Thursday, 15 May 2014

REUVEN FEUERSTEIN

Some reminiscences of the past
Some hope for the future

Reuven died on 29 April. I have not written an obituary as such. I leave that task to those more closely involved in the specifics of the practices that he developed, and to those who knew him more closely as a human being.

With the exception of an excellent item by Hannah Brown in the Jerusalem Post, who was much closer that I in both these respects, his death and by extension his life and work have gone almost wholly unremarked by English-language media. It is still too early to expect anything in the professional press – we shall see. Within the little world of Conductive Education Gill Maguire was quick off the mark with a bibliography of relevant texts but – hardly surprisingly – nothing else has emerged. This present posting is not an obituary, in the sense of a prepared, measured, formal document, but rather a spontaneous utterance written straight into the computer, in a feeling that I could leave it no longer to mark his passing.

I had come across Reuven in the early nineteen-seventies, and we knew each other on and off and at a distance for some forty years. Over this time I visited his centre in Jerusalem only once, and once I nearly managed to bring him to ours but in the event he was not well enough to travel. We met mainly at conferences and courses. If arrived late for his presentation, he would interrupt the proceedings to give me an effuse public greeting – much to the puzzlement of his audience. He was a real showman, and an incorrigible rascal.

Minuses and pluses

I was not an uncritical enthusiast. I was not personally attracted to his Instrumental Enrichment materials – they seemed to lend themselves all too easily to the same sort of naïve, mechanistic, reductionist understandings that I was seeing bring havoc to the heritage of Vygotskii in the English-speaking West – and would see do the same to the heritage of Pető. I would have liked him to to move away from the intelligence and discourse. And I wished that one could have heard much more about his 'upbringing' work in foster home group care.

I was intrigued when I realised how strongly his theoretical position was rooted in Jewish cultural and child-rearing traditions – as later explicated by his brother Shmuel – and have wondered ever since how far similar questions might be raised about the deep theoretical underpinnings of other pedagogues and/or psychologists of Jewish heritage, who have affirmed the power of education to transform development. The stories of Vygotskii and Pető, for example, have been unquestioningly appropriated by the lands of their later years. Yes, the adult Vygotskii was a Marxist and, yes, the adult Pető believed who-knows-what. Vygotskii's childhood at least has already well enough described to permit some revisionist interpretation of the boy took precocious interest in German philosophy and whose mother had read him German poetry. The personal history of Reuven's ideas might yet prove as heuristic as his ideas themselves!

A master of communication

On the too few occasions when I saw Reuven 'perform' I envied the power of those well-honed off-the-cuff performances that seized the attention and the hearts of audiences around the world. I recall the last time that I saw him do this, in 2007, at the conference that Tsad Kadima organised in Tel Aviv. The bulk of the audience were parents of children with cerebral palsy, and Tsad Kadima people. I suspect that most of them knew little or nothing at all about Mediated Learning or even who Reuven was. He entered from the back of the hall, on the arm or his Personal Assistant, and made the long, slow, effortful walk to the front. The audience watched the entrance of this little old man with polite curiosity. I helped him up on to the podium, seated him behind the table there, and placed the microphone in front of his. It was like a switch being thrown – he said what he must have said hundreds of times in similar situations, in a variety of languages around the world. Here, at home in Israel, he spoke in English, slowly, without notes and with understated passion. I watched the faces of his audience: he slew them. They may or may not have understood Mediated Learning, but they recognised his message of pedagogic hope and faith, hard work and determination, and knew that here was a great truth, bigger that Conductive Education and applicable far more widely than to motor disorders. He offered them a place in a wider world.

Some people 'understand'?

People might not have known what he was taking about but they seemed to know they were in 'a presence'. I used to see the same thing with Mária Hári: at times she could be talking at her most unintelligible but sensible men and women, cynical journalists and hardened politicians even, could feel the force of humane, understated conviction emanating from her, and be completely drawn in. I do not know how she and he did it, but it worked. Yes, of course Reuven's beard and his trade-mark hat were great props for the role of guru, but such attribute are not fundamental. He believed, he knew, and he drew people in to believe and to know with him. It worked with children, it worked with adults, and it worked with audiences. It needed no physical presence: I have seen it work in a tele-conference, and I have seen in work from a video-taped television programme. I trust that his recorded image will continue to 'work' for years to come.

The television programme was The Prophet from the Wilderness, one of the Transformers series made by the BBC as a direct successor to Standing up for Joe. It was not a bad little film (though one or two bits do make me squirm!) but Reuven was a star, a 'natural' – as in real life a bit of a ham, playing the part he played so well, himself. It was a disappointment therefore that this TV film did not set the TV audience on fire, as had Standing up for Joe a few years before. Why this should have been so, I do not know. Nor do I fully understand why his ideas never really took off in England. Perhaps it was just that: they were ideas, and English education offers stony ground for educational theory. It was the wrong place, and the particular politicisation of education over recent years has meant the wrong time too.

How far people in general have 'understood' the central message of Feuerstein, I am no position to judge. A few years before, I introduced Howard Sharron to the notion of writing a popular introduction to Reuven's thinking work, Changing Children's Minds – and it still serves this purpose well. I think that in Howard Reuven met as great a rogue as himself. Certainly, each and every time that Reuven and I met after that he still chuckled about 'our friend'. Howard understood – so he really was 'our friend'. So did Ann Paul, who produced The Prophet from the Wilderness. So too have so many others over the years.

Many do not...

Many who understand have been personally converted by hearing Reuven speak at some form of public presentation. Some will have had the lives of their children and their families transformed by interventions based upon his work. Some will have got it from books. Others will have come to it with their transformative understandings already formed through other channels and found that Reuven's work offers an alternate, corroborative slant on an already familiar meta-position.

Yet many reject or ignore Reuven's ideas. Perhaps some have met them ill-explained. Perhaps some find them all to complex. Perhaps some have come with minds clenched tight for ideological reasons. There are rational reasons here for passing on by, and these can potentially be addressed rationally. And there are irrational reasons too.

Keep going...

I have tried and many others had tried too, for Reuven, for L. S. Vygotskii and his clan, for Pető and Hári, and for others too. I hope that many more will continue to try, to wage the presently so unequal fight for the cause of what Reuven called the 'modifiablity' of human psychic development – what I call its transformability and some call metamorphosis. What goes around comes around, and the world's need for this should be up there with climate change, pandemics, near-Earth objects, nuclear Armageddon and all those other anxieties that we might or might not be able do something about. This one we could do something about. It is human problem, and therefore potentially modifiable. Reuven tried.

Conductive World will doubtless return to Reuven Feuerstein at a later point when reason arises, as it surely will. His words and the philosophy of the infinite capacity of human thinking will continue to have meaning for me, as I know that they will for others.

Meanwhile, Rony Schenker is leaving a stone for me on his grave.

References

Brown, H. (2014) Professor Reuven Feuerstein: a personal remembrance from a very grateful mother, Jerusalem Post, 30 April

Feuerstein, R. (2008) Conductive Education and structural cognitive modifiability. Recent Advances in Conductive Education, vol. 7, no 1, pp.5-8

Feuerstein, S (2002) Biblical and Talmudic Antecedents of Mediated Learning Experience Theory: Educational and Didactic Implications for Inter-Generational Cultural Transmission, Jerusalem, International Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential and Ashkelon Academic College

Sharron, H., Coulter, M. (1984) Changing Children's Minds, London, Fontana


Sutton, A. (2014) That Nobel Peace Prize: an historical footnote, Conductive World, 21 January








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