Critical and Vygotskian theories of education: a comparison.

Willem L. Wardekker

Dept. of Education

Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam

Van der Boechorststraat 1, 1081 BT Amsterdam, Netherlands

1. Education and politics

It is a well-known implication of Activity Theory that the development of human beings cannot be adequately understood from a universalistic point of view (see e.g. Wertsch, 1991). Development means learning to participate in human activities, using the cultural resources available for the developing child. This is not only a process of learning culturally available meanings, but of personality formation. As D.A. Leont'ev (1994) says, personality means "being an autonomous agent, realizing in its life activity the forms of relation to the world that emerged in the course of human history." This means that both the quality of the development process and that of the final stage, of the personality, depend upon the quality of available resources.

Whether, however, particular resources are available for a particular developing personality is not something that can easily be deduced on the basis of "the course of human history" alone. We cannot just assume that the "course of human history" is a uniform one in the direction of ever more and ever better resources becoming available for ever more people. History can also turn in the other direction. Also, power relations in society will always intervene so that some resources are more readily available than others. Thus, there is a relation between the structure of society, the quality of available resources, and the quality of personality, and according to Activity Theory this relation is intrinsically political in nature.

In this respect, Activity Theory differs from many other theories of education and personality formation. Most of these have supposed that some universal principle is at work, the normal result of which is that every human being forms an identity, that is, a self-conscious, consistent and rational way of relating itself to the world in its actions. For the empirists, this principle was knowledge of the world as it is through the senses; for Progressive Education, it was given in the nature of human beings; for Piaget, it is the dynamic interaction between human nature and the structure of the world. Politics, or the structures of society, only play a role as accidental circumstances which may prohibit the full deployment of such principles, but are not theoretically relevant for psychology or for educational theory. Activity Theory does not have such a universal principle of development. Therefore, it should have an interest in developing a theory about the political aspects of education. It cannot take the presence and the quality of cultural resources for granted.

However, it seems to me that this aspect of Activity Theory is rather underdeveloped at this time. A.N.Leont'ev (1980) gave it some attention, stating that personal sense cannot adequately express itself when culturally available meanings are of an ideological nature, which leads to personality disorders. And Newman & Holzman (1993) say that under the conditions of modern society, ontogenesis must stop where learning culturally accepted meanings should give way to creative and 'revolutionary' changing of those meanings, because such meanings have become reified beyond the possibility of change. This implies that not only will personality be deformed, but also the development of society, and thus of cultural resources, has come to an end. However, both the theories of Leont'ev and of Newman & Holzman are very global and rely on a superficial analysis of society structure which does not allow for contradictions within society.

There is, however, one theory in which the relation between ontogenesis and social conditions has been the focus of attention. This is the (originally German) philosophical and sociological tradition of Critical Theory of Horkheimer, Adorno and nowadays Habermas, and, associated with it, of Critical Pedagogy or, as it is called in the U.S.A., Radical Pedagogy. Its origins in Western Neo-Marxism and its intentions to examine the possibilities for personal development in the current Western society make it in my view very interesting to Vygotskians. I will limit my discussion to the topic of personality formation, and not go into questions of, for instance, the position of the researcher - a question for which Critical Theory became famous.

2. Critical Theory and Radical Pedagogy.

In Critical Theory's view of the realization of identity and personality, culture plays the all-important role. In this, it is akin to both Activity Theory and Hermeneutic Pedagogy. But in a far more fundamental way than Hermeneutic Pedagogy it historizes the development of culture, and thus of personal identity. The central category for Critical Theory is not society, nor even emancipation, but history. In each period of human history, personal identity has been produced under different social conditions and thus was itself different. There is no such thing as the universal, ahistoric human identity. And above all, historizing implies that history is not guaranteed to develop in the direction of 'better' humans. Critical Theory rejects the Hegelian view on which history itself develops according to a transcendental principle. Two world wars have taught us that culture is equally capable of producing people with distinctly inhuman qualities. That is why Critical Pedagogy critically examines the quality of the present-day social and cultural environment of Western society as the condition of development for humanity. Education is seen here as a thoroughly political enterprise.

The result of this examination is not very hopeful. The structure of our society is such that current educational situations can only produce either a disharmonic and internally divided, or an ideologically curtailed personality structure, depending on how one estimates the degree of dominance of hegemonial culture. The aim of education which other theories hold as a matter of course, the internally consistent person, can under current conditions in society no longer be regarded as a factual or even possible result of education. In fact, education has deteriorated into 'Halbbildung' (semi-education). Transmission of objectified knowledge has displaced personality formation as the aim of education. Its primary function is to ensure the production of persons that fit into existing societal structures. Thus, Critical theorists are much more pessimistic about the possibilities of education in our society than most Vygotskians are. They see education primarily as a means for continuing suppression, not as a means for individual self-realization. Critical Theory inspired a wealth of studies and theories in the sociology of education which investigate this function. At this moment, there is very little in the way of a comparable sociological analysis of education inspired by Vygotskian theory.

