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Alexander MeshcheriakovEstablishing an idea of the self

Alexander Meshcheryakov’s Awakening to Life is a joy to read and invaluable for educators, says Leda Kamenopoulou

The Marxists Internet Archive has done a great service by re-publishing one of the key books on deaf-blindness – a treasure for researchers and teachers working the field. On a broader level, Alexander Meshcheryakov’s Awakening to Life is an excellent read for all those interested or involved in pedagogy, psychology, and philosophy.

Soviet psychologist Meshcheryakov completed his book in 1974 and it was first published in 1979, five years after the author’s death at the age of 51. It brings together the results obtained during the teaching of 50 pupils at the Zagorsk children’s home for the deaf-blind and of an experimental group at the Institute for Research into Physical and Mental Handicaps. This new edition by an independent publisher in the United States also includes an inspiring preface by Mike Cole, which arouses curiosity.

The low incidence and the high diversity of deaf-blindness, in combination with the numerous and inconsistent definitions and terms currently in use, render deaf-blind people a tiny, almost invisible, minority within the minority of disabled people. Consequently, both theoretical literature and research evidence concerning deaf-blindness are scarce. It therefore follows that any book on teaching deaf-blind children is a welcome contribution to the limited body of knowledge that enables parents, teachers and other professionals working in the field of deaf-blindness.

But this is not just any book on deaf-blindness; anyone who is familiar with current literature on teaching deaf-blind children will find that core ideas that emerge from Awakening to Life underpin arguments made by subsequent authors in the field, such as Teaching Children who are Deaf-blind, (Aitken et al, 2000). It is commonly accepted that acquiring information, communicating, and moving around are the main challenges that a deaf-blind individual faces. These are precisely the challenges which are at the heart of this pioneering work. Using evidence from detailed case studies of deaf-blind children, Meshcheryakov illustrates strategies that teachers can adopt in order to approach and tackle these challenges in a systematic manner.

Awakening to Life is invaluable for researchers in the field. Meshcheryakov saw the teaching of deaf-blind children as "something in the way of an experiment in the field of psychology and specialised pedagogy". He therefore adopted a scientific approach, a clear account of which is provided in the first chapter. In addition, he provides an intriguing rationale in support of the importance of studying deaf-blindness. He points out that studying the cognitive development of deaf-blind children is a vital source of information for the role that vision and hearing play in typical development and for the way the human mind develops in general. Because children who are profoundly deaf-blind cannot readily have access to information available in the social world that surrounds them, he maintains that it is crucial to observe these children in order to understand the role of external input in the development of human mind and consciousness. Thus work on deaf-blindness allows us to explore key questions relating to human nature and existence, questions "that go beyond the narrow confines of deaf-blindness, such as the formation of the human personality in ontogenesis, the definition of what the personality entails, the correlation between social and biological factors in the formation of the human mind".

The overarching aim of Meshcheryakov’s approach is to foster independence in human beings who are in the first instance totally dependent on others in terms of accessing and experiencing the world. The teacher’s role is to help the child establish an idea of ‘self’, by acquiring an understanding of ‘others’. Hence one of the key methods adopted by teachers at the Zagorsk home for deaf-blind children was modeling. With vision and hearing, two major channels of information not fully functioning or totally lost, experience of the world and its elements, including people and objects, is limited. It follows that strategies automatically employed by most people for the acquisition of information about their surrounding world, such as observation and imitation, are barely included in deaf-blind children’s repertoire. They thus have a limited ability for incidental learning – simply put, they do not learn from readily imitating others. As a result, in order for cognitive development to occur, the external world and all its elements must be deliberately introduced by the teacher.

However, Meshcheryakov demonstrates that this is not a one-way process with the child being a passive receptor of input from the outside world. The process will equally depend on the child’s level of development and will initially be built around the satisfaction of the child’s basic wants with the acquisition of self-care skills. Accordingly, close observation of a particular child also emerges as necessary, because it is only through a holistic knowledge of this child’s potential that one can establish communication and rapport, crucial for social interaction. And it is the assimilation of this social experience that helps the child develop cognitively, as "the satisfaction of the child’s elementary wants that ensues as joint activity of adult and child, in which the adult plays a leading part, gradually develops into independent activity of the child".

