BACK TO SCHOOL: Bernie Sanders and the Zone of Proximal Development

Since school is about to start all around the country, I want to talk about one of my favorite educational concepts, the zone of proximal development (ZPD). Developed by Soviet psychologist and educator Vygotsky, the idea is that if you give a students work that’s too easy, they’re not going to learn that much. If you give them work that’s too hard, they will be frustrated and unable to learn that much. But if you find precisely the next step they need to take in the learning process and you give them a little help, they will learn rapidly. This is the art of good teaching, much of which has been lost in the current curriculum which emphasizes the teaching of standards rather than students. Standards may work fine in schools where nearly all students are at grade level, as in the suburbs, but where numbers of students are behind, standards are worse than useless. Teachers need to understand where each student is in their learning and help them take the next step, challenge them without frustrating them.

A similar dialectic happens in the realm of political organizing. If you call for people to man the barricades in Revolutionary struggle the way many of us did back in the seventies, you are too far ahead of the people and they won’t listen. If you call for maintaining the status quo with only tiny, mostly rhetorical tweaks, people will not follow you because they already experience the downside of the status quo, where conditions for most families are actually getting worse. But if you can put forward a program that challenges them to fight for what they need and want, they will follow, and I think this is why Bernie Sanders has been having so much success.

One example from my own experience: some months ago, I started a blog called Reparations Fund which advocated for substantial reparations for Black families for their treatment under slavery and subsequent discrimination. While many people agreed that this was necessary, they also thought it was pie in the sky, way too unlikely to ever command sizable support among the people in general. Then, after reading the Ta-Nehisi Coates article in the Atlantic “The Case forReparations,” I began to realize that with Bernie Sanders talking about breaking up the big banks, we could reframe the demand. Coates argues that bank redlining after World War II has been a significant factor in producing the wealth gap between Black and white families, which is now 1 to 13. So, it occurred to me that if we talked about the big banks providing reparations for the damage they did to the Black community with their redlining, people might respond more favorably. So far, that has been the case.

The effectiveness of Bernie Sanders and his program is in part based on his insight into just what the next steps are for people: under Obama we got ACA, but what we need is single payer. For young people, college has become unaffordable; let’s make the state universities free, the way they are in Europe. In each of the policy areas Sanders addresses from income inequality, campaign finance reform, to racial justice, he advocates the next step which will move the country forward.

Some are dissatisfied that he hasn’t taken on the Military Financial Complex (there’s no industry any more), support for the Palestinian cause, or open borders. As much as we would love for these issues to be addressed, it is Sander’s judgement that these issues are not yet the next steps. He also inherently understands that taking on both the military and the financial sector at once would most likely trigger a reaction from that complex that would prevent him from taking office by any means necessary.   

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