– Professor Suvorov, what exactly is child guidance and child mentoring and what is the role of an educator in it?
The overwhelming majority of great teachers were also child mentors – for instance, Anton Makarenko, or my own teacher Alexander Mescheryakov. My other teacher – Member of the Academy Boris Bim-Bad – was a follower of Konstantin Ushinsky’s ideas, and he was trying to create a universal, all-encompassing approach to personality development. He devised and developed educational anthropology. Bim-Bad defines character education and personality formation as the tri-unity of learning, upbringing and development. So a child mentor is simultaneously a practical educator, a theorist and a teacher. But most importantly such a person is a friend to his or her apprentices, who leads and guides them, stimulates their own creativity, their own efforts. And in this respect there are several aphoristic phrases: “An educator or a teacher is the orchestrator of children’s joy”. And that’s where we get quite close to Vasyl Sukhomlinsky. There is only one reflexive way of education – educating yourself first. You can’t teach using the principle of “Do what I say but not what I do”.
– Does this mean that parents should most importantly educate themselves and do it openly, so that their children see it and understand it?
Parents must primarily do the same thing that they encourage their children to do. And when any sort of discrepancy happens, they shouldn’t be surprised if their kids choose to copy their unflattering deeds over their pretty words. Besides that, parents should be absolutely sincere to their children. One book on children education called “This Is For You, Parents” tells a story of a father who was unable to make head or tail of his relations with his two children. He kept a diary in which he described his failures and kicked himself for them, and at some point he began to “forget” this diary in places easily accessible by his children. The children started reading it, and the father noticed how their attitude to him became more forgiving and understanding, and conflicts became less frequent. So the best policy in parenting is probably no policy at all. In fact I embrace exactly that in my practice.
Yuri Ustinov has a remarkable book called “A Handful of Advice”, and there is this piece of advice in it: “Do not lecture”, that is, do not sermonize but instead try living one life with the child. And never pretend to be doing that, it has to be real. Do not “become a good person”, but be a good person right here and now. It’s easier for me in this regard because I’m deaf and blind. I am in actual need of help and responsible attitude, it’s not pretense. And there is no need in lecturing anyone that they need to be good and honest – the situation itself calls for that. It helped when mentoring Oleg, it helped with other kids before and after him – it helped with every kid I ever worked with. Put simply, I don’t have to preach – my situation does that for me.
– The widespread methods today are the ones in which you artificially create critical environment and the student is intentionally placed in it. It is considered that after someone deals with a crisis they advance one step in their development. Should education involve overcoming hardships?
It’s a very dangerous way of putting it. We might create a fetish out of all those crises. Unfortunately, writer and teacher Arkady Gaidar practiced something like that – he trained soldiers, future servicemen exactly like that. And the same thing can be said about Makarenko. But I think that education should involve mutual understanding, mutual trust and it should deal with real-life challenges, natural but not necessarily extreme ones. There mustn’t be any artificial hardships.
Alexander Suvorov lost his eyesight when he was three and his hearing when he was 9. The blindness came unexpectedly. Infant Alexander was collecting fallen apples in the garden with his family and at some point his mother noticed that he wasn’t looking at the apples but was instead trying to find them in the grass by touch. Alexander’s mother had always wanted her son to be well-educated, so she sent him to a special school for blind children in the city of Frunze (today called Bishkek). After deafness struck him, his mother found out about an orphanage for deaf and blind children in Zagorsk (presently Sergiyev Posad) and sent him there to study. From the very beginning of his studies Alexander was an unusual and intellectually inquisitive child: he studied with relish, loved reading, began writing his own poetry very early, often got into arguments with his teachers. In the Zagorsk orphanage he got acquainted with Soviet philosopher Evald Ilyenkov and later became one of only four deaf and blind students of Moscow State University Faculty of Psychology.
