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Re: [xmca] Two off topic requests for info

Hi David-- This note got caught in a gmail vortex of some kind, but found it
at last. Several message have intervened and others gone unresponded too,
but perhaps I can respond in a useful way. My responses are in Red.

On Fri, May 22, 2009 at 7:12 PM, David Kellogg <vaughndogblack@yahoo.com>wrote:

> Mike:
> I'm not sure if EITHER of these two thoughts is on target, but if not it
> will at least help me refine my ideas about what the target is.
> a) You probably know J.V. Wertsch's book "Voices of Collective
> Remembering". I found this book rather offensive, actually, because Wertsch
> BEGINS with the assumption that there is something rather mysterious to
> explain when the bulk of Russian schoolchildren think that the Second World
> War consisted mostly of horrendous death and suffering on the Russian front
> watched more or less idly by the "Allies" until mid-1944, when they finally
> invaded Continental Europe more to forestall a unilateral Soviet victory
> than to defeat Hitler.
> I am not a Russian schoolchild and I do not have access to the "collective
> remembering" that they do, but this has always been my own understanding of
> World War II, and it is certainly supported by (among other things) the
> casualty figures and the historical timeline. Contrary to what Barack
> Obama remembers about his uncle, it was the Soviet Army which liberated
> Auschwitz (a good friend of mine was there when it happened).
> Wertsch is a LOT better when he is on home territory, describing the "Quest
> for Freedom" meme in American history books. A book I VERY much preferred,
> though, was James Loewen's book "Lies My Teacher Told Me". There is also a
> book on the "Invention of Tradition" by Eric Hobsbawm, from which I learned,
> among other things, that Scottish kilts were actually invented by London
> tailors.

As I hope has become clearer by now, I was working along pretty different
lines than you assumed, but these considerations certainly resonate with my
concern that circulation of the products of thought and action circulating
through socio-cultural processes are involved in novelty/creativity, etc.

Oddly, I have not read Voices of Collective Remembering and the day your
note I had gotten if for
other purposes after a long delay from the library..... and a graduate
student interested in narrative and identity borrow it from me on the spot.
So I cannot respond directly to your evaluation of the book. I do know that
many adults of various ages from various parts of the former USSR
contributed to the corpus of materials that went into the book because a
long time ago I was involved in helping arrange for the collection of data,
but lost contact with the project.

I had, however, also just used Jim's article on narrative as a cultural tool
from *Mind as Action*, in a class. And a student having read it gave me the
book on lies my teacher told me which I found very interesting. I think,
however, its not a matter of preference for one or the other book for me,
there are plenty of books of a similar type around and they are important
for us to know about and keep in mind. Rather, Jim was talking about
narratives in the context of his theory of action and the idea that there is
a constant tension between mediational means and goal directed action.
Particuarly notable was the problem of the disfunctionalities of not knowing
enough of the narrative which rendered it a lousy
tool in one way and knowing it too well in a narrow sense which rendered it
lousy in another way. Anyway, that is my take.

