Growing up in a family that didn’t talk much, in a home without books, it’s interesting that Lois Holzman went on to write ten books and over sixty articles (so far), do graduate work in linguistics at Brown University, and earn a Ph.D. in developmental psychology and psycholinguistics from Columbia University. Her fascination with language and its relationship to thinking was the beginning of an intellectual and activist path that has led her to become an international leader in the areas of psychology, education and social activism and the organizer, mentor and leader of hundreds of scholars, teachers, artists, psychologists and counselors, and activists all over the world.
From an early age, Holzman had a sense that how people feel, think, speak and relate to each other depended on their social environment—where they were, what they were doing and who they were with. Decades later, this unarticulated discomfort with the idea of a fixed “me” would be developed into a socio-cultural understanding of human life. She had an equally unarticulated unease with the racist, sexist and anti-poor norms of our culture, concerns that would become a driving force for Holzman becoming a social change agent. New ways of speaking and thinking, new ways of creating meaning, and new ways of relating to ourselves and each other were needed, because she felt that the existing ways locked us into narrow and destructive ways to be in the world.
These concerns, and what we can do about them, have been the focus of Holzman’s research, her teaching and her organizing. She is the co-founder and director of the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy (Institute). The mission of the Institute is the development, in both theory and practice, of a new psychology, one that understands the ability to perform—to pretend, to play, to improvise, to be who-we-are and other-than-who-we-are—as key to our emotional, social and intellectual growth and well being, as individuals and communities. Through the Institute and numerous organizations that now use its approach, Holzman is advancing the understanding and practice of performance as the engine of human development across the life span, in diverse cultures, and under any circumstance.
Holzman is respected as a scholar, teacher and activist who is pioneering a cultural (as distinct from a biological or neurological) approach to human learning, development and social change. With her mentor and colleague Fred Newman, the late public philosopher and therapist, Holzman brought and deepened the insights and discoveries of Lev Vygotsky, Karl Marx and Ludwig Wittgenstein to the fields of psychotherapy, youth development, education and organizational and community development—in the process creating a postmodernized dialectical methodology known as social therapeutics.
Her thought leadership is integrally interwoven with her practical, on the ground organizing work. Holzman, over the last forty years, has helped to create, sustain and lead grassroots community organizations that, on a day-to-day basis, are engaging poverty and underdevelopment. Through the Institute, Holzman leads a talented, committed and experienced faculty of psychologists, educators, physicians and social workers in the training and organizing of progressive activists, educators, therapists, artists and researchers all over the world. A key aspect of her organizing work has been building bridges between university-based and community-based practices, bringing the traditions and innovations of each to the other. Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Georgia, writes, “Lois Holzman has managed to make play and performance a fundamental part of the study of human development, in conjunction with thinking and feeling, and to take her ideas directly to the public. That’s not easy: being admired in scholarly circles and putting her beliefs to the test every day with people in need. That’s pretty revolutionary.”
The Journey Begins
Holzman’s time as an undergraduate psychology major at what is now Binghamton University, the State University of New York, though brief, was nonetheless important to who she would become. As she recalled decades later, “It generated a healthy skepticism toward social science experimentation, a passionate dislike for what I now refer to as pseudoscience and an emerging interest in methodological questions of how to study life-as-lived.” Not surprisingly, given her interest in language and meaning making, she switched to linguistics and started graduate studies at Brown University. During this period, Holzman did field research for the Dictionary of American Regional English, taught English to Brown’s international students, and taught high school English in Smithfield, Rhode Island, then a rural white working class community. Discovering that many of her students had never even been to Providence, much less Boston, had a big impact on her understanding of poverty and the underdevelopment it generates. Transferring to Columbia University, she soon discovered that her growing interest in how children learn language was not, at that time, considered a legitimate object of study in the linguistics department. She switched to the Ph.D. program in developmental psychology where she worked with her first intellectual mentor, Lois Bloom, developing the beginnings of a methodology for the study of child language that is “ecologically valid,” that is, that doesn’t separate children from their environment in order to “study” them.