Still, the educational aim of the consistent and self-identical person as such is maintained in Critical Theory. But it obtains the status not of an actual aim, but of a counterfactual ideal. This is what 'emancipation' really seems to be about: the realization of an educational ideal which under current circumstances in society is denied. But because this is a very abstract ideal, the problem becomes whether we can find some force or principle immanent in history which, though not guaranteed to yield the desired outcome, may at least guide our actions towards the realisation of emancipation.

The early Critical Theorists, like Adorno and Horkheimer, could not find such an immanent principle. For them, this is a source of pessimism about the human condition in general and the possibilities of education in particular. But Critical Pedagogy has not been content with this type of resignation. It has looked for a concretization of the elusive ideal of emancipation. Many Critical educationists have elaborated the thought that, if it is contemporary capitalist Western culture that is corrupt and corrupting, it should be possible to find areas where this corrupting effect has not been able to penetrate. The catchword here is 'authenticity'. It is sought in two directions. Some educationists think that such areas might be found where hegemonical capitalist culture has not totally dominated other Western cultures, for instance working class culture; or in cultures that have been protected from Western influences, as in the 'grass roots' of non-Western population groups. On the other hand, sometimes all culture is suspected of being corrupt, and the search is then for areas where society can not or only marginally penetrate: the 'nature of the child' which is the cornerstone of the anti-authoritarian and psycho-analytic critical pedagogies, or the body as opposed to mind. In each case, the starting point for liberation is found in manifestations of resistance: the resistance of oppressed groups in society against the domination of hegemonical culture (Giroux), the resistance resulting from experiences of inconsistency and incompleteness that people can have in critical circumstances (Giroux, Freire), the opposition of the 'life world' against the 'system' (Habermas), the opposition of an individual personality strengthened by a free education against the power of institutions (Von Braunm hl, Miller), or the resistance of the body to the 'inscription' of coercion from society (McLaren).

What such theories amount to is that they try to disengage education and personality formation from the actual course of history, because this course is valued negatively in the light of the ideal of personality consistency and identity. Thus, education is de-historicized again.

There is, however, a very different position in Critical Theory, that of J rgen Habermas. He claims that there is indeed a principle immanent in history to guide our actions; or rather, this principle is immanent in language. The possibility of the formation of a consistent identity is not found within the individual, but on the intersubjective level, in the supra- individual structures of language. According to his model, the 'history of humanity' is, notwithstanding the pessimism of the earlier Critical theorists, a history of the progression of rationality. This just does not imply a steady progression in actual history: we should distinguish the logic of development from the empirical dynamics of the actual process. Habermas endorses the position that in our society, the structures of interaction in which individuals participate do not realize the ideals implicit in language use and are oppressing. Emancipation for Habermas is an abstract utopian ideal which expresses the need to do away with such structures. Thus, along the Habermasian line of legitimation, the aim of communicative competence in education is related to the regulative societal ideal of the "ideal speech situation". This ideal has a quasi- empirical or quasi-transcendental status, because, according to Habermas, there is not and will never be a society that meets this ideal. However, as soon as he tries to make this utopy more concrete, Habermas immediately refers to the ideal of personal identity. As the structures of communication that individuals internalize are neither harmonious nor consistent, the implication for contemporary education is that, to reach individual rationality, the individual needs the competency to distantiate itself from internalized role positions and to reflect on and interpret these positions. Thus, identity no longer coincides with the internalized role patterns, the generalized other, but is elevated to a formal level.

Given this position, it becomes understandable that some Critical pedagogues, like Klafki and Mollenhauer, have opted to declare 'communicative competency' the new aim of education. For this competency does not mean just being able to speak and write. It implies what Klafki calls 'Selbstbestimmungs-, Mitbestimmungs- und Solidarit tsf hig- keit': the competency for self-determination, for participation in democratic decisions, and for solidarity. This seems a fair description of the idea of identity. Like Habermas, Klafki and Mollenhauer give no more than formal explication of this universal aim of education. In concrete historical situations, the contents and procedures will differ, as long as they can be shown to lead towards the ultimate goal. In their case, too, this goal is bound to the ideal of consistent personal identity.

The positions of Habermas and his followers make it very clear that education cannot do without some utopian view of a desired end situation. Education is never self-evident, and its aims always need careful consideration. However, the question is whether the kind of utopian criteria Critical Pedagogy proposes is adequate. Whenever the aim of education is thought of in terms of a consistent and static identity, this represents an ahistoric, apolitical, and universalist ideal, in the light of which actual educational processes are necessarily seen as defective. If a universal principle is maintained, even as part of a counterfactual ideal, this principle itself is by its very universality placed outside the realm of history, and thus, of politics. Becoming human is, in truth, only partly conceived of as a social and political process. For another part, and it is exactly this part that for Critical pedagogy is the cornerstone of education, it is seen either as a 'natural' process, or (as with Habermas) as a social but universal and thus a-political process. This implies a tendency to de- politicize all thinking and speaking about the formation of human beings. Fundamental for Critical Pedagogy is a dualistic conception, in which political circumstances are incidental, but becoming human is universal and thus not really political; in which actual structures of society and personality are discordant, but the ideal for humanity and human society (which Habermas ties to the ideal speech situation) is concordant and free of inconsistencies. It is exactly this dualism which seems problematical and implausible. For it implies the existence of knowledge untainted by power.