> b) It seems to me that Chapter Six of Thinking and Speech is relevant to
> your second problem, and that in two ways. Langford (who considers Vygotsky
> to be the great intellectual fraud of 20th Century psychology) has one thing
> right: the major rethinking of Vygotsky's work in 1931 (when he appears to
> abandon the whole mediational triangle and instead becomes very interested
> in psychological systems) probably took place under intense political
> pressure. Vygotsky had been, prior to 1931, very closely tied to Krupskaya,
> Blonsky, the "labor school", "complexes" as curricular units, and the
> pedologists; in 1931 this was definitively repudiated by decree as being not
> rigorous enough and not consistent with the ambitious educational goals of
> the five year plan.
> So he had to reinvent himself. That is why, in Chapter Five of T&S he
> argues that concepts emerge only during the "transitional period" while in
> Chapter Six, Section Four he writes this according to the Seve and
> Meccaci translations:
> (Major differences with the Minick translation are in bold, and the box
> afterwards holds my comments!)
> Seve: As we know, in the period when the system of teaching by “complexes”*
> predominated, *we *often invoked in support of this system “pedagogical
> arguments”. *We *affirmed that it corresponded with peculiarities of the
> child’s system of thinking. *The fundamental error consisted in the manner
> in which we posed the question, which was false in principle.* It flowed
> from the idea that teaching had to orient to the yesterday of development,
> to the characteristics of child thinking that were already well formed. *The
> pedagogues (???) prescribed with the aid of the system of complexes to
> reincforce* in the development of the child what the child had just left
> behind, in entering school. They were oriented towards what the child
> already knew what to do by himself na dneglected the possibility of going
> beyond what he knew how to do on to what he does not know what to do. They
> appreciated the state of development like a stupid gardener, only looking at
> the fruits that were already ripe. They did not take into account the fact
> that teaching has to make development go forward. They did not take into
> consideration the next zone of development. They oriented only to the line
> of least resistance, to the weakness of the child and not to his strength.
> Meccaci: As is well known, for a time there was the domination amongst *us
> * of a system of school teaching in comlexes, and that pedagogical
> arguments were furnished in support of this system.** It was said that this
> system of complexes coresponded to the characteristics of child thinking.
> *The fudamental error lay in the fact that the way in which the problem
> was posed was wrong in principle. *It derived from the idea that teaching
> had to base itself on development on the characteristics of devleopment of
> child thinking. The *(pedologists)**** prescribed the consolidation,
> through the system of complexes, the development of what the child should
> have abandoned at the entrance of school. This oriented to what the child
> could do thinking on his own, and ignored the possibility of a transition
> from what he knew to what he did not know how to do. It evaluated the state
> of development like a stupid gardener: only on the basis of mature fruit. It
> did not consider that teaching could push development forward. It did not
> consdier the area of proximal development. It oriented to the line of least
> resistance, towards the weakness of the child and not towards his strength.
> * *
> Seve notes that the system of complexes was:
> * a system of education applied from 1923 until 1931. it was abolished in
> September 1931 by a decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party
> of Russia (Bolsheviks) “On primary and secondary school”. Ivan Kairov,
> writing in International Research in the Light of Marxism, says “In the
> 1920s, there was an attempt to subordinate teaching to work. One considered
> labor as an axis around which different fragmentary elements were grouped,
> pulled from different branches of science which were indispensable for the
> resolution of practical problems posed by work. As we know, these famous ‘
> complexes’ and these assemblies led to the suppression of systematic study
> of the basics in science, and had as a consequence the unfortunate lowering
> of the level of general knowledge.”
> Meccaci adds:
> ** In the editions of 1956 and 1982, the expression “pedagogical arguments
> ” was put in between quotation marks. In order to understand this
> editorial intervention, we must refer to the system of instruction by
> complexes (kompleksnaja sistema obuchenija) which was criticized for its
> lack of pedagogical foundatoin and abolished by a decree in 1921. This
> teaching was based on an an internal programme of “complexes” around
> fundamental interestes (for example, the environment, society, the economy).
> This method was very widely diffused in Soviet schools during the 1920s.”
> *** Meccaci notes that the word “pedologists” was replaced with “
> pedagogues” in the 1956 and the 1982 editions of the book.
> Some of what Vygotsky writes in the next sections (e.g. 6.6) seems like a
> call to the kind of educational forced marching you describe. For example:
> Seve: We have looked, meticulously and for a long time, for sure criteria
> which would permit us to characterize the structure of generalization proper
> to the real meanings of child words *and by the same token* we have looked
> for *the possibility of a transition*, a bridge between experimental
> concepts and real concepts. *Only* the establishment of a *liaison between
> the structure of generalization and the relations of generality *has given
> us the key to this problem. If we study the relations of generality in a
> given concepts, its measure of generality, we obtain the most sure criterion
> for determining the structure of generalization of real concepts. *To be a
> vehicle of meaning is equivalent to having certain relations of generality
> with other meanings, that is to say to having a specific measure of
> generality.* In this way it is in the specific relations with other
