Marxist thought generally in a number of ways. The author sets out the key elements of the materialist conception of history and the labour theory of value which underpin his thought and analysis.  Moreover, it is here where we will have to search for the foundations of Cole’s educational theory that embraces and aims to advance previous contributions in the field.

The author offers an insightful and well-rounded presentation of the major developments in poststructuralist and postmodernist thought. Cole explains the tenets of these widely influential schools of thought and opens up a dialogue with the Marxist perspective he advocates. This allows him to move on to educational terrain and to take to task poststructuralism and postmodernism thought in education.

Undoubtedly, it is of great benefit to educational theory advancement that Cole does so in a dialectical rather than in a polemical fashion that could circumscribe any potential for a much-needed dialogue. The author claims that poststructuralist and postmodernist theories limit themselves to reactionary and potentially unfruitful politics of action.

While transmodernism, a relatively recent development in education theory, has sought to improve the failures of poststructuralism and postmodernism, Cole argues that it still falls short of providing of what is urgently needed. In his view,  a systematic, historically-rooted and viable theory and transformative praxis for social justice can only be achieved through a Marxist approach (chiefly due to the fact that these two, theory and praxis, are inseparable in Marxism and not merely treated as issues of/for analysis).

Cole makes it clear how Marxism can achieve social change in a context of global, neo-liberal capitalism. This is indeed one of the most fascinating chapters in the book as it demonstrates how Marxist-oriented education can be a progressive agent of social change in a political environment dominated by adherence to free-market and pro-globalisation values which have brought about widespread destruction in environmental and other terms. 

The last part of the book is concerned with the increasing role of the politics of “race” in the post 9/11 and 7/7 context. This exemplifies Cole’s recent contribution to “race” theory which tries to go beyond what he perceives to be limited accounts for the explanation of racist phenomena and processes in contemporary societies.

The author forcefully argues that if racism, whatever form it might take, is not connected to the domination and exploitation of the working class and to the modes of production at different points in capitalist development, then race theory risks becoming another “tool” in the theoretical arsenal of (mainly) academics rather than an opportunity to transform the most oppressive and ongoing elements of capitalist domination.

Cole makes sure that he does not leave it up to the reader to imagine what a socialist future, that he consistently advocates, might look like. Instead, he moves on to succinctly sketch out its premises by replying to common “misconceptions” of Marxism.   

Cole strongly believes that education can be an agent for change. At the same time he does not ignore the increasingly oppressive and exploitative political, social and economic environment within which it operates. The only way out of this deepening crisis, he maintains, is a socialist democratic future.

The publication of the book could not have come at a more apposite time, given the challenges posed by global neo-liberal capitalism, the increasing influence of theo-conservativism and neo-conservatism and, at the same time, the ascent of postmodernist and poststructuralist discourses within education which leave a big lacuna for action for social justice.

In this vein, the book has the potential to reach a wide-ranging audience. Effectively, it is aimed at all those who believe a better future is possible and are willing to strive to make it happen. I would strongly encourage anyone who has ever dreamt about a better world to read it and pass it on.

Marxism and Educational Theory: Origins and Issues by Mike Cole. Routledge 2008 £24.99. Mike Cole's new book, Critical Race Theory and Education, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in March 2009.

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