Lev Vygotsky and the “antipedology campaign” in Soviet education

The legacy of Lev Vygotsky

There’s an anti-communist myth in the west that Lev Vygotsky was the “best soviet psychologist”, but he was suddenly “banned” or “purged” without justification – or something along those lines. In fact, that is not quite true. Vygotsky of course was never “purged”, arrested or even denounced in his life time. He died in 1934 due to natural causes (tuberculosis). He was unsatisfied with his own achievements which were criticized from many sides, and by himself. Despite of that, he was still called a leading Soviet psychologist when he died.

Vygotsky’s most influential ideas regarded an instrumental approach, about how tools, objects and other such stimuli influence the emergence and development of the psyche. That theory might have some real validity to it, but it seems perhaps one-sided. His other important theory was related to child development. That is how he got into the movement known as “pedology” or the study of the psychological development of children. Its not a psychological school but a mix of many disciplines including pedagogy. However, Vygotsky remained unsatisfied with his theory, was re-writing all of it but died before being able to do that to any substantive degree.

At this moment I am not knowledgeable enough to evaluate Vygotsky’s work as a whole, but it should be kept in mind that Soviet psychology was still only taking shape in the 20s and 30s. Actually big changes, debates and re-evaluations or even “revolutions” in Soviet marxist psychology continued to happen even into the 50s (I’m not taking into account whatever changes took place in the revisionist period from 1953 onward).

However, along with reasons for perhaps recognizing merits in Vygotsky, there are many glaring problems in Vygotsky’s system, even to someone who is not an expert on psychology, but knows something about marxism:

  • A scientific materialist psychological system was being developed at the same time in the USSR by I. P. Pavlov. As far as I’m aware, Vygotsky’s system doesn’t take Pavlov into account to any meaningful degree. In his defence it can be said that Vygotsky’s system is not a complete psychological system, and studied only certain topics, which were different from the subject matter of Pavlov’s research. In my opinion that is not necessarily true, and is not a sufficient excuse. Either way it would demonstrate that Vygotsky’s system could not be the basis of a scientific psychology, but at best a contribution to it.
  • Vygotsky was in the process of re-thinking his entire system, because together with many others, he was unsatisfied with it. This raises obvious problems.
  • Vygotsky looked somewhat uncritically to western bourgeois idealist schools of psychology to solve problems with his system. This raises further problems. As a result Vygotsky’s work cannot be readily accepted by scientific marxist psychology but must be very carefully and critically evaluated. Of course many people have attempted to do exactly that.

In 1936 the doctrine of pedology was heavily criticized and eventually marginalized. Perhaps not outright banned, but still a C.C. resolution “on the pedological distortions in the people’s comissariat for education (narkompros)” made it clear that the state schools would no longer use pedological methods on their students. Vygotsky was not attacked, but a field closely related to him was. Thus a significant chunk of his work started to be seen as questionable at best.

Problems in the early Soviet education system: pedology vs pedagogy

So why did the C.C. decide so firmly against those practices? According to a paper by a bourgeois historian, Soviet schools had big problems in handling students. It should be kept in mind that in the Tsarist times the vast majority of the population remained illiterate and poorly educated. This problem was tackled by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s and 30s with massive literacy campaigns and the founding of a universal education system which was free even for the university level. In fact university students received stipends to help cover their living and other expenses. However, big problems remained to be solved, reaching universal literacy was a huge undertaking:

“In early 1937, one-third of sixth graders in a school near Leningrad were not passing their Russian-language course.” (Thomas Ewing, Restoring Teachers to Their Rights, p. 1)

Teachers who had grown up in the Tsarist education system did not handle the situation properly. They blamed students for being “stupid”, “lazy” and “hopeless”. This was the norm in the Tsarist education system. A vivid description of the Tsarist school system is given by N. Pomyalovsky in his book Seminary Sketches.

