Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Vygotsky loses bet with sister when admitted to Moscow university

By 1913, a young Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) had finished high school with honours (gold medal). He was ready to apply for university, but that was not easy for Jewish students in Tsarist Russia. Vygotsky had to pass an exam supervised by a committee presided by a provincial representative who had strong anti-semitic sentiments. At that time, universities in Moscow and St. Petersbourgh had a quota of 3% of total enrollments for Jewish applicants. In any case, it was assumed that all students with gold medals and half of those with silver medals were going to be accepted. However, in the middle of the tests, the selection process criteria were changed. The Tsarist Ministy of Education established a new regulation that kept the 3% limit but ruled that students would be selected randomly, a change that apparently was introduced to dilute the capacity of Jewish students in higher education. Lev Vygotsky showed his sister the newspaper clipping with the new regulation, and bet her that he was not going to be admitted. Contrary to his expectations, he was favored by the university lottery, and was admitted to study Law at the University of Moscow. The same day, Lev gave his sister a volume of Bunin's poems with the following dedication: "For Senya in memory of a lost bet."

In 1917, the year of the Soviet Revolution, Vygotsky graduated from Law school. After the revolution, Vygotsky committed himself to social and pedagogical activities, and started to teach literature during the evening in schools for workers.

In spite of his formal specialization in Law, and in spite of his brief life (he died at age 38 of tubercolosis), Vygotsky made a substantial contribution to the field of educational psychology. At the same time he was attending the Law school at Moscow university, he studied philosophy and history at the Popular University, a non-accredited centre that was a shelter for professors who had been banned by the Tsarist government and thus expelled from their teaching positions. The critical climate of the Popular University probably contributed more to Vygotsky's intellectual development than his studies in the Faculty of Law at Moscow University. His analytical mind and moral commitments were no doubt shaped during his early years, in the context of social movements and family debates at the kitchen table. Moreover, Vygotsky did not attend public school during his childhood. He studied with a tutor called Salomon Ashpish, a mathematician who previously had been deported to Siberia for his revolutionary actitivities in the student movement. Ashpish was a polite, respectful teacher who used a Socratic method with his students.

The main contribution of Vygotsky's theory lies in the exploration of the role of social interaction in the development of cognition or, in his own words, the connections between the social (inter-psychological) and the individual (intra-psychological) dimensions of cultural development. In a nutshell, Vygotsky argues that all cognitive functions originate in social relationships, and that, conversely, the quantity and quality of social interactions directly affect cognitive development. For Vygotsky, then, internal reasoning can be understood as an interiorization of social dialogue.

Vygotsky was influenced by thinkers like Spinoza, Freud, Marx and Piaget, but at the same time was able to avoid dogmatism towards any school of thought and to develop his own theories of consciousness and learning. For this attitude many of his works were vetoed during the Stalinist period, in which psychology was dominated by Pavlovian theories and by what is presently known as 'vulgar materialism'. In his short life, Vygotsky managed to write 180 works. He collaborated with Luria and Leontiev, who continued to develop his theoretical insights after his death. His work was also expanded by Bandura's theory of social learning.


Kearsley, Greg (1999). Social development theory: L. Vygotsky. [online]. Available: (February 3, 2001).

Riviere, A. (1987). La psicologia de Vygotski: sobre la larga proyeccion de una corta biografia. Infancia y Aprendizaje p 7-22.

Winkler Muller, Maria Ines (1997). Lev Semionovich Vygotski: notas biograficas [online]. Available: (February 3, 2001).

For more information on Vygotsky's theories see:

Prepared by Daniel Schugurensky (OISE/UT)

DS Home Page     Back to Index     Suggest or Submit a Moment

Website © 1996-2002 Daniel Schugurensky. All Rights Reserved. Design and maintenance by LMS.
Last updated on August 14, 2002.