Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Reading:: Learning by Expanding

Originally posted: Tue, 11 Nov 2003 20:08:15

Learning by Expanding
By Yrjo Engestrom

I met Yrjo Engestrom once. He's over six feet tall, energetic, aging gracefully, impossibly fit, impossibly productive as an academic. Like a Nordic superman, he flies between the University of California, San Diego and the University of Helsinki. He radiates the clear-eyed certainty that you sometimes get with fervent Marxists.

I'm not sure whether to describe Engestrom as a Marxist. In this 1987 book -- published online, thankfully, because it's out of print -- his influences definitely include Marx and the Soviets who followed him, but they also include Peirce, Mead, Popper, etc. And although Engestrom talks about the key contradiction of capitalism (use vs. exchange value), Braverman, dialectics, and so forth, I think he attempts to move beyond the standard Marxist mode in his exploration of learning.

Like many Marxists, though, Engestrom writes densely. Maybe it's part of the Marxist aesthetic: lots of block quotes of other Marxists, few headings. And unlike some of his other books, such as Learning, working and imagining, this one has no empirical work. Instead, Engestrom analyzes Huck Finn, Robert Jungk's account of the making of the atomic bomb, and other nonempirical work. (Engestrom explains that fiction in particular is a good place to look for the sort of long-term learning patterns he identifies; I am skeptical.) Consequently, the book often seemed longer than it really is.

It does hold important lessons, though. This 1987 work sketches out the notion of learning by expanding (as opposed to learning by rote or learning as storing discrete bits of information), a key concept that permeates Engestrom's later work. He methodically describes each element of the learning process, provides an expansive methodology based on Scribner's description of Vygotsky's methodology, and links the whole mess to the notion of zone of proximal development. The last chapter attempts to lay the methodology out -- although, again, empirical cases would have helped quite a bit here.

At the same time, I notice some things that I think are amiss in this 1987 piece. One is that he tries to explicate dialectics ("the logic of expansion") by referring to Bakhtin. Bakhtin. The fellow who ridiculed dialectics as a stilted, artificial counterfeit of true dialogue! I also note a tendency to appeal too quickly to the abstract. Engestrom holds fast to the notion that learning is ascending from the abstract to the concrete, a notion that I have a hard time following -- and I don't think that's just because I am dense. Maybe there are some Continental reverberations that I am missing. Finally, everywhere in this piece are references to structures and systems -- even though Engestrom shows a willingness to examine idiosyncracies, variations, and differences, it's always with the intent of explicating structure and systematicity. I can see why Latour was so frustrated with him in the 1996 exchange I reviewed earlier.

This book was a struggle, but worth it.

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Krinsky said...

I'm not sure that Engestrom stretches overmuch by citing Bakhtin with respect to dialectics. Bakhtin may have ridiculed dialectics, but much of the dialogic method is (dare I say it!) dialectical. This is especially true in earlier works that may have shared authorship (e.g., Marxism and the Philosophy of Language), but it seems to me that the principal point is that Bakhtin's dialogics go beyond Meadean interactionism. Bakhtin is properly historical, interested in the opposition of centripetal and centrifugal pulls on the meaning of utterances through social relations, and moves among levels of analysis. All of these are fairly standard--and smart--aspects of Marxian dialectics.

The issue about moving from the abstract to the concrete is actually fairly important. The idea is that in Marx's use, "abstract" does not mean "general" in the sense of having shared properties with other, like things or functions. Likewise, "concrete" does not mean that which is immediately experienced. Instead, for Marx, capitalism is not an "abstract" concept, but something quite concrete; as a mode of production, it is what connects otherwise apparently disconnected phenomena (connection here being key to concreteness). By contrast, the manifestations of capitalist production (e.g., rapid urbanization, the factory, etc.) are "abstracted" (i.e., taken out of the whole). Therefore, expansive learning is a process of discovering connection among spheres of activity through the confrontation of contradiction.

Anyhow, interesting post, and it's fun to see that someone else out there is reading this stuff!


John Krinsky
(Political Science, CCNY)

Clay Spinuzzi said...

John, thanks for the comment. This review was posted a while back, and since, I've been able to think out the question of dialectics a bit more. I think that a great deal of what Bakhtin reacted to was the Soviet Union's tendency to overrely on Engels' explanation of dialectics, which is much cruder and more formulaic in execution than Marx's. The contrast between Bakhtin and Engelsian dialectics is fairly sharp, at least based on my readings, and Bakhtin's critiques make much more sense when read as reactions to Engels than they do when read as reactions to Marx. I tried to work through these distinctions more thoroughly in later reviews, such as those of Engels, Ilyenkov, and Vygotsky. Check them out if you like and see what you think -- I'd love to hear your thoughts. CS