Upon completing her dissertation at Columbia, Holzman became a postdoctoral research fellow at Rockefeller University’s Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC) led by cultural psychologist Michael Cole, where she remained from 1976-79. At the LCHC, she worked to, among other things, discover what it was about the culture of schooling and the psychology of learning that failed so many children, particularly in poor communities. Working with Cole, her second important mentor, she deepened her understanding of the socio-cultural situatedness of learning and development, and came to appreciate the political nature of social science. “The overarching moral-political issue the Lab highlighted for me,” she later wrote, “was the responsibility that psychology and the other social sciences have for perpetuating racism and poverty and the negative impact psychology has on people’s lives—and the challenge that we who work in the field have to overturn this.” In a very real sense, the rest of her life has been an attempt to address that challenge.
The other lasting impact of the LCHC on Holzman is that it introduced her to the work of Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky (1896-1934) was an early Soviet psychologist, who, building on the dialectical method of Karl Marx, pioneered a socio-cultural historical approach to understanding human development. This stands in contrast to the dominant view, originally developed by the Swiss biologist turned psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980), that human development is essentially an internal, linear and biologically-based process. During the period Holzman was at the LCHC, Cole and colleagues were translating some of Vygotsky’s key writings into what would be published as Mind in Society (1978). In the years since, Vygotsky’s popularity among academics and educators has soared. What is unique to Holzman, however, is that through her work Vygotsky has been introduced to, embraced and further developed by a community-based network that includes thousands of ordinary people around the globe.
While she was with the LCHC, Holzman met Fred Newman (1935-2011), a Stanford trained philosopher turned community activist and the creator/practitioner/trainer of a radical (in both the political and scientific-methodological senses) form of therapy—social therapy. It is a therapy that locates human development and emotionality not in the individual’s mind but in the relational and historical activity of human beings. Newman’s work to create a new psychology, while having different intellectual roots than that of Cole and the LCHC, overlapped in significant ways with it. Most exciting to Holzman was that Newman and his colleagues were creating a new approach to psychology as part of community activism. She began working with them developing social therapy and other projects in New York City, most especially in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Also excitingly attractive to Holzman was that these activities were not reliant on established funding sources, (i.e., government or corporate funding or university affiliation). As she has put it, “This meant that creating its financial base was simultaneously a community-building activity.”
Vygotsky, Holzman, and Newman Journey Together
In Newman, Holzman found not only her third mentor, but also an intellectual partner with whom she would collaborate for 35 years. When Cole moved the LCHC to the University of California, San Diego, Holzman stayed in New York City to work with Newman. She joined the faculty of Empire State College, the experimental college of the State University of New York, where she remained until 1997—and launched an intense and productive intellectual and activist partnership with Newman.
Holzman introduced Vygotsky to Newman and together they began to look at Newman’s social therapy with a Vygotskian lens. This gave them a deeper understanding of the therapeutic group process that was attracting hundreds of adults and families in several US cities. Their study also brought into existence a unique activist understanding of Vygotsky’s life and work, and the educational and community organizing projects they and their colleagues launched over the next years were steeped in elements of their “revolutionary Vygotsky.”
The key elements of Newman and Holzman’s Vygotsky, which Holzman continues to share with communities and universities across the globe, include the following.
The Group Develops – Babies and children learn language, Vygotsky observed, through interaction and play with caretakers and older children. It is a group activity involving people of differing experiential and skill levels. He called this group activity a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Newman and Holzman saw in Vygotsky’s ZPD a description of what was going on in social therapy groups and the other educational, cultural and community organizing they and their colleagues were doing. They took the idea/activity of the ZPD and carried it beyond childhood, across the life cycle. To Newman and Holzman, human development, wherever it occurs, is the environment and the outcome of creating ZPDs.
Tool and Result Methodology – In attempting to understand how children learned language and the other skills that make us human, Vygotsky recognized that a fruitful study of human development could not be achieved by applying the same method used to study the natural sciences, in the way that nearly all social science, including psychology, attempts to do. As Vygotsky wrote, “The search for method becomes one of the most important problems of the entire enterprise of understanding the uniquely human forms of psychological activity. In this case, the method is simultaneously prerequisite and product, the tool and result of the study.” This led Newman and Holzman to what they call tool-and-result (as distinct from the common tool for result) methodology. Tool-and-result recognizes not only that studying something changes it, but, more to the point of social development, that human beings are both the tools for their own development and also the result of that development—that is, we are all simultaneously who-we-are and who-we-are-becoming. It is this “becoming” understanding of people that informs the ongoing work in therapy, education, youth development and community organizing initiated and led by Newman, Holzman and their colleagues.
