Thursday, 5 July 2012


Of a kind

Reading through 'Sheila Riddell's expert opinion for NESSE mentioned yesterday on Conductive World, I could not help noticing the following –
Within countries of Central and Eastern Europe making the transition from centrally managed to market economies, entirely different conceptualisations of disability have prevailed. As noted by a number of commentators (Tsokova and Becirevic, 2009; Radoman et al., 2006) the Soviet tradition of defectology, exemplified in the work of Vygotsky (1983) was very powerful. Within this discipline, the aim was to use psychometric and medical tests to identify children whose development was abnormal as a result of intrinsic organic rather than environmental factors. Children’s academic aptitude was deemed to be fixed from an early age, and the task of the psychologist was to allocate the child to an appropriate type of special education...

Radoman, V., Nano, V., Closs, A. (2006) Prospects for inclusive education in European countries emerging from economic and other trauma: Serbia and Albania European Journal of Special Needs Education 21, 2, 151-166.

Tsokova, D. and Becirevic, M. (2009) Inclusive education in Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina: policy and practice European Journal of Special Needs Education 24, 4, 393-406.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1983) Collected Works. Vol. 5, Fundamentals of Defectology Moscow: Pedagogika.
I have taken  'Vygotsky (1983)' above at face value as referring to the original Soviet edition, In the list of references provided I have corrected the bibliographic errors in the third reference, though leaving the title in English translation.

Nul points 

I know very little about special education in post-Cold War Eastern Europe. I would be wrong, however, to come to an understanding of such a diverse and dynamic field from two articles on the Balkans (above) and two further ones cited on Lithuania. Be that as it may, what is written above on defectology and L. S. Vygotskii is pretty breath-taking, even by the standards.
  • I cannot see justification for relying upon secondary sources, from post-Cold War 'commentators' from the Balkans, to form an understanding of Soviet defectology, while there are more than plenty primary sources available on this in English, from both Western and Soviet/Russian authors.
  • As for the mention of Vygotskii, I can only assume that either the book was referred to and not read or, if read, not understood. (I note that the reference cited is to Sobranie sochinenii, the Russian-language original of 1983, rather than to the not-too-bad English translation published by Plenum ten years later, in which The Fundamentals of Defectology was indeed Volume 2).
A 'fail' at undergraduate level, in both respects, not just for what is said but, more importantly for demonstrating no idea of how to go about things in a scholarly manner.

Where to begin?

Just perhaps the above flaws are enough in themselves to account for the serious errors in the following passage –
Within this discipline, the aim was to use psychometric and medical tests to identify children whose development was abnormal as a result of intrinsic organic rather than environmental factors. Children’s academic aptitude was deemed to be fixed from an early age.
Questioning mere facts, however, takes one only so far:
  • 'psychological tests', what does she refer to in this context?
  • 'abnormal' development', does she mean 'anomalous development'?
  • '..rather than...', never mind materialist dialectics as applied in this field, what about child development as now understood even in the West?
  • '...academic aptitude was deemed fixed at an early age...', where does such fantasy about Soviet education come from?
  • '...the task of the psychologist was...' where did psychologists come in?' 
I suspect though that there is a more fundamental problem here. The ideological gulf between many Western educational academics and the materialist and dialectical position 'exemplified in the work of Vygotsky' is so colossal that it is hardly surprising that defectology has been a bogey man, a bugaboo to many liberals, beyond the realms of honest, dispassionate, intellectually rigorous attention and discussion.

Practical advice

It is surprising that someone presenting as able to read Vygotskii in the original does not pay rather more account to the pedagogical achievement of generations of dedicated defectological practice, and to the careers of some of the finest intellects to have turned to understanding human mental development (I offer here merely Vygotskii, Luriya and Leont'ev). This is more that cavalier, it is just not good enough.

I rarely offer career advice but here is some that should to have been heeded by many who have expertly opined upon Conductive Education over the years:
  • stay out of comparative education if it is not your field, in which case stay out of advising internationally on this basis
  • stay out of academic discussion of child development, anomalous or otherwise, unless you have a thorough technical grounding
  • try to distinguish between personal ideology and supposedly academic writing, or at least try to make your own ideological position explicit
  • remember that your writing may have effects, if no more that contributing to a Zeitgeist, potentially involving profound, deleterious consequences within the lives of real people.

Riddell, S. (2011) Policies and practices in education, training and employment for disabled people in Europe, NESSE (Network of Experts in Social Sciences of Education and Training)
Sutton, A. (2012) Good enough for disability: Level of academic-professional discourse on CE, Conductive World, 4 July

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