“Their teacher, Tomsinskaia, told the school director that the failures were due to circumstances beyond her control: children had received inadequate preparation in previous grades, textbooks were in short supply, and pupils had “weak reading habits.” Other teachers in the Krasnosel’skii district offered similar justifications… Velichko asserted that her seventeen failing pupils all suffered from inherited conditions such as “mental retardation,” “underdevelopment,” or “congenital laziness.” (Ewing, p. 1)

The communists strongly refuted such claims by teachers. Clearly the old teachers themselves needed to be educated how to treat students better:

“According to the regional educational journal, however, these poor results were evidence that teachers were “shirking their responsibility for pupils’ lack of achievement.” While blaming lack of preparation in earlier grades, an article in that journal charged that Tomsinskaia had conveniently “forgotten” that one-half of “failing” pupils had studied with her the previous year and thus she was responsible for promoting them, just as she had “forgotten” to mention that she made little effort to correct mistakes, provide remedial assistance, or encourage independent reading.” (Ewing, p. 1)

The pedologists studied different “defects” in children, gave them different labels and classifications regarding their “defects” and wanted to send them to special schools for “defective students”. This became a big problem because of the sheer amount of children who were declared “defective” and “nearly hopeless” and sent away from normal education. This also gave the conservative, stupid and even reactionary teachers a perfect excuse to always blame students, and merely throw them out. This was deeply damaging:

“Stalingrad pedologists claimed that as many as three thousand pupils enrolled in “normal classes” should be certified as “mentally retarded.” In one extreme case, one-quarter of pupils in a single class were assigned to this category. Moscow pedologists declared that as many as two-thirds of “failing” pupils were in fact “mentally retarded.” (Ewing, p. 6)

Other anti-communist undemocratic attitudes were perpetuated, advocating segregation of “lesser” students from the rest, or casting them out of normal schools:

“Within many schools, “parallel” classes existed, with “strong” pupils separated from “weak” pupils, most of whom were repeating grades… ” In late May 1936, just one month before the repudiation of pedology, a letter published in the newspaper Izvestiia declared that “mentally retarded children” could receive a proper education only in separate schools.” (Ewing, p. 6)

Naturally some students legitimately have severe physical or mental problems, and need special assistance. In some cases special assistance might even mean a separate school which specializes in helping disabled students. However, the goal of communism should be to help integrate disabled people into society as much as possible, make them equal to the maximum degree, and not separate them. It is always better if society can be made more accommodating, rather then separating them to their own space.

It is entirely reactionary to categorically declare these conditions as “hopeless” and even more reactionary, if not outright fascist to declare these students (human beings!) as “hopeless”. Secondly, only people with serious mental disability, physical health concerns etc. might need specialized facilities. In the Soviet case it was clear that vast numbers of students without any such severe disabilities were being labeled “defective” when they would have been entirely capable of studying in the usual school system, if given the necessary help.

The ideas and practices of the pedological “researchers” took on sinister, undemocratic and even racist features:

“Soviet pedologists sought to establish their authority in measuring the mental ability and learning potential of children [and] suggested that even in a “socialist” system, certain categories of children, especially those in rural areas and among “non-Russian” minorities, remained “backward” in their academic achievement.”” (Ewing, p. 10)

Criticism of separation of pedological theory from practice, and lack of its practical usefulness

Marxism teaches that theory must always serve practice, otherwise it is empty.

“Educational policymakers complained that pedologists failed to provide useful knowledge about child development, and a few even called for pedology to be eliminated from teacher training programs. Central Committee member A. Zhdanov criticized pedologists who endlessly studied “difficult” children but made no effort to improve behavior or raise achievement of those pupils conveniently kept “out of the way” in separate schools.” (Ewing, p. 10)

“Pedologists were denounced for “pointless debates” and for “talking endlessly in their own pedological language which no one else can understand.” Most pointedly, critics asserted that pedologists had made no practical contribution to Soviet education: “so-called pedologists have done nothing, are doing nothing, and will never do anything to help the school.” As “observers” rather than “transformers,” pedologists failed to live up to Stalin’s assertion that the people “who make history” are those who not only understand the conditions in which they are living, but also “understand how to change these conditions.”” (Ewing, p. 13)

