“The Way to Freedom” in/for Education

Freedom: affect in concept. The grand picture of development of the personality: the way to freedom. Bring Spinozism to life in Marx[ist] psychol[ogy]. The cent[ral] problem of all psychology is freedom. (Vygotsky, in Zavershneva 2010b: 66)

During the last years of his life, Vygotsky produced a series of documents entitled “Spinoza,” which also included a document containing the phrase “The lightening bolts of Spinoza’s thought” (Vygotsky 2010). In that document, we find the programmatic statements that open this chapter. Among these statements, three pertain to the same concept freedom, a concept that plays a very minor if any role in current educational psychology or sociocultural psychology. Yet for Vygotsky it was the central problem of all psychology. This problem was to be addressed by “brin[ing] Spinozism to life in Marxist psychology.” In this final chapter, we elaborate on this implication of the Spinozist turn for educational praxis and, thereby, for a science of cultural psychology of education concerned with understanding learning and development under the light of the quest for freedom, a quest that has not yet been at the heart of the concerns within the field. Indeed, it has been suggested that the opposite is the case, where (bourgeois) psychologists of motivation, for example, have sought to find ways for making people do what they do not want to do on their own. Thus, it has been shown that “the entire bourgeois psychology of thought only stylizes interpretation as thought, the bourgeois psychology of emotion only knows internalized emotion, and bourgeois psychology of motivation only knows motivation by means of inner coercion” (Holzkamp 1983: 17). Psychology thereby only considers restricted forms of agency under bourgeois conditions and, thereby, only the ways in making do in (accepting) existing conditions—as opposed to concretize the real possibilities that exist with the human capacity to change their conditions. Freedom, the realization of the real human possibilities of changing conditions, life, and consciousness, ought to be the real problem of a cultural psychology of education.

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

W.-M. Roth, A. Jornet, Understanding Educational Psychology, Cultural

Psychology of Education 3, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-39868-6_13

Vygotsky turned to Spinoza in the attempt to overcome all traces of Cartesian dualism present in (scientific and folk) psychology as well as in his own earlier attempts to build a dialectical materialist science of the psyche. Throughout this book we exhibit the need to conceptualize not the individual person, abstracted from the real situations and relations of which it is integral part, but the constitutive {person | environment} unit. The relevant object of research then exists in the thinking body, where the living, material body is related to thinking as an organ is to its function (e.g. the legs and walking). Considering {learning | development} in terms of the unity/identity of person and environment means rethinking the notion of context. As soon as we rethink contexts of learning, there will be radical consequences for the ways in which educational practice and measurement have to be theorized.

Virtually all researchers and educators today acknowledge the importance of the social and cultural context in discussions of education and learning. Yet very different conceptualizations of the nature of context co-exist in the literature without that researchers and practitioners always are aware of those differences. Whereas diverse teaching practices and goals that shall better account for students’ life contexts are envisaged, a prevalent focus on “what works” prevents researchers from questioning schooling as a social and historical practice. Schooling in the way it exists is accepted as an unchangeable condition. Such lack of questioning, however, runs against the approach advanced throughout this book, which demands a historical and genetic account of schooling and the context it provides for learning.

The dualism that Vygotsky was fighting against—which splits mind from body and the individual subject from objective society—continues to exist. It does so at the heart of what remains the most distinctive of all features of institutionalized schooling today: measurement and the economy of grades. Here, Cartesian dualism is not an abstract philosophical concern but a real organizing principle that determines aspects of practical life at both the institutional and the personal levels. The alienation of the knowing subject from the object known is a reality that exists in and as the organized production and exchange of concrete materials (e.g. grades); as forms of symbolic capital, it provides its owners differential access to one or other kind of life in society. It is therefore adequate to conclude our inquiry by discussing some of the implications that a monist, Spinoza-inspired approach has for educational practice and assessment. In this approach, the alienation of knowing subject from the object known must no longer exist.

In this chapter, and complementing reflections on teaching and assessment already presented in Chap. 12, we develop a genetic account to examine and discuss the historical conditions that lead to the production of the context of school as societal phenomenon. Important in such an account is the elaboration of the notion of context in ways consistent with the Spinozist approach. What results is a view of (learning) context that constitutes a dynamic and generative force that produces and reproduces (school) objects and (school) subjects instead of consisting of a static part-whole (individual-society) relation. Such a view of context allows a better understanding of the epistemology that underlies school failure and inequity and its social and personal implications. This is of particular relevance given the constant state of crisis in education, where calls for reform are invariably re-produced decade after decade and where closing the so-called achievement gap remains an unachieved goal.

Once we understand schooling as a societal phenomenon that emerges from a bourgeois epistemology, we can begin to leave the question of achievement behind and address questions concerning the purpose of education. The tenth thesis on Feuerbach states that “The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity” (Marx and Engels 1998: 569). In it, Marx contrasts two different understandings of materialism, and associates each to the type of society they belong. The old (vulgar) materialism— one that identifies the material with “matter” and contrasts the later with the subjectivity—is the product of civil (bourgeois) society. In bourgeois society, the orientation is “that of an agent who sees the world as a set of objects to be manipulated to satisfy his individual needs” (Brudney 1998: 241). In the dialectical materialist perspective underlying the concrete human psychology that Vygotsky was striving for, the standpoint is that of social humanity, where there no longer is a division between individual subject and societal object. Social humanity “does not just manipulate an external datum but somehow recognizes the world around it as, in a sense, its own activity” (1998: 241). Such recognition of the surrounding world is important because it leads to freedom, that is, to the possibility of changing one’s life conditions. Throughout this book we emphasize a Marxist reading of Spinoza as an appropriate starting point to restore life in and to Vygotsky’s living legacy. In this chapter we conclude with a discussion of how this approach, in bringing social life to the core and source of our inquiries, demands a profound rethinking of the place and goals of educational practice, as well as offers otherwise unexplored research opportunities.

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