– If we talk about stages of growing up 200 years ago and today: it feels like today this process is much slower, people become independent much later. For instance, Pushkin or Lermontov were quite accomplished as people by the time they were 30…
That’s a blatant generalization, in my opinion. Indeed they were accomplished by the time they were 30, but not as people in general but rather as government officials, if we’re talking about the so-called “educated classes”, the ruling ones – the government officials, the noblemen, the merchants. And even then they became accomplished in different ways: it depends on how, when and under what circumstances they received their education. And if we talk about workers or peasants, what achievements could they have had by the time they were 30? And not much has changed in that respect in fact. All people learn and develop at their own pace: even today there are people who achieve many things by the age of 30; then there are ones who you never expect anything from, and suddenly they make a breakthrough; while there are also some who never achieve anything special at all: just earn their living, create families and parent their kids. So what measure should we measure with? A measure of a successful career or a high position? But why? That’s the question, and most educators and psychologists agree with it. Children are not objects of our vanity; they have their own lives and destinies. And they have absolutely no obligation to follow our ambitions of them. For example, I could have dreamed of Oleg as my future successor, someone who could continue my lifework. But he became an art photographer, he chose his own path. Long live Pushkin indeed: “I stroll along my own path, to each their own”. And that is why I never insist on anything.
Alexander Suvorov working on a computer with a refreshable Braille display.
– How do you teach children to advance by themselves? How to teach them to dream? Self-development is impossible without dreaming, isn’t it? Most often it contravenes everything that is happening around, everything that other people do.
There are certain things you can teach. But you cannot teach a person to dream. A dream is always one’s own, one can only learn it by oneself. As soon as we begin to teach someone to dream, it’s no longer dreaming. Because then it becomes our own dream, and it’s supposed to be the child’s own dream. We should probably try harder to make children seek our help and our advice and make them trust us and be ready to work with us. In the theory that I advocate and teach it’s called “collaborative-separate controlled activity”. What is controlled is the activity of the adult person or the teacher, whose role is reduced, while the child’s activity is expanded, encouraged and stimulated – which is why I’m talking about “control”. Only then children will have their own dreams. I also think that no dreams must ever be evaluated from the “will come true/won’t come true” point of view. A deaf and blind kid has the right to dream to become a spaceman. It doesn’t matter if it’s not achievable, let him dream it. And when he grows up, it’s going to be up to him to decide what is achievable and what isn’t. I dreamed to be a poet, and everyone laughed at me because they didn’t understand the point of being a poet, confusing it with journalism. They used to ask me where I was going to collect material for my poetry and how I was going to collect it, as if poetry were some sort of interview or report or something. But I brushed off all of that. Never mingle in a child’s dreams.
You could say that I became a spaceman in a certain sense. You see, the dream about space travel doesn’t have to come true literally. You can dream of space travel but work on something else, and in this something you become a spaceman in a certain sense, get ahead in your own way. And I really hope that Oleg becomes a spaceman in his art photography. While I became a spaceman in what I had never thought I’d be good at – academic psychology. I dreamed of being a professional poet, but it so happened that I took up academic research and in that field I achieved things that many people only dream of achieving, though their dreams are often merely moon-raking.
– Can a person’s dream change with age? Or does it depend on one’s world perception rather than on one’s age?
It may change. It changes while your meaning of life changes. My dream of becoming a professional poet was because I saw the meaning of my life in literature and creative writing. When I was 28 I visited Zagorsk orphanage which I myself had once been a foster child in, and I was amazed at how hungry those kids were for human interaction – they immediately surrounded me, crowded around me, they stretched their arms toward me over each other’s heads. And my world turned upside down, and at that time literature stopped being my reason for being. At that moment the ultimate and decisive meaning of my existence was to be of some service to those children, to satisfy their desire for interaction. However, I did not abandon creative writing either, but now it was not writing for its own sake but for those children, for their benefit. That’s how everything changed, and that has been my main line from then on. If not for my meeting with those kids and my astonishment from meeting them, I would probably be just an average scribbler now.
– How do you manage your own personal development?
I do a lot of planning. But partly the situation itself controls it. You need to use every chance that turns up. If I suddenly get a chance to go to a children’s camp, I tell myself I must definitely go, even if I’m not quite sure I have enough health for that. If I get a chance to briefly work elsewhere besides my main job – to lecture at another university, for instance – again, I have to use this chance, and very consciously. This is also a part of managing your personal development.
