By ASCD/EL Guest Blogger Howard Gardner
Jerome Seymour Bruner died on June 5, 2016, at the age of 100. And what a century’s worth of living! Born blind, Bruner gained limited eyesight at the age of two—he was famous for his thick glasses, with which he insisted on gesticulating, as he lectured. Bruner attended Duke University and Harvard University, receiving his doctorate in psychology in 1941. He then conducted research, wrote dozens of books, and taught for more than 70 years, most of them at Harvard University, the University of Oxford, and, for the last two decades, at the New York University School of Law, becoming emeritus in 2013.
Like an eager explorer, Bruner ventured across the entire intellectual landscape, tackling new topics at a dazzling speed. Beginning as an experimental psychologist working with laboratory animals, he ventured into the fields of human social psychology and developmental psychology. He first gained fame for his studies of perception—called “The New Look”: he demonstrated that our perceptions of simple objects like coins are strongly influenced by our wants and expectations—making science of what he had observed when he himself had to learn to see. He then played a principal role in the launching of the cognitive revolution—a computer-influenced approach to the study of the mind that explored the strategies that humans use to solve problems and to raise new questions. Donning the lenses of cognitive and developmental psychology, he explored infant perception, and the emergence and uses of early language. And then in the latter decades of life, lamenting the over-rational view of cognitive research, he drew attention to the role of narrative, discourse, and cultural norms in the law and in life—building powerful bridges from psychology to the arts and humanities.
But while Bruner is likely to be remembered in many corners of the University, his most important and most lasting contributions are likely to be in the field of education. Shortly after the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Bruner called together leading thinkers to reconceptualize what he called, in a much-appreciated and much cited book The Process of Education. Representing a sharp break from behaviorist views of teaching and learning, Bruner put forth an active, hypothesis-generating view of the learner; and in another influential book Toward a Theory of Instruction, Bruner demonstrated how, in the hands of mindful educators, even young students could be engaged in rigorous thinking in and across the disciplinary terrain, mastering the tools and languages of the culture, encountering and re-encountering important ideas in appropriate format as they passed through stages of development. (See also the article he wrote for Educational Leadership in 1963 entitled “Needed: A Theory of Instruction.”)
Many well-known psychologists have turned their attention, at least briefly, to education. Bruner did far more than that: in the middle 1960s, he masterminded the creation of a new and powerful approach to social studies called “Man: A Course of Study.” In this highly original curriculum, middle school children were exposed to powerful ideas from psychology, anthropology, sociology, and linguistics, and given the opportunity to engage, like young scholars, in exploring, elucidating and, even transforming key concepts from the social sciences. As a 22-year-old recent college graduate, I had the privilege of working on the development of this curriculum. Its three key questions have guided me throughout my own, by now, lengthy career: “What is human about human beings? How did they get that way? How can they be made more so?”
Bruner’s venture into curriculum was extremely exciting for those who had the privilege of creating it or using it in classrooms—as did three of my own children. But in the 1970s, its humanistic features alienated conservative members of the U. S. House of Representatives, and federal funding for such innovative educational work was halted—and has never really been re-activated.
Bruner’s interest in educational experimentation continued throughout his life. In his later years, he made annual pilgrimages to Reggio Emilia, a small city in northern Italy famous for its outstanding early childhood education, much of it in the Brunerian tradition; his own participation in the Italian educational efforts results in his being named an honorary citizen. When an observer pointed out that Bruner’s ideas were more honored in Italy than in the United States, he quipped “Well, then you’ve got quite a story.”
I believe that Jerome Bruner is the most important thinker and writer about education in our time—equal in importance to John Dewey in an earlier epoch. Indeed, his influence may be greater than Dewey’s, because Bruner wrote far more vividly and he entered directly into the classroom—politics and all!– in a way that Dewey never did. At present, neither Dewey nor Bruner are much discussed among political figures involved in education. But we will only have truly effective education in the United States, and the rest of the world, if we attend carefully to, and attempt to implement, the wisdom of these two scholarly giants.
Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education.