RE: Does no one read [between] Vygotsky's words?

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Mon Apr 19 2004 - 03:09:00 PDT

I found the Gredler/Shields review of the Glassman article very
interesting. It is a short article and I encourage people to take a
look. Here is the URL
Thanks much to Peter for bringing this up.

Eugene asks: "I'd like what other people see that makes Margaret Gredler
and Carol Shields' (and maybe even my?) tone objectable." I offer some
thoughts below. My essential idea is that insofar as Gredler and Shields
offer their interpretations of Vygotsky, they are exercising excellent
scholarship, but insofar as they go beyond critiquing specific passages in
the Glassman article and offering their own well-supported thoughts on
Vygotsky, they may be introducing certain features that can be confusing to
a reader.

Eugene's quotes perfectly capture the main substance of this review, which
focuses on the authors' interpretation of a number of Vygotsky's ideas,
and, as Eugene points out, there are many more. They pack a lot into a
five page review. The reviewers counterpose their interpretations to
numerous quotes from Glassman's 2001 article, and they back their
interpretations up with a very high standard of scholarship. They explain
their central motivation for writing this review, which is to help correct
"major misconceptions" of Vygotsky's theory which they, following Valsiner
and van der Veer, feel are widespread. They explain that they believe the
Glassman article "misconstrues major concept and topics addressed by
Vygotsky's theory of cognitive development - psychological tools, the role
of the cross-cultural study, the zone of proximal development, and the
nature of conceptual thinking." They also believe that the article
"attempted to force Vygotsky's goals into a Deweyan framework." I think
they argue these points very well, and hopefully their effort will
contribute to spawning a deeper and wider discussion about Vygotsky's theories.

There is another, seconday level that this paper is written on that puzzles
me a little, however. While Margaret Gredler and Carol Shields do a superb
job of presenting and explaining the basis of their counterclaims about
what Vygotsky meant in the above-mentioned topics (and like Eugene, I find
their positions compelling), they also make a series of claims about
Glassman's paper that are harder to evaluate. In addition, I find the
title perplexing, and there are a couple of other small problems that I
think could be confusing to a reader. I think this is the side of the
review that Peter, Ana and others are reacting to, and which some might
find, as Eugene puts it, "objectable."

The reviewers claim that the Glassman paper has three "general problems" -
the "omission of relevant historical information," the "assignment of
concepts to scholars, including Vygotsky, that are not found in their
writings," and "the use of unsupported inferences as the basis for further
generalizations." They offer specific examples for each of these problems
in the article they are critiquing, and do so very well. But what is
puzzling for me is that they make these assertions not just as specific
critiques of particular passages in the article, but as descriptions of
general characteristics of the article overall. However, in following the
practice of empirically-based scholarship, they can only make their case by
critiquing and characterizing specific examples and offering specific
counter-examples. This necessary empirical limitation seems to leave the
reader with having to take their word for the general case about the
article that they also assert. It is not clear to me why, as a reader - at
least in the case of this particular article - I need to take a position,
as they seem to hope I will, of being convinced that these problems are
generalized in the article beyond the specific examples they (rather
convincingly) cite. It seems to me that critiquing each problem passage as
a specific case is quite sufficient to accomplish the purpose they set for
themselves, which is to correct misconceptions about what Vygotsky actually
said. Asserting that there are "general problems" in the article written
by Glassman does not seem to be directly relevant to that purpose.

I also find the sarcastic and somewhat personally focused title puzzling:
"Does No One Read Vygotsky's Words? Commentary on Glassman." Their review
focuses on supporting their interpretations of certain topics in Vygotsky's
theory of cognitive development over those in a specific 2001
article. However, this review, at least in my reading, is not at all about
whether anyone actually reads Vygotsky's "words," nor is at all about the
author, Michael Glassman. The title is certainly an attention-getter, and
points to Margaret Gedler's and Carol Shields' concern that Vygotsky is
widely misconstrued, but I don't think it accurately describes the
substance of their review or does justice to the excellent scholarship they

Throughout the review, the writers consistently back up their
counter-interpretations with a rich supply of relevant quotes - thereby
formulating positive counterclaims with ample direct evidence in the best
scientific tradition - but in a small handful of places, the reviewers make
a kind of negative counterclaim, where they assert that certain authors,
such as Vygotsky, Vygotsky writing with Luria, and Novack, never actually
said something that Glassman said they did. It seems to me that in general
this is a difficult type of claim to prove, although by no means is this
kind of claim unprovable. But I think the careful reader needs something
more than just a counter-assertion such as just saying the author in
question never wrote such and such. How do Gredler and Shields know
Vygotsky never said a particular thing? Saying something like 'our
readings show,' or, even better, 'a computer scan of the entire corpus of
English translations of Vygotsky reveals' that Vygotsky or whoever never
said such and such, might be helpful. The quick nod to the empirical basis
of scholarship such a qualifying statement offers shows respect both to the
discerning reader and to the difficulty of quality scholarship in
general. (Perhaps I am making a little too much of this? I'm not sure.)

A final observation I have concerns the third or fourth paragraph of the
article (depending how you count them), where they describe the first
"general problem" of the Glassman article as being the "omission of
relevant historical information." One would have to read the Glassman
article itself (is this available online?) to understand this better, but
my sense of what Gredler and Shields are doing is offering a different
interpretation than that of Glassman of the circumstances leading up to a
1931 resolution of the USSR Communist Party Central Committee that
"condemned progressive educational practice." Glassman's article, as I
read this passage by Gredler and Shields, apparently attributed this
resolution to being the culmination of a rift started by a critique Dewey
wrote of Russian education. However, rather than counterposing their
historical interpretation of these events to the one advanced in the
Glassman article, and of course supporting their own interpretation with
relevant evidence, the reviewers criticize this passage in the article for
simply omitting relevant historical information. They make three
suggestions for information that should be included, which seem to support
their historical interpretion of the circumstances. Since it is usually
the case that different historical interpretations will seek support from
different and often conflicting sets of data, the mere criticism of
"omitting information" - and just offering some data that they assert
should be included - rather than offering an alternative historical
interpretation with supporting data - may seem confusing to the reader.

I bring all of these secondary items up - the primary items, again, being
the many well-supported interpretations of Vygotsky on a number of topics
offered by Gredler and Shields - because, like these writers, I too worry
that Vygotsky's ideas are widely misconstrued and misconceived. The
secondary items I mention above could all be rather easily edited
differently or just taken out of the review. In my opinion, doing so would
strengthen their review, but that is just one reader's opinion.

As Victor, Eugene and others emphasize, criticism - no matter what form it
comes in (with gloves, or bare-knuckled) and what levels it is written on
(analyzing specific points in a paper, or condemning the article in
general) - is a necessary and normal part of scientific and scholarly
work. The writing Michael Glassman, Margaret Gredler and Carol Shields did
very much fits into these norms, and it is up to us as readers and writers
to learn from and build on their work, to take what we think is good, bad,
right and wrong, and move forward with it. It is pretty cool that xmca
provides a vehicle for us to do some of this.

- Steve

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