– Before going to meet you I read one of your children’s books – “How to Comb a Hedgehog”. And I think that in that book I saw how you work with the content and the subject. You move along by understanding the difference between terms, by outlining the boundaries of a notion or an idea. Where did you get this from?
I got this from my teacher and spiritual mentor, great philosopher Evald Ilyenkov. His main book is probably the monograph “Dialectics of the Abstract and the Specific in Scientific Thinking”, which is exactly about how ideas move inside a subject’s internal logic. The books “Dialectical Logics” and “Of Idols and Ideals” are also about that.
Alexander Suvorov and his teacher Evald Ilyenkov.
– How and by means of what can a person formulate a dream if that person is in a situation when their perception of reality and images of it can only be received from a limited channel of information?
The problem isn’t in formulating dreams. “Channels of information” is a pathetic hoax. Competent psychologists would instead talk about sensing and perception, sensory and perceptive evidence. Everything is formed in the course of some activity, or, as Ilyenkov’s friend, associate and successor Felix Mikhailov, also a philosopher, used to say: “Culture is not absorbed or appropriated, but recreated in every child’s activity”, but, of course, with adults’ participation. Recreated, see? The dream and its quality depends heavily on the recreation of culture and on how broad the recreated stratum of this culture is. And the source of information is not eyes, ears or hands. The source of information is activity. Activity recreates culture, creates information, forms goals, tasks and motives. Activity is everything, it’s both alpha and omega. Activity throughout one’s whole life, from one’s birth to one’s death, as a part of human culture, performed by someone who belongs to the human race. This is the understanding of personality, of a human being in Marxist philosophy as well as in Ilyenkov’s teachings. So the problem of formulating dreams does not even exist, it is not an issue at all. An issue is acting, doing something, establishing goals, motives, tasks, working to achieve these goals, satisfying one’s needs. While formulating a dream comes later, retroactively, after the battle is won.
But the main conflict of my life has already been solved. It’s the conflict of being a completely functional personality under the conditions of deaf-blindness, in spite of deaf-blindness, and on a universal level, without taking the disability into consideration. Now, looking back at the decades I have lived, I can place it on record that I have actually become a completely functional human being. And my conflict was primarily a conflict of humanity. People help me and treat me well; you could even say they love me, but they love me in a somewhat offensive way. They are ready to help me but they never expect anything in return, like they wouldn’t expect anything from a donkey that “is allowed to kick you”. But I’m not a donkey, and that is where my main idea comes – the idea of mutual humanity. You may have or don’t have disabilities but you must have a heart, especially towards those who treat you with kindness. It might be in return for something, but it’s still humanity. You have to be humane first of all for yourself, then for other disabled people, but most of all – for teenagers and children. And that is how the so-called “inclusive pedagogy” came into being – it’s simultaneous education of healthy children and children with disabilities.
When I was 13, I often got angry with some of my agemates. Whatever you asked them, they gave the same reply – “that is above our capabilities”. But how the heck should they know their capabilities that well, what tool did they measure them with? So then I pondered this question for the first time and accidentally predated Lev Vygotsky in that. Vygotsky has this zone of proximal development theory, and this zone is supposed to be where a child cannot act on his or her own, but can achieve success with a teacher, by interacting and collaborating with an adult mentor, and that is the collaborative-separate controlled activity I was talking about. But back then I formulated the idea this way: you need to establish a goal that seems unattainable and then try and achieve it. If you do that it means you were underrating yourself, if you won’t – well, it’s actually impossible that you achieve nothing, you will reach your goal at least in some way. And if you continue to work in that direction, then your level of capabilities will definitely rise.
Dear readers, we could bet that had we not clarified in the beginning of this story that our conversation partner is a person who has been deaf and blind from an early age, you would never have guessed it. What Alexander Suvorov’s teachers managed to do, together with his own contribution to his development, cannot be called anything other than a miracle. But it also is a good reason to think about what we ourselves have achieved in our own development and what potential we actually have.