Completion – From his observations that children learn language by creatively imitating adults and older children, Vygotsky came to a new understanding of the nature of language. Far from being the expression of already-formed thoughts, words are the completion of thought. As Vygotsky put it, “Thought is restructured as it is transformed into speech. It is not expressed but completed in the word.” This resonated for Newman and Holzman with the thoughts on language of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). Newman had studied Wittgenstein’s work extensively and was greatly influenced by how Wittgenstein viewed language—as not representing anything but instead, that, “the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.” Vygotsky’s concept of completion and Wittgenstein’s understanding of language as a “form of life,” made clear to Newman and Holzman what was going on in social therapy groups and has informed all their subsequent organizing. Newman put it this way, “… if the process [of language] is completive, then it seemed to me that what we’re looking at is language as an activity of building. This is, what’s happening when speaking or writing … is that we are not simply saying what’s going on but are creating what’s going on … And we understand each other by virtue of engaging in that shared creative activity.”
Performance – When adults and older children speak to and with babies they participate, Newman and Holzman came to see, in a kind of play or performance (in the theatrical sense). Vygotsky himself noted that when children play, they are both who they are and who they’re pretending to be. It is as if they are “a head taller” than they are, Vygotsky wrote—they are playing their way to development. Newman and Holzman extended this discovery of Vygotsky’s beyond pretend play. They saw that babies become speakers by playing at speaking, by performing who-they-are-not-yet (a speaker). As they did with the ZPD, Holzman and Newman, took play and performance out of the nursery and into all aspects, and all ages, of human activity. Performance in everyday life is, for them, the means by which individuals and communities can develop at any point in their lives/histories. Performance is the tool-and-result activity of simultaneously being being-who-you-are and who-you-are-becoming through which we grow. When applied to community organizing and social and political activism, Newman’s and Holzman’s understanding/practice of performance has given birth to performance activism, a playful, improvisatory, and reconstructive (as distinct from deconstructive) approach to social activism.
These basic ideas (and many others) were developed and articulated in three books that Newman and Holzman co-authored in the 1990s: Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary Scientist (1993, classic edition 2013); Unscientific Psychology: A Cultural-Performatory Approach to Understanding Human Life (1996, reprinted in 2006); and The End of Knowing: A New Developmental Way of Learning (1997).
In addition to her collaborative writing with Newman, Holzman has written texts in the tradition of a “romantic scientist”—someone who does not split the richness of life into separate parts in order to study it. These books reflect the way her research is in unique interplay with her own development and that of the communities and projects she has helped to build. Schools for Growth: Radical Alternatives to Current Educational Models (1997) looks at radical educational experiments including an account of the Barbara Taylor School, the Vygotskian-based school that Holzman led in Harlem and Brooklyn in the 1980s and early ‘90s. Psychological Investigations: A Clinician’s Guide to Social Therapy (2003), edited with her colleague Rafael Mendez, presents the methodology of social therapy through the words of its founder Fred Newman and the therapists he trained and supervised. Vygotsky at Work and Play (first edition 2007, second edition 2017) is an intimate and illustrative accounting of what Holzman discovered about the projects she and Newman were building with their colleagues and, at the same time, what new aspects of Vygotsky’s work these projects revealed to her.
In recognition of her innovative research and practice, Holzman received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cultural-Historical Research Special Interest Group at the American Educational Research Association in 2014. In that same year, she was invited by Palgrave Macmillan to develop a new book series, Studies in Play, Performance, Learning and Development. The series has published two books to date, with three more in the works.
With her latest book, Holzman is breaking with academic writing, and playing with a popular, non-academic written voice. Like her Psychology Today column, “A Conceptual Revolution,” and her Psychology of Becoming blog, The Overweight Brain: How Our Obsession With Knowing Keeps Us From Getting Smart Enough to Make a Better World, appears online (one chapter at a time, as she writes it) and invites reader’s comments. The book continues the challenge she and Newman issued to modernist epistemology (“the knowing paradigm”) in The End of Knowing. Tom Strong, Professor and Director of Training with the Educational Studies in Counseling Psychology Program within the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary writes of Holzman, “What I take from my learning from Holzman is a profound appreciation for what we produce through improvisational and collaborative play—when over-knowing brains might override our development as people-in-relationship. … The important work she does has had lots of ripple effects.”
