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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

At last -- freedom from hierarchy

In the 1980's, scholar James Burke created a show for PBS called Connections. In the course of each episode, he would demonstrate the interconnectedness of cultural and scientific evolution, noting that "there is always a connection but, if the link has never been made before, nobody knows it's there." Through a circuitous examination of ideas, Burke would reveal such connections as the use of cobalt in dyeing Ming vases to its importance in the manufacture of computer chips.

 Popularizing this kind of thinking has led to numerous insights about the importance of personal idiosyncrasy and historic serendipity in the analysis of technological progress, but it is also illuminating to see how the development of ideas in education can also be a matter of chance--or even destiny. Let's try it, and I promise that I will arrive at something thought-y.

Two years before Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Tsar Alexander II of Russia issued a Declaration of Emancipation for his feudalistic empire's serfs, bonded laborers whose crown-enforced duty was to work for landed nobility in exchange for protection. The entry of an entirely illiterate population into society was fraught with problems, many of which were analyzed in essays written by novelist Leo Tolstoy. In these essays, Tolstoy laments the inability of former serfs to understand why written stories hold more value in society than those circulated in oral tradition, and speculates on ways in which education might help move the children of serfs forward into a more enlightened mindset.

Fast forward sixty odd years to young Russian cognitive psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who reads Tolstoy's essays and uses them to round out his own ideas on literacy acquisition. About the same time, American educator John Dewey visits Russia, meets Vygotsky and they discuss the ideas of the Pragmatic Movement. As a result of this conversation, some have suggested, Vygotsky began to articulate his ideas about the Zone of Proximal Development and scaffolding in terms that were less speculative and more concrete.

So, as Robert Frost reminds us, “way leads onto way”. It’s interesting to me that the way events unfold is similar to how the brain works: interconnected pathways of information snap and fire, allowing new insights, raising new fears and enabling new ways of thinking.  I love the lack of hierarchy both in Burke’s view of history and in cognitive function. We think we need hierarchy, but it’s really just there to help us categorize and explain. Nothing really happens that way. Life is a whole lot more like a collage than an outline. How liberating!


  1. That was a brilliant blog post, thanks!

  2. I hope you don't mind, I shared this on my FB wall.

  3. You are very kind -- I don't mind at all. You know how we educators love an audience!