Criticism of the anti-marxist foundation of pedological theory

The Central Committee had to tackle this problem and restore pedagogy, the science of educating:

“Accusing the Commissariat of Education of yielding control over such functions as assigning pupils, defining regulations, and evaluating achievement, the Central Committee charged that pedologists’ “pseudo-scientific experiments” had called excessive attention to “the most negative influences and pathological perversions” in children, their families, and surrounding environment. Such testing meant that “an ever larger and larger number of children” were assigned to special schools after being categorized as “mentally backward,” “defective,” or “difficult.” In fact, the Central Committee declared, many of these children were perfectly capable of attending normal’naia shkola (normal schools), but once these labels had been affixed, they were considered “hopeless” cases””
(Ewing, p. 11)

“The Central Committee went beyond these complaints about school policies, however, by charging that pedological theory itself was based on “falsely-scientific and anti-Marxist foundations.” In particular, any suggestion that children’s fate was “determined” by “fixed” social or biological factors was condemned as directly contradictory to “socialist development,” which had “successfully re-educated people.” Such claims about environmental and hereditary influences allegedly revealed an “uncritical” borrowing of “bourgeois” theories intended to maintain the dominant positions of “exploiting classes” and “superior races” by perpetuating the “physical and spiritual doom of the working classes and ‘inferior races.”‘ In the concluding section, the Central Committee instructed the Commissariat of Education to achieve “the full restoration of pedagogy as a science and pedagogues as its bearers and guides” by restoring teachers’ responsibility for instruction, returning “the bulk of the children to normal schools,” and eliminating the field of pedology by retraining specialists, withdrawing books, and abolishing courses.” (Ewing, p. 11)

The notion that people from certain nationalities or from bad socio-economic conditions cannot study together with the rest of students, is entirely anti-marxist. The notion that biological or environmental factors cannot be changed or mitigated is completely false. Such claims practically dismantle and eliminate pedagogy, the science of education, by declaring that an educator is totally powerless to do anything about these “hopelessly defective” cases. This is how bourgeois pseudo-science attempts to demolish real science.

Even some cases of sabotage were alleged. Labeling huge amounts of children without serious disabilities as “hopeless” surely sounds like sabotage, and it wouldn’t surprise me if oppositionist or Tsarist teachers didn’t sometimes do it as a form of sabotage:

“Soviet authorities promised that the “unmasking” of “hostile” pedologists would produce “healthier” schools by “rooting out” all “harmful” elements with “counter-revolutionary” intentions.” (Ewing, p. 12)

Correcting the methods of teaching, correcting harmful attitudes, and correcting the role of teachers

“According to Party officials, many “rank and file” teachers had seen special schools as “a means of deliverance” from “undesirable” pupils. Pedologists were thus “very convenient” for “bad teachers” who no longer had to assume “responsibility for teaching underachieving children.” Pedologists even offered teachers a kind of justification for poor results. When a school pedologist “discovered” that less than 10 percent of second graders in a Moscow school were “capable, well developed children,” teachers had an easy excuse for the poor achievement of the entire class…” (Ewing, p. 16-17)

“Yet even as such efforts to evade responsibility were being condemned as “pedological distortions,” some teachers persistently sought to divest themselves of “problem” pupils.” (Ewing, p. 16)

Serbantova is a good example of an undemocratic, elitist and conservative teacher, who has failed at their job and instead blames students:

“Addressing a conference in late 1936, school director P. S. Arshinov described how second grade teacher Serbantova reacted to a pupil with learning difficulties: “For goodness sake, I already have one such ‘incorrigible’ child, and now you have given me another.” On the next day, Serbantova demanded that Arshinov take measures against “this ‘disorganizer,’ this ‘incorrigible one,’ who does not sit still in class, and fidgets all the time.” Noting that the fidgeting resulted from physical illness easily corrected by medical treatment, Arshinov refused this request. Serbantova then incited the parents of other children to make similar demands: “Either remove this boy, or transfer our children to other classes, because he is ruining them.”” (Ewing, p. 16)

The above is a good example of a reactionary, pseudo-scientific bourgeois attitude towards education. Imagine blaming students who are left-handed, have dyslexia or ADHD as “incorrigible” and “stupid”. This in fact was the attitude in many capitalist schools, and still is to some extent today. It is not the attitude of marxism.