> concepts that the nature of a concept is most completely manifest—syncretic
> formation, complex, preconcept. The study of the real concepts o the child,
> for example, “bourgeois”, “capitalist”, “landlord” and “kulak”, brings us
> to establish specific relations of generality that dominate at each stage of
> the concept—from the syncretic formation to the true concept—it has
> permitted us not only to throw a bridge between the study of experimental
> concepts and that of real concepts but also to shed light on the essential
> aspects of the fundamental structures of generalization *which in a
> general manner* artificial experimentation does not allow us to study.
> Meccaci: We have sought for a long time to discover a secure index for
> qualifying the structure of generalization of the real meanings of child
> words and *the possibility of a transition,* a bridge between experimental
> concepts and real ones. *Only* the foundation of a link between the
> structure of generalization and the relations of generalization has given us
> the key for the solution of this problem. If we study the relations of
> generality of a given concept, its measure of generalization, we obtain a
> more secure criterion to arrive at the structure of generalization of real
> concepts. *Here is a meaning. This is completely equivalent to being in
> determined relations of generality with all the other meanings, that is to
> say, in a specific measure of generality*. Thus the nature of the concept—syncretic,
> complexive, preconceptual—manfests itself in a more complete mode in the
> specific relations of a given concept with another concept. When we study
> the real concepts of the children, for example bourgeois, capitalist,
> landlord, kulak, we are made to establish a specific relation of generality
> which dominates at each stage of the concept, from syncretism to the true
> concept. This has permitted us not only to put up a bridge between the study
> of experimental concepts and real concepts but in general it has permitted
> us to elucidate the essential aspects of the fundamental structures of
> generalization, which artificial experimentation was not in general in a
> position to study.
> Van der Veer and Valsiner claim (p. 337 in the Vygotsky Reader) that
> Vygotsky only ONCE referred to the kulaks (in “Fascism and Psychoneurology
> ”), but clearlythe concepts did figure in his work with Shif, and it
> appears here as well.
> What does Vygotsky mean when he says that the child’s response to ‘
> bourgeois”, “capitalist” (what is the difference?), “kulak” and “landlord”can reflect a structure of generality such as syncretic, complexive, and
> preconceptual? Perhaps the syncretic is something like "I like dem", the
> complexive is the division into "bad guys" and "good guys" and the
> preconceptual is more or less the way these terms were being bandied about
> by the Soviet bureaucracy.
> In his work on the "structure of generalization" Vygotsky is hinting at a
> relationship similar to what Marx describes for the commodity, that is, a
> situation where (as in the current economic crisis) the forces of production
> overtake and overwhelm the relations of production. In Vygotsky's version it
> is the forces of generalization (e.g. the child's social purview, which
> provides him with far more things than are dreamt of in his philosophy)
> which overwhelms the structure of generalization, and forces him to
> reconstrue his indicative understanding as a nominative one and then
> reconstruct his naming as signifying (naming things like "price" that do not
> really exist as concrete objects).
> Because Vygotsky is such a RELENTLESS materialist, he sees that the
> expansion of abstraction enriches the child's worldview rather than
> impoverishing it: if you have a greater catchment area, as you do with
> abstraction, then you theoretically have more data and more detail, not
> less. But taken too far this gives us something very like educational
> Stakhanovism.
> David Kellogg
> Seoul National University of Education
> I am unsure of how to relate these careful re-readings in cultural context
to the problem I was addressing, David. At a very general level, I am easily
convinced that the modes of instruction
rife in our school are at the level of empirical generalizations along the
lines criticized effectively
by Davydov long ago (and the solution of which is presumably to be found in
the new translations
of Davydov's book by Peter M that Dot has point us to). Jean Schmittau has
shown, among others,
that when implemented properly at the elementary level, Davydov's use of
algebra as the starting point for understanding arithmetic is effective in
just the ways I think you want it to be. Had I been so educated, I would not
have been confused by (-5)(15)=-75 but (-5)(-15)=75  (I have been working
along at this problem and believe i can now reformulate the issues, but that
is a different topic at the moment, although lurking for the kids I am
worried about for sure).

I am perhaps being mindlessly accepting of the current regime of instruction
in the US and worrying
too narrowly about the fact (I, at least take it to be a fact) that we have
hundreds of thousands of children who cannot tell you what 15-8 equals
without a lot of finger manipulation and hemming and hawing, but whose
teachers are giving them problems like 2005-108. I am not focused on an in
principle solution of the problem, at the moment, for that day when
instruction and children's relationship to it, makes the problem not appear.
I am worried about the fate of these kids on September 1 when they will be
asked to deal with long division. I am trying to cook up systems of
activity that the kids will engage in joyfully which will fill in potholes
in their current knowledge in time
so the truck they are going to be expected to drive in the fall does not
have its axel broken when they are put in the driver's seat and asked to "do
their homework on their own."

Prosaic, but it feels somehow important to the kids' well being and a
criticism of our ways of organizing kids' activities to help them deal with
social demands that overwhelm us and the kids.

Time to go plant some cucumbers and see if the critters have done et my new
crop of green beans.
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