The Fundamentals of Defectology (Abnormal Psychology and Learning Disability)

Published in: "American Journal on Mental Retardation" ((1995), Vol. 100, #2, pp. 214-216

Book review: The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky. Volume 2: The Fundamentals of Defectology (Abnormal Psychology and Learning Disabilities). Translated and with an introduction by Jane E. Knox and Carol B. Stevens. Editors of the English translation: R. W. Rieber and A.S. Carton. Plenum Press, New York, 349 pages, 1993

Lev S. Vygotsky's contribution to the methodology of psychology, psycholinguistic, developmental and cognitive psychology is well known in the USA. His works in the domain of special education, however, have not been appreciated in the West in spite of the fact that he formulated probably the most unique, comprehensive, and humane paradigm of special education created in the 20th century. Translating the second volume of L. Vygotsky's Collected Works: "The Fundamentals of Defectology", was a very timely move for the Plenum Press. This book is intended to open Vygotsky's theories to professionals in the field of abnormal psychology and developmental disabilities. The volume contains an "Introduction" written by the translators, J. Knox and C. Stevens, an "Afterword", translated from the original publication in Russian, "Notes to the Russian Edition", references, and an author/subject index. The tome is comprised of three parts: l: General Problems of Defectology; ll: Special Problems of Defectology; lll: Questions at the Forefront of Defectology.

It is not easy to consume Vygotsky's texts: a difficulty may be caused not only by the innovative nature of his writing and unfamiliar terminology, but also by differences in psychological and general humanistic traditions in American and Russian science. The goal of the scientific comments (Introductory, Afterword, and Notes) was to provide readers with guidance through Vygotsky's works. This goal was only partially attained: paradoxically, the "Afterword" itself needs a special commentary for an American reader for exactly the same reasons as Vygotsky's writings. This piece was written by a group of five distinguished Russian psychologists who were students of L. Vygotsky in their youth. On the other hand, the "Introduction", written by the translators, is a well-balanced scholarly critical product and is definitely worth reading. It provides the reader with historical background, understanding of reciprocal connections between Vygotsky's defectological research and his general theoretical writings, a dynamic of Vygotsky's views over the years, and the contemporary meanings of Vygotsky's findings. It is a pity, however, that the authors of the "Introduction", presumably written after 1990, did not use a number of new and relevant documents appearing in Russian publications since the beginning of perestroika. Almost all their sources are either the English language publications dating back to the '70s and '80s or the Russian language sources cited in those publications. In a text published in 1993 it is odd to see phrases like "... currently in the Soviet Union... " or "...contemporary Soviet defectologists...".

Special comment should be made about the quality of the translation. Lev Vygotsky was a powerful and passionate writer who elevated the scientific inscription to the level of genuine artistic language. The translators faced an enormous challenge! By and large, their efforts will be appreciated by generations of English language readers. I have, however, one fundamental objection to the editors attempt to "translate" the term "Defectology" as a combination of abnormal psychology and learning disability. The word "Defectologia" (defectology, which literally means: "study of defect") is attached to the education of sensorly, physically, cognitively, and neurologically handicapped children and includes four major domains: education of the hard of hearing and deaf; of the visually impaired and blind; of children with mental retardation; and of severe speech impaired children. It includes neither psychopathology nor learning disability as known in this country. Although having no direct analogy in the Western world, "Defectologia" offers services to roughly the same population as special education/school psychology in the USA, minus emotionally disturbed and learning disabled students.

Other hard-to-swallow terminology that should be explained in the Introduction relates specifically to the domain of mental retardation. In Vygotsky's texts, the old European ("oligophrenic") system of classification was employed. Oligophrenia (which means: congenital mental retardation) is described as an impairment of all cognitive functions, without degenerating, due to pervasive organic injury of the hemispheric structure. It is different from mental "slowness" secondary to blindness, deafness, mutism, etc. and from mental deficiency due to social deprivation, educational neglect, bilingualism, etc. Severity levels are: debils (mild retardation), imbecils (moderate), and idiots (profound). All these terminological relics sound harsh to our ears, but let us go beyond them and discover the essence of Vygotsky's findings.

