Mind, Culture, and Activity, vol. 3, issue 3 (1996) pp. 149-164
Why pursue a social rather than a more familiar psychological theory of learning? 'To the extent that being human is a relational matter, generated in social living, historically, in social formations whose participants engage with each other as a condition and precondition for their existence, theories that conceive of learning as a special universal mental process impoverish and misrecognize it. My colleagues and I have been trying to convey out understanding of this claim for some years (e.g., Lave, 1988; Lave & Wenger, 1991) and I will try to develop the argument a little further here. There is another sort of reason for pursuing a theoretical perspective on the social nature of learning. Theories that reduce learning to individual mental capacity/activity in the last instance blame marginalized people for being marginal. Common theories of learning begin and end with individuals (though these days they often nod at "the social" or "the environment" in. between). Such theories are deeply concerned with individual differences, with notions of better and worse, more and less learning, and with comparison of these things across groups-of-individuals. Psychological theories of learning prescribe ideals and paths to excellence and identify the kinds of individuals (by no means all) who should arrive; the absence of movement away from some putatively common starting point becomes grounds for labeling others sub-normal. The logic that makes success exceptional but nonetheless characterizes lack of success as not normal won't do. It reflects and contributes to a politics by which disinherited and disenfranchised individuals, whether taken one at a time or in masses, are identified as the disabled, and thereby made responsible for their "plight" (e.g., McDermott, 1993). It seems imperative to explore ways of understanding learning that do not naturalize and underwrite divisions of social inequality in our society. A reconsideration of learning as a social, collective, rather than individual, psychological phenomenon offers the only way beyond the current state of affairs that I can envision at the present time.
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