It is interesting to point out the influence of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky on Meshcheryakov’s thinking about deaf-blindness and the development of the human mind. It should be stressed that there are numerous translations and interpretations of the writings of Vygotsky and these may vary significantly from editor to editor. However, three general conclusions can be drawn about the central themes of his theoretical framework, namely, the perception of development as a process and not a product, the notion that this process takes place during social interactions, and the focus on the need to understand the tools mediating this process. Cognitive development takes place as a result of social interaction, a view encapsulated by Vygotsky in The Genesis of Higher Mental Functions (1981) as follows: "the very mechanism underlying higher mental functions is a copy from social interaction; all higher mental functions are internalised social relationships". During the process of internalisation, the role of communicable systems is considered vital, because they are the tools through which social interaction takes place and, consequently, they underpin cognitive development. Accordingly, barriers to participation in social interchange can impact on development and such barriers can be both biological and social.

This approach stresses the role of the adult during interactions because s/he will act as the mediator between child and social context. It highlights the role that atypical biological characteristics can play in these interactions, with obvious implications for the development of profoundly deaf-blind children. Meshcheryakov argues for the role of joint activity in cognitive development. Hence the key idea behind his theoretical and practical work is that the deaf-blind child must be made aware of its self and its needs, and taught to independently satisfy these needs. But in order to foster awareness of self, the teacher needs to make the child aware of the external world. She/he needs to bring the external world into the mind of the deaf-blind child, by working on the basis of a particular child’s existing potential for communication and interaction. Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ underpins this process: close observation of the child allows a thorough knowledge of his/her abilities and needs and helps the teacher regulate the amount and type of support needed for the child to be able to complete the activity independently. So any attempt to teach profoundly deaf-blind children must be tailored to their level of development.

Marxist philosophy emerges as predominant in Meshcheryakov’s thinking about how the human mind develops. Indeed, he describes his work as evidence in support of Marx’s theoretical view of development as assimilation of social experience. What is interesting is that Marx’s ideas are operationalised in Awakening to Life in a way that differs from the ossified dogmatism generally predominant in the Soviet Union, disguised by the terms ‘dialectical and historical materialism’. In Meshcheryakov’s days, thought had been ‘abolished’ as unnecessary on the basis of Marxist ideology. Marx’s point that: "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, it is their social being that determines their consciousness" was interpreted in an anti-dialectical fashion by Stalinist ideologues.

Having but only a superficial knowledge of Marx’s writings, they dogmatised Marx’s dialectic, and reduced thought to mere brain function, focusing on social context as the only source of development. This approach was allied with the same positivist paradigm of behaviourism, considered at the time to be the basis of the Marxist theory of perception. In fact, this philosophical aberration came under fire from within Soviet philosophy itself, especially in the form of polemics by Evald Ilyenkov.

Prior to Meshcheryakov, many prominent psychologists had adopted a different interpretation of Marx’s theoretical work and argued that it is the interaction between individual and context that underpins cognitive development. Lev Vygotsky and Alexei Leontiev were pioneers of this wave of thought. Renowned philosophers like Evald Ilyenkov also adopted the same theoretical perspective and considered thought as immanent to existence – in other words, playing an active role in development. (Ilyenkov’s relationship with Meshcheryakov was well described in David Bakhurst’s outstanding 1991 book, Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet philosophy).

Similarly, Meshcheryakov based his practical and theoretical work with deaf-blind children on the principle that "the whole of the human mind is fruit of active, practical interaction between the individual and other individuals in an environment created by means of human labour". He undertook the task of shaping human behaviour and thought in profoundly deaf-blind children by working on the basis of the "humanising influence of objects as the products of social labour". It is through interaction with these objects that the child "grasps their social significance", he believed. My own research in the social inclusion of deaf-blind young people in mainstream schools suggests that even in cases of less severe sensory deprivation, it is the interaction between individual and social context that is decisive in informing and shaping developmental outcomes.

As pointed out, this approach was frowned upon by Stalin’s “dialectical materialism” which rigidly disconnected thought processes from material being. This is precisely what makes Awakening to Life so important. It belongs to a body of scientific work that stems from and provides evidence in support for a less commonly known interpretation of Marx’s philosophy as applied in psychology. It is also evidence of the relevance and value of qualitative observational methods of enquiry in psychology and its quest for understanding of human development. In brief, Awakening to Life is the result of an expedition into the philosophical world with the use of a microscopic lens: detailed accounts of unique cases of children’s course of development provide valid and reliable answers in relation to universal questions around the birth of human mind and behaviour. Meshcheryakov quotes Leontiev, who argues that "deaf-blindness is the most extreme experiment on man, an experiment devised by Nature herself, and one which enables us to probe one of the most complex and awe-inspiring phenomena – the inner mechanism of the emergent human consciousness in the objective relationships which mould that consciousness". This is ample reason to read Awakening to Life, and why all those who read it will find great pleasure in its pages from beginning to end.

6 October 2009

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