Bakhtinian Pedagogy in Historical Perspective

Professor Craig Brandist, University of Sheffield

(PESA Sponsored Keynote at the Conference "Perspectives and Limits of Dialogism in Mikhail Bakhtin". Waikato, Jan 2014)

Although formal educational processes appear very seldom in the ideas of the Bakhtin Circle, a much more general, social, educational process permeates all Bakhtin’s writings on culture. This is the heritage of a concern with what was known as ‘social pedagogy’ and Bildung that formed a central part of the Kulturkritik and neo-Kantian philosophy that lay behind his attempt to create a non-psychologstic humanism. Particularly important is Paul Natorp’s Social Pedagogy (1904) in which neo-Kantianism was fused with an ethical socialism and the pedagogical ideas of von Humboldt and Pestalozzi. The heritage of Natorp’s ideas is ambiguous and, along with the ideas of the American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer John Dewey, they formed one of the theoretical perspectives that gained a significant amount of influence among educational reformers in the early Soviet period. All members of the Circle were involved in the radical educational reforms of the immediate post-Revolutionary period. The revolutionary context served to bring to the surface the radical, democratic potential of the new pedagogical ideas, and they were combined with new, radical ideas in language and psychology. Towards the end of the 1920s, however, some of the other sides of the approach began to come to the fore, limiting demotic voices and leading to a paternalism which ended up saturating the whole Soviet discourse of kul′turnost′ (the quality of being cultured). Bakhtin’s works of the 1930s and beyond have an ambiguous relationship to these developments, in some respects seeming to celebrate the enfranchisement of voices ‘from below’, but also subordinating them to the allegedly benevolent judgement of the intellectual. How are we to understand these tensions? What significance do they have for applications of Bakhtinian ideas in the context of formal education? What are the dangers of an uncritical adoption of Bakhtinian perspectives in this area? What can we do to ensure the productive potential implicit in Bakhtinian thought is retained while the paternalist dangers are minimized? Such questions require a historical investigation of some of the roots of Bakhtinian ideas, and a willingness to revise and supplement the ideas in the light of that investigation. Such will be the focus of this lecture.

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