National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version



Published in Honors in Practice, Volume 6. Copyright 2010 National Collegiate Honors Council


The years leading up to the 1917 Russian October Revolution must have been a dynamic environment for an emerging young intellectual living in Moscow. Eclipsed by such popular Western cultural representations as David Lean’s 1965 Academy Award winning film, Dr. Zhivago (based on Pasternak’s novel), this milieu included the writers Babel, Gorky, and Nabokov; the poets Mandel’shtam and Tsvetaeva; the composers Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky; the theater director and acting teacher Stanislavsky; and the artists Chagall and Kandinsky (Van Der Veer, 23–4). There we find situated a law student, also studying philosophy, literature, and aesthetics, who went on to become a developmental psychologist—Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934), described by a contemporary as possessing “an aura of almost Mozartian giftedness” (Kozulin, xi). However, when only thirty-eight years old, Vygotsky died of tuberculosis, and his work did not become significantly known in the West until the 1960s. Despite this time delay, Vygotsky’s book Thought and Language (Myshlenie i rech) and the Vygotsky essay compilation Mind in Society are now established, seminal texts across many Western academic disciplines, including education, linguistics, and psychology.

The focus of this essay is a Vygotsky reading I use in our honors thesis preparation course: the sixth chapter (Part II, Educational Implications) in Mind in Society: The Development of the Higher Psychological Processes: “Interaction between Learning and Development” (79–91). In the 1920s and 30s, on one side of the iron curtain Vygotsky theorized the structure of thought as socially derived while, on the other, Frank Aydelotte developed the first honors program at Swarthmore based on individual achievement (see Rinn, 2003). Yet Vygotsky’s work has particular relevance for students embarking on an honors thesis in 2010. The Vygotsky chapter operates on many levels, both curricularly and pedagogically, as a common reading and as an operating principle, and sets the stage for the subsequent individually-oriented reading, writing, and research that students carry out together through the course process.