The Journey Continues All Over the Globe
Those ripple effects come not only from her books, articles and blogs, but also through the hands-on workshops and talks with which she has crisscrossed the globe for more than 30 years. From her very first research trip in 1980 to the Institute of Psychology in Moscow to study with Vygotskians, Holzman has developed important ties to scholars and practitioners there, including Vygotsky’s daughter (the late Gita Vygodskaya) and her daughter’s family of psychologists. She travels the world bringing the relevance of Vygotsky’s work, her message of development through play and performance, and how to create an activist life to groups as varied as rock climbing experiential educators, postmodern psychotherapists, university students, Chinese philosophers, Brazilian youth workers, Bangladeshi business students, Colombian peace activists, Taiwanese disability workers, and teenagers from America’s inner-cities.
Yuji Moro, professor of Discursive Psychology, Learning Science and Cultural Psychology at the University of Tsukuba in Tokyo writes of Holzman’s influence on his work, “It was Holzman’s inspiration that led me to begin an exploration of performative psychology, community building activities and the organizing of Japan All Stars.” Danish psychologist Esben Wilstrup notes, “Since I’ve studied, worked and performed with Lois Holzman, I’ve given up my job, started a company, studied improv. And now we’re busy building a school here in Denmark where kids learn through play!”
Sheila McNamee, Professor of Communications at the University of New Hampshire and vice president and board member of the Taos Institute, sums up Holzman’s influence like this: “Lois Holzman is truly a pioneer in the movement to de-psychologize the world and offer, instead, a humanizing way to ‘go on together,’ to quote Wittgenstein. She could easily have chosen a purely academic route, writing books and articles, teaching, all things she does. But instead, she chose to take her scholarly work talents into the world of practice, to write about unscientific psychology so others could be heard, and teach about performing a life so that other could be transformed. In that sense, Holzman is a true activist—making change rather than simply talking it.”
Making the Path by Walking
Holzman’s practice and the work she takes out all over the world are rooted in, nurtured by and further develop the organizations and activities she has helped to build and lead since the late 1970s.
The hub for Holzman’s organizational and educational work is the East Side Institute, which she and Newman founded in the 1980s. As an independent grassroots think tank and international training center for performative psychology, social therapeutics and performance activism, the Institute can bring together people who do not ordinarily come together, and do things that would not be possible in a traditionally funded institution. As examples, the Institute accepts people from all over the world into its programs without prerequisites or requirements; trains nonprofessionals and professionals together; collaborates freely with other organizations with no strings attached; and acts on research and program initiatives with a minimum of bureaucracy.
Among the Institute’s ongoing educational activities are in person and online courses, seminars and study groups known as “Revolutionary Conversations,” workshops, and the “Making a Conceptual Revolution” series of public conversations between Holzman and other thought leaders in psychology, education and the arts.
More than a decade ago, Holzman launched two programs for innovators and creative change makers that put the Institute on the international map: The International Class and Performing the World.
The International Class
The International Class began in 2003 when several followers of Holzman from outside the US asked for “more” (to study social therapeutics, to work in an ongoing way with her, to learn how to be an activist scholar). Holzman designed a 10-month program that combines in-person residency periods on site in NYC with periods of distance learning online in between. The program makes use of the Institute’s skilled faculty as well as others practicing developmental, performance-based work. From that first Class, whose members came from Argentina, Nicaragua, Serbia, South Africa, Sweden and three US states, The International Class has continued to teach, train and support the development of innovative grassroots educators and organizers and progressive scholars. As of 2017, there are over 100 graduates from 28 countries: Argentina, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, El Salvador, England, Greece, India, Kenya, Macedonia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, The Philippines, Serbia, South Africa, Sweden, Taiwan, Uganda, the United States, and Wales.
Many graduates of The International Class have gone on to create or expand organizations that provide positive, performatory environments for people to grow. Play is Hope, founded by graduate Elena Boukouvala brings opportunities for refugees living in Europe’s refugee camps to play, develop and lead, and is creating a close network of creative refugee workers across Europe. Hope for Youth Uganda, founded by graduate Peter Nsubuga, is a school in the Mukono District of Uganda serving hundreds of poor children, not only with the 3Rs but also with social therapeutic-informed practices. Turning Point, a mental rehabilitation center that uses performance as a form of therapy in Kolkata, India, was founded by graduate Ishita Sanyal. Graduate Sandra Lopez, a dancer originally from Colombia now living in El Paso, Texas, organizes and leads cross border arts projects with impoverished youth and women who have experienced domestic violence in Juarez, Mexico. Also in Juarez, graduates Jorge Burciaga and Miguel Cortez established the Fred Newman Center for Social Therapy. Pandies Theatre, which creates theatre with slum-dwellers, the homeless and sex workers in New Delhi, was founded and is led by Sanjay Kumar, Associate Professor at Hans Raj College, University of Delhi, another graduate of The International Class.