Reactionary teachers appealed to the supposed “innate defects” of students. They neglected these students, refused to put in the effort to teach them and help them, and used undemocratic, elitist and outright insulting and dehumanizing labels against these students:

“In a few cases, as in the example of Serbantova, teachers simply refused to teach certain children. Referring to her “incorrigible” pupils, teacher Ur’eva told the school director: “It is either them, or me.” Teachers who commented on the “innate abilities” of children were condemned for accepting pedologists’ “reactionary” views on the so-called “fatal” influence of heredity. A 1938 report claimed that some teachers made decisions two months before final exams that certain pupils would be held back and thus made no effort to prevent their “inevitable” failure. When Leningrad teacher Udal’tsova was asked why she had not graded certain notebooks, she replied: “Oh, those belong to the repeating students, and you can’t expect anything from them.” In Moscow, teacher Durova justified her poor results by claiming that her pupils were “less gifted” than those of a more successful teacher. In direct contravention to the Central Committee decree, many teachers continued to label individual pupils as “lacking intelligence,” “hopeless,” “defective” or “retarded.”” (Ewing, p. 17)

The Communist Party and Communist Teachers took a firm stance against reactionary methods and attitudes. They stated that the vast majority of students must be returned to the normal school system and teachers must give them additional help. It is the job of the teacher to make sure these students learn. These students will no longer be labeled as “defective” and will not be blamed.

Democratic slogans were adopted, such as “the Soviet Union did not have a single “defective child.”” and “There are No Poor Pupils, Only Poor Teachers”. A campaign was launched for 100% successful teaching, so that every student would pass his exams. If a student was having problems, it was the responsibility of the teacher to give them the help they need. This included trying to help their family or trying to solve any factors outside school, which could be causing problems for their education.

“The Stalingrad educational journal offered this unequivocal declaration: “Poor work by the school and poor achievement by the entire class and by individual pupils are the direct result of poor work by the teacher.” Whereas pedologists had asserted that “failure occurs outside the school,” the new policy line proclaimed that “failure occurs only in the school,” at the hands of teachers. [this does not mean to deny factors outside school, such as bad family conditions, but it means the teacher is responsible for addressing those problems too]. Teachers who had been reassured by pedologists that “failure” was the inevitable “fate” of “below average” pupils were now told that “permitting” failure by even one pupil was proof of their adherence to “bourgeois” and “anti-Leninist” theories.” (Ewing, p. 18)

Western anti-communists complain that it is “repressive” to blame teachers for the poor performance of their students. But what is the job of an educator? To educate. Since the teachers were given all the necessary resources, if they just put in the necessary effort they should be able to fulfill their duty. As one communist teacher correctly stated:

Much has been given to us, but much is also asked of us.” (Ewing, p. 22)

The correct attitude and methods

“Complaining that pedologists had “crippled” children by categorizing them as “defective,” “difficult to educate,” and “disorganizers,” teacher E. Vvedenskaia urged colleagues to recognize that only an “individual approach” could ensure the success of each pupil. In a similar manner, I. Borukhovich declared that eliminating “pedological distortions” and improving schools were attainable ends only if teachers committed themselves to work “thoroughly, thoughtfully, and lovingly” with each child. Reinforcing this shift in expertise, educational authorities promised to pay more attention to “the voice of our best teachers.” With increasing frequency, journals and newspapers published celebratory accounts of how teachers transformed children into high achievers, obedient classmates, and loyal citizens. After M. D. Pronina finished the school year without any failing pupils, her achievement was said to have “disproven” pedology. When K. K. Fediukin transformed the son of a neglectful and drunken father into an excellent pupil, he accomplished a task allegedly declared “impossible” by pedologists.” (Ewing, p. 19)