Vygotsky believed that the common laws of development for handicapped children and their non-handicapped peers include interiorization of external cultural activities into internal processes via "psychological tools" (language, first of all) and mediated support by adults. Mental development is a socio-genetic process carried out in the social activities of children with adults: education "generates" and leads development. The essence and uniqueness of human behavior resides in its mediation by material tools and social signs/language. Development is not a straight path of quantitative gains/accumulations/maturation, but a series of qualitative, dialectic transformations, a complex process of integration and disintegration.

A part of Vygotsky's general theory is a notion of the social nature of the physical and mental disability. Core concepts are the "primary defects", "secondary defects," and their interactions. A "primary" defect is an organic impairment due to biological factors. A "secondary" defect refers to distortions of higher psychological functions due to social factors. An organic impairment prevents a child with mental retardation from mastering some or most social skills and acquiring knowledge at a proper rate and in an acceptable form, but it is the child's social milieu that modifies his/her course of development and leads to distortions and delays. From this point of view, many symptoms such as behavioral infantilism or primitivism of emotional reactions in individuals with mental retardation are considered to be secondary defects, acquired in the process of social interaction. Vygotsky pointed out that from psychoeducational perspectives the primary problem of a handicapping condition is not the organic handicap itself but its social implications: an organic defect is recognized by society as a social abnormality in behavior. When we have before us a blind boy as the object of education, L. Vygotsky explained, it is necessary to deal not so much with blindness itself, as with those conflicts which arise for a blind child upon entering life.

In the essay "Defect and Compensation" L. Vygotsky named higher psychological functions as the major compensatory devices for mental and sensory deficits. The focus of compensation should be the intensification of cultural enlightenment, strengthening of the higher psychological functions, the quantity and quality of communication, and social relationship with a "collective" (an organized group of peers). The main goal of special education, therefore, is to compensate for primary defects through facilitating and strengthening intact psychological functions and to prevent, correct, and rehabilitate secondary defects by psychological and pedagogical means.

Vygotsky called for the identification of a disabled child from a point of strength, not a disability. With his slashing sarcasm, he called the traditional approach in evaluation of the disabled an "arithmetical concept of handicap" because of its view of a handicapped child as a sum of negative characteristics. He suggested, for example, the identification of levels of overall independence and needs for support rather than levels of feeblemindedness in children with mental retardation. This approach, 60 years later, was employed by the American Association on Mental Retardation in their new manual published in 1992.

Vygotsky is rightfully considered to be the founding father of what is now called "dynamic assessment". Vygotsky's opposition to the concept of IQ/Mental Age and quantitative diagnostic procedures was based on his understanding of handicap as a process, not a static condition, and on his understanding of development as a dialectical process of mastering cultural means. He argued that a specific change in the structure of a handicap takes place during development and under the influence of education. In a case of mental retardation, for example, impaired functioning can be due to "primitivism" as the result of cultural underdevelopment and can be the result of the organic defect. Vygotsky considered mental tests insufficient to make this differentiation. He noted that standardized tests measure natural and higher processes together, inappropriately equalizing them. The developmental assessment, Vygotsky insisted, should concentrate on mental processing and certain qualitative indicators, such as cognitive strategies employed by the child, type and character of mistakes, ability to benefit from the help provided by the examiner, and emotional reactions to success and failure.

Distinguishing between what a child has already attained (actual level of development) and his potential ability to learn (as determined through the process of problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers), was a core concept in his search for alternatives to the standardized tests applied to handicapped students. The difference between these two abilities Vygotsky called the "Zone of Proximal Development" (ZPD). In terms of individual differences, the depth of Zone of Proximal Development varies, reflecting a child's learning potential. From this perspective, it offers a qualitative distinction between those children who might appear similarly backward in their functioning according to the results of standardized psychological testing.

On the whole, this volume testifies to the extraordinary timeliness of Vygotsky's ideas. Publication of this volume creates a knowledge base for the theoretical and practical implications of Vygotsky's ideas within the American system of special education.