Sunday, 4 January 2015


Some reflections

We in the West are well used to the chasm that that can separate the ideal from the socially actual, the rhetoric from the reality, both in our histories and in our present day. Not just in the West has this been so, of course, it was an important feature of Soviet life too.

Nowadays one hears very little of Soviet life apart from its iniquities, and those who look back upon it for what might have also been good, even noble, never mind those who feel nostalgia or even yearning, may be considered a little dotty, deluded, or just arrant revanchists. But hold on, babies and bath waters and all that...

Another paradigm to discover

Over the last twenty years or so of the Soviet regime I spent time and energy trying to understand Soviet theories of child development and how they related to the realities of psychology, pedagogy, education and upbringing, and particularly how all these bore upon children with problems of development. There was very little of any sense to read in English, but a veritable mountain of original Russian-language sources. Ever the optimist about human potential, I began to realise that the psychology in the then Soviet Union had made a quantum leap a couple of generations before I first found it, and within this was already settled into a period of 'normal science' (in Kuhn's sense). The psychological science of my own society (with its associated fields) was knocked into a cocked hat by what the Soviets tended to call otechestvennaya psikhologiya (which means the psychology of the fatherland)

It was this position that laid my mind open to 'discovering' conductive pedagogy and upbringing as it was perpetuated in Budapest in the nineteen-eighties under Mária Hári. I do not know what others coming into Conductive Education from outside without some similar orientation on some basis or other (like instrumental enrichment, for example) have made of it all. In many cases, I sometimes think, not a lot. I except from this of course those learners and families who have entered into the practice of Conductive Edfucation and been socialised into it through awareness that has dawned for them through their own practical activity – and of course conductors who have been similarly socialised ('trained' is such an inadequate statement of the process) through the struggle to live it.  They understand.

From the end of the eighties the Soviet Union fell, Conductive Education increasingly took over my life, and my opportunity to study those Soviet ideals was increasingly queezed out. The published literature was no longer there like it used to be but there were plenty of horror stories about iniquities and inadequacies in Soviet provision, and plenty of Western academics happy to consign concepts such as oligophrenia and defectology to arch inverted commas. Paradoxically, a boom in what were supposed in the West to be the theories of Vygotskii and Leont'ev was paralleled by lamentable ignorance of how these might be incorporated into practical activities, especially pedagogy) to better the human condition, not least for the benefit of those with developmental disorders.

At least, the process in the English-speaking world was much less ugly that I gather it to have been in the former DDR (German Democratic Republic – 'East Germany').

Inequalities of opportunity

I am no sociologist but I am happy to accept that the awful distribution system in the Soviet Union, through theft, incompetence and sheer shortage, meant that the children in Omsk Tomsk and Novosibirsk might not be benefiting unreservedly from the theoretical system that I found so enlightening. That did not subtract from the possible humane advantages of the ideas if adopted and applied in more favorable contexts. This distinction has not cut much ice,and those ideas have now largely vanished from the world's conscious attention.

I am also happy to acknowledge the gulf that has existed between the ideas of those who advocated educational inclusion in the seventies and eighties of the last century, along with the exemplary practices that have directly reflected these, and – a universe away in spirit and effects – many practices and systems actually provided under that very same rubric. So it goes the world over: we in the liberal democracies may also have iniquitous distribution systems across our education and social-welfare services when it comes to good will, humanity, flexibility, competence, care, etc.

These reflections were was brought to mind this afternoon by reading yesterday's posting on Norman Perrins's blog in which he reports sitting at his ease dipping into Karl Levitin's strange little compilation One is not born a personality, available in full on line,free of charge. This is one of those nice English-language books published at minimal price during the Soviet era by Progress Press in Moscow. Progress Press is no more but some at least of its publications can still be found on line and in the world's second-hand bookshops. Norman finds that having the time to read such a thing to be one of the compensations of retirement. 

What a pity that people who have not yet retired but are still able to act directly upon the live of others are not in a position to check and perhaps re-set their compasses in a similar manner.

So it goes...


Levitin, K. (1982) One is not born a personality: profiles of Soviet educational psychologists, Moscow, Progress Publishers

Perrin, N. (2015) An afternoon pleasantly spent reading, C.E. Jottings, 3 January

Sutton, A. (1980) Home, school and leisure in the Soviet Union, London, George Allen & Unwin
(astonishing bargains on both sides of Atlantic!)

Sutton, A. (2013) Little known and long forgotten: de facto purge of East German psychology, Conductive World, 18 June

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