Thursday, September 14, 2023

It Is Through Playing With Others That We Become Ourselves

"Through others we become ourselves," writes Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist best known for his work on the psychological development of children. He believed that our mental and cognitive abilities, our minds, are not biologically determined, but rather the product of interacting with the world around us -- the language, tools, ideas, culture, and especially the other people.

We know that babies who are not touched, roll over and die. Prisoners kept in isolation invariably go insane. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal noted that "(a)ll of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone," but the opposite is also seems to be true. Humanity's greatness stems from our ability to engage the world in cooperation with others. In other words, it seems that it is through becoming we that any one of us can become me.

The last 150 years of Western culture has been upended by massive ideological and technological shifts. The so-called "invisible hand" of capitalism has been interpreted as every man for himself; cities of millions means that we are living in permanent crowds of strangers, while our suburbs, along with private automobiles and televisions, isolate us; fewer and fewer of us sink our roots in a single place, but rather live nomadic lives in places far removed from those who knew us when we were young; the internet answers all our questions without the necessity for human connection. Increasingly, we're seeing the results of a disconnected world, one in which genuine community is increasingly rare. Soaring rates of anxiety and depression, hateful politics, and lone gunmen are all symptoms of a world in which people feel they do not belong. We say it takes a village to raise a child, but that begs the question, What village?

If Vygotsky is right, and I think he is, then the quality of our minds is the direct result of the company we keep. In the more distant human past, that meant a physical village or neighborhood, but today, for too many of us, where we live and work is little more than a collection of acquaintances and strangers. Some surveys find that one in five men report they have no close friends, and while women tend to have more people in their inner circle, that number is also declining at an alarming rate. Many of us are keeping no company at all, which means that the vacuum is filled with media personalities and influencers, people who we do not know, who cannot have our best interests at heart, and who are driven to connect for mercenary and ideological reasons. Sadly, this generation of preschoolers is being raised by parents who have never known a village.

If Vygotsky is right, and I think he is, learning is essentially a social process, yet our schools, our very idea of education, is an individual one. We measure what an individual knows. We grade the individual. We test the individual. We pathologize, diagnose, reward, and punish the individual. We talk about "school communities," but we run them as hierarchies complete with haves and have nots, winners and losers. If we were embracing Vygotsky and the hundreds of studies that have confirmed his theories, we would make our schools into the kinds of villages that allow our children to become a part of the essential we. Indeed, that would be the purpose of school.

Perhaps our schools are too far gone, but yours is not. Perhaps society has strayed too far away from the village, but you need not. It's never too late. Vygotsky was an advocate for childhood play because, as he saw it, the sandbox is the best and most natural way to build our mental and cognitive abilities. So I offer my small edit to Vygotsky's famous quote: It is through playing with others that we become ourselves. That is how we become great.


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"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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