Performing the World
The range of Holzman’s and the Institute’s international influence and leadership is best illustrated by the bi-annual conference Performing the World (PTW). Starting in 2001, just a month after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, PTW—of which Holzman is convener and chief organizer—brings together people from many walks of life, across academic disciplines and with a wide array of political persuasions. What brings them together is that they are all, in various ways, exploring performance and play as alternative approaches to traditional ways of practicing therapy, educating students, doing medicine, engaging social problems, and activating communities. As a conference, PTW brings together between 400 and 500 people every two years from more than 35 countries around the globe to share their work. As an international organizing activity, PTW has evolved into an ever-expanding global network functioning year-round, through which tens of thousands of people, across national, professional and academic borders learn from, inspire and support each other. Like all of Holzman’s organizing, PTW embodies and works to advance a shift from cognitive and ideologically based approaches in education, human development, politics and social change to cultural, play and performance based approaches—approaches that are more improvisatory, open-ended and likely to generate new possibilities.
The Institute’s research under Holzman’s leadership has taken many forms, always with a social activist edge and the inclusion of non-professionals. It has ranged from organizing young people in after school programs to study their own development, to surveying people on the streets and online about the impact psychiatric diagnosis has had on their lives and that of their friends and families. Through this research, Holzman is doing the work of bringing community voices into the worldwide effort to advocate for and disseminate alternatives to current diagnostic systems of mental illness—an effort that has been primarily a professionals-only conversation.
Holzman has a close relationship to organizations that grew up making use of the performatory approach to human learning and development she and Newman developed. The Social Therapy Group is a group practice of therapists trained in Newman’s social therapy. In addition to their client base of 100s of adults and children in New York City, these therapists are an important part of the Institute’s faculty, providing training and supervision to clinicians and integrating their discoveries about emotional development into all the Institute’s offerings. Performance of a Lifetime is a global company providing professional and leadership development to businesses and nonprofit organizations. The company’s founders were trained by Newman and continue to consult with Holzman as they advance their methods of reinitiating development through play, performance and improvisation and bring what they coined “the Becoming Principle” into the marketplace. The All Stars Project is a non-profit organization providing performance-based development programs for inner-city youth. Since its founding in in 1981 by Newman and developmental psychologist and grassroots activist Lenora Fulani in New York City, the All Stars has expanded to six additional cities and is today a national leader in afterschool development. Holzman conducted the research and development for the All Stars’ performatory street fundraising model in the early 1990s and has, over the decades, studied its development and shared its methodology and success with youth workers around the world and all those who visit the Institute. In bringing inner-city youth together with business and cultural leaders, academics, police officers and other adults, the All Stars is, to Holzman, a model social therapeutic program that create new kinds of relationships and environments through which everyone grows.
The Institute and the All Stars, which are now sparking creative adaptations in locations and cultures as diverse as Juarez, Tokyo, London, Uganda, and the refugee camps of Greece, were built without government funding or reliance on corporation or foundation grants. As Holzman has put it, “From the beginning, we believed that developing new conceptual frameworks, methodologies and practices required the simultaneous building of a fully participatory community and these two tasks required an independent location, that is, one free of institutional ties to government, universities, corporations or foundations.” It is this independent location that has allowed these organizations, and the community they have created, to remain experimental, flexible and innovative and to build unlikely and creative alliances between different kinds of people. Her experience in building and leading this global community is an important part of what Holzman now shares in her talks and workshops around the world.
Michael Cole, the founder of the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition, now Emeritus Distinguished Professor, Department of Psychology, University of California-San Diego, looking back on Holzman’s achievements wrote to her, “Your achievements since the Lab moved west have been simply amazing. Your profession and your community are indebted to you for your unceasing efforts to live up to the ideas of revolutionary activity.”
When Holzman, Vygotsky and Newman met and began learn from each other, something qualitatively new began to come into being. In the last 40 years, that something new has interacted with people, cultures and situations all over the world and has sparked development and creativity where they had seemed impossible. The path Holzman is now on was created by walking. It didn’t exist before she, her mentors, her collaborators and her followers began to forge it. She continues to create the road by walking and invites all who want, to walk it with her.