Internationalization and Diversification
Between 1978 and 1984, when the Lab moved to UCSD, a distinct shift took place in public policy related to the core concerns of the Lab (see the previous section). Until roughly 1984, the civil rights legislation that was signed in the 1960s continued to play an important role in public policy. This influence is reflected in the initiation of an equity-oriented National Institute of Education, which began to function in the early 1970s. The ongoing national movement meant that in addition to whatever its scientific merit might be, the work of the Lab also fit the agenda of key government funding agencies as well as major philanthropic foundations.
However, as the Lab began its move to California in 1978, the tide began visibly changing. While the prior decade had expanded opportunities for minority students and scholars in higher education in ways that have continued to be influential, the 1980s saw several damaging changes. They included a growing income disparity in the country as a whole, a decline in the power of labor unions, as well as a weakening of affirmative action and other initiatives that supported access to education of the “underserved” minority.
In 1978, California enacted the “tax revolt” measure, Proposition 13. As a result, there was a sharp and widespread decrease in funding for public education. Meanwhile, the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 and the Tax Reform Act of 1986 formalized such trends at a national level by raising tax rates on low-income individuals/families and lowering tax rates for the wealthy. At a time when defense spending increased steadily, government spending on social programs and education was curtailed. In 1979, the Institute of Education was reconstituted as the Department of Education, and when Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, a conservative agenda settled on the national scene.
After the arrival of the Reagan administration, the logic governing economic policy in the US began to privilege reductions in government spending, taxes on the wealthy, and government regulation such that domestic policies steadily shifted toward privatization and deregulation.
Starting in 1983, the President used the phrase “evil empire” to characterize the Soviet Union. LCHC, a research program that had gained attention for bringing the work of Soviet psychologists into the halls of American academia and that pursued a research program directed at the role of social sciences in contributing to social inequalities, had clearly fallen from favor. The crest of the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty wave had receded on the shoals of the Reagan administration’s four-year campaign to reorganize educational priorities. LCHC’s initial training monies for comparative research in the US, provided by the Ford Foundation, were not funded by the National Institute of Mental Health when we turned to them to continue a demonstrably successful program to which their funds had given birth.
These pressures contributed to a significant reorganization of LCHC, its activities, and its network of collaborating scholars.
By 1984, it was clear that the Lab’s research program ran too counter to the times to survive with its basic research program in tact. Faced with a shrinking budget, we decided to split LCHC along lines that fit simultaneously with two of our institutional partners, the Communication Program and the Teacher Education Program. The former gave a disciplinary home to our focus on the creation of new forms of educational activity outside of the school and our burgeoning use of the almost-internet for international scholarly communication. The latter supported the focus on the organization and reorganization of schooling with the infusion of new, digital media. The “Communication” half was headed by Mike Cole, while the “Education” half was headed by Bud Mehan.
Despite this reorganization and division of intellectual labor, it was not an easy manner to reconstitute LCHC as a multi-ethnic, multi-disciplinary research unit focused on culture and development. Both the “after-school” and the “in-school” halves of the Lab created hybrid forms of organization — the Community Educational Resource and Research Center (CERRC proposal) and the Interactive Technology Laboratory (Riel, Levin, & Miller-Souviney, 1987) — each seeking to blend their special values as simultaneously community members and essential research collaborators. These hybrid structures continued for a while, but when key members of each moved to other institutions, both merged back into their supporting programs.
Almost all of the non-tenure track people whose positions depended upon grant money, including all of the people of color in the lab, were forced to seek employment elsewhere. For example, Jim Levin moved to the University of Illinois, Margaret Riel to SRI and Pepperdine, Luis Moll to Arizona, Alonzo Anderson to USC, Esteban Diaz to Cal State San Bernadino. Peg Griffin remained for a few years to complete work with Russian colleagues, and then she too moved on.
Despite these setbacks, a convergence of events helped LCHC survive as a research institution. LCHC was also able to expand and diversify, while continuing its original commitments to the study of cultural diversity and social inequality.
To make the conditions that shaped LCHC’s activities through this complicated decade as clear as possible, we begin this section with a chapter about the reorganization of LCHC that took place. Perhaps because of the turbulence of the times, it became possible to continue LCHC by the use of the computer-networked collaborative practices we had been relying on in order to keep LCHC’s internal house in order.
This was a period of intense interdisciplinary and international collaborations, conferences, teleconferences, mutual visits and subsequent publications. It was also a time of intense theoretical development, one of the results of which was the beginning of “Cultural-historical Activity Theory”. The inclusion of former members in distributed collaboration provided a mechanism for retaining a “virtual, diverse” and “Xtended” LCHC. Telecommunicated, international, collaborative research projects made communication a central part of the Lab’s overall goals.
Another important development was the way in which UCSD’s Communication Department served as a means of bringing together unusually rich resources for LCHC, while LCHC played a reciprocal role in the development of the Department and through it, the emerging discipline of Communication. While the individual members of the Department of Communication generally engaged in quite different kinds of research and drew upon different scholarly traditions for their inspiration, they could all agree with Vygotsky (1982) that “the central fact about our psychology is the fact of mediation” (p. 166). The triangular curriculum developed in the Department provided a natural place for scholars who treated communication as central to human psychological processes.
The better part of Chapter 9: LCHC in the Orbit of Communication is devoted to providing the reader with some idea of what the overall picture of Lab research was like during this decade. Important to this chapter are the ways the different research programs associated with the Lab contributed to the Communication Department, to the participant’s projects, and to the Lab’s collective research foci.
The following two chapters offer more extended reports of two large projects that illustrate the ways in which LCHC combined with Communication and other campus units and are of considerable interest in their own right.
Chapter 10: VelHam – An Excursion into Scientific Diplomacy describes the joint communications projects of the Lab, most visibly the VelHam project, which we conducted with the Soviet Union. In the VelHam project, we sought to apply our still-developing understanding of Russian-inspired theories to organizing joint research projects directed toward social problems common to both countries.
Chapter 11: Implementing and Sustaining Hybrid Learning Activities – The Fifth Dimension describes the development of the 5th Dimension (5thD), including international communication between Russians and Americans that was the more general goal of the Project.
The unusual period of instability that characterizes the decade covered in this section has passed, to be replaced by new tensions and new forms of old problems. The “Vygotskian moment” at LCHC could not withstand the centrifugal force of other life commitments and institutional vagaries. However, it provided a lasting effect on the work of the Lab as a new kind of international co-laboratory.