Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Antonio Gramsci founds the Ustica Prison School, where he teaches and studies

This year, Antonio Gramsci, Italian journalist and Marxist intellectual, was arrested by the police and sentenced to 5 years on the remote island of Ustica off the coast of Sicily.  Gramsci would only spend six weeks in that facility before being transferred to a military prison in Milan.  However, that brief time on Ustica has been described as “the freest, most pleasant interlude of Gramsci's 10 plus years in prison” (Brown 2004).  The prisoners on Ustica lived communally and were free to roam the Island.  Gramsci’s fellow communist party leaders were housemates in a cottage of five political prisoners.  In spite of their political differences, Gramsci and his fellow inmates organized a school for the prisoners.  Gramsci taught history and German. He was able to obtain books through a friend, the economist Piero Straffa, who established an open account for him at a Milan bookshop.

Antonio Gramsci was born on January 22, 1891 on the island of Sardinia, in the south of Italy.  He was disabled, having suffered from what is presently known as Potts Disease. He was also short: he was never more than four and three quarters feet tall (Germino 1990). The South was predominantly rural with a large illiterate peasantry. However, Gramsci excelled at school and won a scholarship to the University of Turin.  Turin is in the north of Italy and the contrast between its working class population and the rural population of the south was immense.

In examining Gramsci’s life, four main distinct periods can be identified:

While at the university, Gramsci was exposed to many radical political views and he joined the Italian Socialist Party.  Gramsci's earliest activity as a member of the socialist youth federation (known as FGS) was teaching young workers about his intellectual heroes. Young Gramsci was a very effective teacher, with a “quiet, unemphatic, inexorable” voice.  Beyond teaching, he was also a notable political journalist, writing for numerous socialist newspapers.  However, the waves of revolution between 1917 and 1920 would transform him into a revolutionary organizer and political leader.  Indeed, Antonio Gramsci become the first leader of the Communist Party of Italy.  He continued to write (often focusing on the political and cultural education of workers) and worked to unite the leftist parties in Italy. 

After his arrest by the police in 1926 and his six weeks at Ustica, Gramsci was sentenced to 20 years in jail for “conspiratorial activity, instigation of civil war, and incitement to class hatred”.  Gramsci would spend the rest of his life in prison, witnessing the ascendance to power of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who would eventually become an ally of Hitler during WW II. During his 10 years as a prisoner, Gramsci was transferred often because of his failing health.  On April 27, 1937, six days after winning his freedom, he died under police guard.

Gramsci’s political writings included themes of politics, working-class intellectuals and the role of education in modern society.  Gramsci’s insights and original political theories are still relevant today, and tie into some of the more contemporary theories of the reproductive and transformative functions of adult education. Indeed, Gramsci is considered today an influential voice in adult education. While his ideas pre-date those of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921-1997), they have many similarities. In an in-depth comparative analysis of the ideas of Gramsci and Freire and their implications for adult education, Peter Mayo (1999) explores several areas of coincidence between them. Among these areas are their ideas on commitment, agency, social movements, the role of adult educators, issues concerning cultural production, and the role of history in transformative adult education.

During his time in prison, Gramsci wrote more then 30 notebooks of history and analysis.  It is in these “Prison Notebooks” that Gramsci explains his ideas in critical and education theory.  He is most well known for his theory of “hegemony” which explains how the dominant class controls civil society through consent and working class acceptance of the “status quo”.  Gramsci believed that the most effective way to counter the cultural hegemony was through a change in the educational system, where there would be one type of school for all students.  Such a school would have to relate to everyday life and focus on reflection. Likewise, Gramsci saw in adult education the key to the development of counter-hegemonic actions. Gramsci’s writings focussed on critical self-awareness, critical social awareness and the role of organic intellectuals in fostering counter-hegemony.  Many of these ideas are now commonplace in the field of adult education.


Brown, Bob.  Gramsci’s life.  Retrieved April 14, 2004 from

Burke, B. (1999) 'Antonio Gramsci and informal education', the encyclopedia of informal education,  Last updated: January 23, 2004.

Germino, D. (1990). Antonio Gramsci. Architect of a new politics. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge and London.

International Gramsci Society.  Chronology of Gramsci's Life. Last updated:  January 8, 2004

Mayo, Peter (1999). Gramsci, Freire and Adult Education. Possibilities and limits for transformative action. Zed Books: London.

Mayo, Peter (1995).  The 'Turn to Gramsci' in Adult Education: A Review.  International Gramsci Society Newletter 4, 2-9.  Retrieved April 14, 2004 from “Antonio Gramsci” Retrieved April 14, 2004 from

Prepared by: Kaitlin Palmer, OISE/UT, 2004

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