A Voice From The Future
Published in: "School Psychology International", (1995). Volume 16, #2, pp. 99-103.
The year of 1996 will be the centennial of Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, one of the most ingenious, prolific, and encyclopedic humanists of our times. Both the pattern of his publications and the content and style of his discourse supports the impression that Vygotsky is still alive and continuing to write. Vygotsky died in 1934 leaving reams of unpublished manuscripts. The first posthumous selected collection of his works was not published until 1956 and since that time, slowly as if on Polaroid film, his legacy became visible through Russian publications in 1960, 1962, 1964, 1971, 1972, 1974, and 1978. Finally, in the early 1980s the "Collected Works" of six volumes containing many previously unknown texts were off the press. Parallel to this process of Russian publication, the translation of Vygotsky's works took place in the West in 1962, 1971, 1978, 1981, and 1986. In 1987, Plenum Press began to release the English Language translation of his "Collected Works": thus far, two volumes have been completed. Does not this pattern of publication make it appear that the author is our contemporary, alive, and productive?
It has become a cliche to say that Vygotsky was ahead of his time (does it mean that he has to be in pace with ours?) This statement usually refers to the innovative ideas that he articulated. I would like to draw attention to the manner in which these ideas were expressed. Many of his papers took the form of a discussion, a dialogue, or a polemic with the leading psychologists of his time such as Pavlov, Freud, Adler, Piaget, Lewin. But to whom was he speaking when he discussed issues that had not even been posed by his contemporaries? Who were his opponents (to cite just one example) when standardized testing of mental abilities was in its infancy and held out such great promise to its excited followers? It has taken us 50 years to recognize the failure of traditional IQ testing. In the early '30, Vygotsky was, perhaps, unique in opposing the concept of IQ/Mental Age AND suggesting the alternative approach which is now called "dynamic" or "interactive" assessment. He continuously insisted that human cognition is embedded in culture and passionately argued that focusing on "pure informational processing" is a dead end approach in the study of uniquely human cognition. This polemic was not addressed to his contemporaries who were not even aware of this problem. Furthermore, I think that even at the end of the 20th century we are not quite ready to fully undertake exploration of the process-content unity of cognition within the cultural context. In all likelihood, Vygotsky's appeal will persist, leaving to the next generation of psychologists the task of taking this challenge and continuing a dialogue with their "contemporary" - Lev Vygotsky.
In the last few decades, an "invisible college" of enthusiastic and inspired Vygotskians has formed in many countries. It is my pleasure to introduce to our readers a group of prominent scholars from the USA, Canada, Russia, Israel, and the Netherlands who are participating in this special issue of School Psychology International:
The issue opens with a short biographical sketch and personal memoir written by Gita L'vovna Vygotskaya, the daughter of Lev Semenovich. It is, probably, the first personal account of Lev Vygotsky as a child, a son, a father, and a family member published in the West. G. L. Vygodskaya, a psychologist herself, is currently retired and living in Moscow. Her memoir is written in a flawless, sparkling, classic Russian and it was a great challenge to translate it adequately.
Alex Kozulin, a distinguished scholar of Vygotsky's heritage (Kozulin, 1990), is Research Director at the International Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential, Israel. In his article he considers the elaboration of Vygotsky's theory in his native Russia. The life of ideas after the death of their creator is a fascinating subject, and Dr. Kozulin provides a careful analysis of what was a logical development and what seemed to be merely a distortion of Vygotsky's concepts.
Yuri Karpov, a former professor of Moscow University, currently at Touro College, New York, presents a Vygotskian approach to instruction and transfer of learning as practiced in Russia. Dr. Karpov has written a masterfully crafted summary of empirical works of Russian colleagues carried out in the 1980s and 1990s that are relatively unknown in the West.
Carol Lidz, a well-known expert in dynamic assessment (Lidz, 1991), offers an excellent review of the links between Vygotsky's ideas and what is happening in this rapidly expanding domain. Dr. Lidz is Director of School Psychology at Touro College Graduate School of Education & Psychology in New York.
Vygotsky's contributions to the field of special education and their relevance to contemporary school psychology are discussed in my article and in a review of the second volume of "Collected Works" (Vygotsky, 1993). I am a school psychologist working with the New York City Board of Education and also as a private practitioner at the Center for Cognitive Assessment, Rehabilitation and Training in Rockland County, New York.
Gillian D. McNamee of the Erickson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development (a graduate school and research center in Chicago) presents a tasteful blend of empirical findings and theoretical generalizations of literacy development as a social activity embedded in a specific cultural context. Her contribution is based on many years of practical work within a Vygotskian paradigm as a director of the child literacy projects in urban areas.
Rauno Parrila, a developmental psychologist from the University of Alberta, Canada, has applied Vygotsky's findings in language development to planning and self-regulation in school-aged children. His data will be of great interest to school psychologists involved in counseling and behavior management in schools.
Lois Holzman is a university teacher and Director of the Barbara Taylor School, an independent school in New York City where she and her colleagues are busy applying, verifying, and developing Vygotsky's theories in pedagogical practice. She is a dynamic and unconventional interpreter of Vygotsky's ideas and her article, no doubt, will provoke debate. She also prepared a brief report about her experiences during the International Conference "L.S. Vygotsky and the Contemporary Human Sciences," which took place in Moscow in September 1994. Dr. Holzman is co-author of the recently published book (Newman & Holzman, 1993) reviewed in this issue.
The reviewer, Jacques Haenen from the University of Utrecht, Netherlands, delivers a thoughtful critique in which the long-standing question is raised once again: "What is the "real" Vygotsky?" Dr. Haenen is the author of the book (Haenen, 1994) which examines the works of Peter Galperin, a controversial Vygotsky follower in Russia.
More than a decade ago, an article by Jack I. Bardon entitled, "Psychology Applied to Education: A Specialty in Search of an Identity," sparked an on-going discussion on the nature, goals and methodology of school psychology. Bardon defined school psychology as an immature science and practice, as a pre-paradigmatic field in terms of its theoretical background, and as a domain that "... can be viewed as comprised of uneven layers of functions and roles, practiced by persons who differ greatly in background and training" (Bardon, 1983, p 185). He pointed to the lack of a unifying theory as a major block to progress in the field. If school psychology is to expand its role in society, it needs socially responsible and comprehensive theory, concluded this highly respected patriarch of school psychology in the USA.
I would like to suggest that Vygotsky's legacy contains a theoretical framework that might integrate all branches of contemporary school psychology. Vygotsky's approach is based on what once was called "critical assimilation". As described in G. Blank's (1989) elegant essay, critical assimilation allows for the coherent integration of valid contributions of different psychological systems within a unified theoretical structure. Indeed, Vygotsky's "melody" resulted from creative counterpoints of "tones" of a wide range of different psychological orientations into a harmonious whole known as his cultural-historical (or sociocultural) psychology. Vygotsky's works relate to nearly all areas of school psychology, from mental health to educational attainment: The diversity of topics in this special issue of SPI supports this contention. School psychology, perhaps more than any other brunch of psychology, is in need of such an approach because of the complex origin and nature of our science and profession. The socially, culturally, and developmentally oriented theory of the late Russian genius has the potential to unify, restructure, and promote school psychology as a science, profession, and social institution. Publication of this special issue of School Psychology International, hopefully, will contribute to the widening of the knowledge base for theoretical and practical implications of Vygotsky's ideas to school psychology in different countries.