3. Conclusions for Vygotskian theories of education.

All this does not mean that Critical Pedagogy is ultimately uninteresting and 'wrong'. On the contrary, its insistence on the fundamentally political nature of education, its analysis of the societal conditions of actual education processes, and its quest for a concrete utopy, are elements that Vygotskian theorists of education have too often neglected. Rather, our conclusion must be that Vygotskians should be even more, and more consistently, radical than Radical Pedagogy. The quest of Critical Pedagogy for a universal principle in the middle of oppressing circumstances should be abandoned. Vygotskian theory gives us the means to construct a theory of personal identity which does not presuppose, or even take as an ideal, equilibrium and consistency.

First, it does not only deny that something like an 'authentic' human subject exist and need only to be developed. It goes on to deny that the individual is an adequate unity from which to understand human identity. Identity becomes understandable only in connection with social relations.

Second, Vygotskian theory has the ability of conceptualizing the plurality of such relations in a more open and fundamental way than did Critical Theory. In most of Critical Theory, plurality in society is seen only in terms of the participation in relations by persons from different class positions, and valued negatively as a conflict of position-bound interests. Vygotskian theory is, in principle, able to give a more differentiated and more positive image of plurality. It can recognize that positions, perspectives, and cultural resources may be inconsistent with each other without one or more of them being false.

This does not imply that plurality is an aim in itself and every perspective is as good as any other. A merely 'postmodern' conception that is based on relativism tends to deny history and replaces it with mere social change. What is lost is the standard of critique of society, and thus the idea that there is a desirable direction to the development of society and of rationality - which was the central element in Critical Theory.

Third, plurality may be seen in Vygotskian theory not only as a characteristic of society, but also as a characteristic of human personality. This is not valued only in a negative way, as in Critical Pedagogy, because the human subject is not understood as just the inevitable product of social factors. It is not the social structures themselves that are internalized, but the meaning the individual learns to give to these structures in its interaction with others and in relation to what it has learned before. Internalization is an activity of meaning-giving and digestion, not a process of impression in which the individual stays passive. Learning does not mean being fitted with a totally new repertoire of behavior; it consists of qualitative changes in an already existing repertoire. At the same time, learning means learning about yourself: building perspectives on yourself in relation to the learning situations you find yourself in. This may generate a certain continuity, without taking the form of a unified perspective which could be called identity in the accepted sense. In different situations, before different audiences, the individual may be guided by different perspectives which may be partially incompatible. Nor does learning have a definite end; as long as there is contradiction in the

social relations, learning occurs and identity keeps changing. Other than Critical Pedagogy, Vygotskian theory has a positive attitude towards such change. An individual which does not change any more is dead, either literally or figuratively. The same is valid for a culture or a society. Not harmony and homeostasis are the ideal here, but continuous change. This holds on the individual level (that is, the individual development does not have an end) as well as on the level of society (we can only speak of 'history' if and where development takes place).

In the course of his or her development, each individual learns to handle the facts of change and contradiction in a certain way: either negating them or valuing them negatively, or seeing them as opportunities for development and using them in a positive way. Thus, individuals learn, or do not learn, to manage their own development and that of cultural resources. Education can play a crucial part here by stimulating certain ways of handling contradictions. The stimulation Vygotsky-oriented educators offer will go not in the direction of consistency but of openness. Contradictions should not be resolved or covered too soon. A 'pluralist attitude' (Rang, 1993) is an aim of education here. Ideology critique is aimed at situations which impede openness.

This suggests that no automatic appeal to natural or transcendent norms or values is possible. Thus, identity formation and the development of the person are seen as thoroughly political enterprises, in which the people concerned are responsible for choices made. As we have seen, other theories of education have tended to depoliticize such choices, by placing parts of the developmental process outside history.

Ultimately, the Vygotskian position presupposes a different conception of rationality. In this conception, rationality does not coincide with formal logic or with the adequate use of 'objective', decontextualized knowledge. Rationality would have to be seen as bound to situated activity, as plural, and as political. What a pluralist theory of education needs is a theory of the historical genesis of rationality, which speaks to the relationship between the private and the public sphere, between the development of the person and that of society. I think there is a lot of work to do in this direction. The analyses Critical Theory made can help us doing it.


Leont'ev, A.N. (1980). Probleme der Entwicklung des Psychischen. K"nigstein: Athen um.

Leont'ev, D.A. (1994). "The Concept of personal Sense through the Ages". Multidisciplinary Newsletter for Activity Theory, nr 15/16, pp 9-13.

Newman, F., & Holzman, L. (1993). Lev Vygotsky, revolutionary scientist. London: Routledge.

Rang, A. (1993). Pedagogiek en Pluralisme. Amsterdam: POW.

Wertsch, J.V. (1991). Voices of the Mind. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.