Communist teachers held the correct humane and democratic attitude towards students, and recognized the necessity to combine theory with practice:

The ideas of one teacher Litvinchuk to correct the situation “consisted of seemingly common-sense approaches. In dealing with “backward” pupils, for example, Litvinchuk called on teachers to provide additional lessons, investigate factors that might impede pupils’ success, and avoid any suggestion that “hopeless” pupils were unable to achieve at “normal” levels. These examples suggest that the “scientific” authority previously claimed by pedologists had been repudiated in favor of teachers who used their “practical” authority to achieve more than these “experts” believed was possible.“
(Ewing, p. 20)

“In a 1939 account, for example, teacher V. P. Laiko described how she brought about the remarkable transformation of a boy named Valia:

For the first three quarters of the year he remained behind in all subjects. I considered him a “hopeless case,” that is, someone who would be held back a year. At the same time, however, I could clearly see that Valia did not have any kind of defects. I decided to work with him in a serious and systematic fashion. I must say that he was a real trouble-maker, as he interrupted lessons, crawled under desks, used improper language, and stole money from his home. The first thing I did was enlist his parents and keep in constant contact with them. I began to have additional lessons with Valia at the end of the day, invited him to my home, gave him interesting books, included him in socialist competition, and began to draw him a little bit away from the street. In the first half of the quarter, I could already see results as Valia began to read at a “satisfactory” level. By the end of the first grade his grades were not all that great, but I decided to promote him to the second grade in order to continue the work that I had begun with him. At the present time Valia is getting an “excellent” grade in reading, a “satisfactory” grade for spelling, and a “good” grade for arithmetic. I think that Valia might become an excellent pupil. If you work in a very painstaking way with children, it is possible to improve their education and raise their level of achievement.” (Ewing, p. 20)

The story of a teacher who emigrated from the USSR verifies how these new improved methods achieved success:

“I obtained my next post at school No. 23 in Kharkov in the fourth grade. This was a school whose children were the toughest I had ever met. Nobody paid attention to the teachers. During class periods the children did everything except listen to what the teacher was saying. The headmaster warned me that this grade was very bad, but he was very surprised when, after one year with me, the children gave up their former habits and became more attentive in their school work.” In these stories, the parallel transformations from a “hopeless case” to “an excellent pupil” and from “the toughest” class to “more attentive” children were presented as defining elements of what it meant to be a teacher.”
(Ewing, p. 21)

In conclusion

Vygotsky himself was never the focus of the criticisms. The doctrine of pedology was condemned due to its:

  • Pseudo-scientific and anti-marxist nature.
  • Undemocratic, fatalistic (idealist) and heartless attitude.
  • Counter-revolutionary, harmful consequences which can be compared to sabotage.
  • Its separation of theory from practice: wasting time on endless fruitless discussions and experiments, while failing to give any useful results to support education.
  • In fact its elimination and abolishing of pedagogy, its declaration that pedagogy is powerless to help the so-called “defective”.

Lastly, I should mention that the idea of specialized institutes for disabled or other people who needed significant specialist help, was not as such denounced in the USSR. One of the most famous Soviet pedagogues, A. Makarenko, specialized in the 1920s and 1930s in creating self-help communes for street orphans, many of whom had terrible life-management problems and a background in crime.

It was also not prohibited to study the different “natural talents” or differences in people’s talents. One of the leading Soviet psychologists of the Stalin era, B. Teplov, studied what it means for someone to be especially “talented” or “gifted” in some field, such as music or mathematics, and where these “gifts” come from. Marxism does not deny that people are different and have different levels of skills. However, this should not lead to the segregation of people, but to the greatest possible development and thriving of everyone.

Those with special needs in certain areas, should receive additional help, and those with special gifts in certain areas should be given all the opportunities they need. This individual and humane attitude is part of raising a socialist generation, creating the socialist human being. It was exemplified for example in the work of a leading pedagogue in the Stalin era, V. Sukhomlynsky. It was the Soviet Marxist-Leninist method, the method of building Communism.

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