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On Education: An Exchange Between Jerome Bruner and John Holt

In response to:

A Little Learning from the April 14, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

I write more in astonishment than in protest. The review in your issue of April 14 of my Toward a Theory of Instruction is wildly in error in its statements about the book’s point of view. If it stopped there, I could pardon the reviewer for not understanding the book, for he has no particular qualifications in what, after all, has become a fairly technical field, the development in children with all that it entails in studies of perception, memory, action, etc., from the first hours after birth through the early years of life. He is an intelligent teacher with strong opinions and, so far as I know, has never been in charge of children in their first ten years of life, that age span upon which my book principally focuses. What I find appalling, however, is not that the argument of the book is misunderstood and twisted into a whipping boy appropriate to the reviewer’s current furies, but rather that it is full of errors of fact as well. I’ve tried to plumb what it is that may be eating your reviewer, how he happened to get so far off base, and the only sensible conclusion I can reach, and reach with very considerable conviction, is that he is suffering from a very bad case of crypto-anti-intellectualism. It is this conclusion that leads me to speak up, for your reviewer’s savage and rather idiotic misunderstanding of my book is altogether too typical of the new anti-thinking intellectual to go unnoticed. So let me consider in some detail what is involved in all this.

First, let me take the issue of style. He objects vehemently that I have not written a book for schoolteachers! The title is too ponderous. He distorts a section in which I argue that the teaching of history should be used to give students a sense of the styles with which life can be lived and problems can be solved rather than in the manner of a record of what happened. My argument is that our present massive record keeping will make simple narrative history impossible, that such history is probably “a furbelow of documentary short supply.” This he would have me state as, “We keep such junk only because we don’t have much junk to keep.” The objection to the title is, in effect, “What’s all this highbrow academic business about trying to make theories?” He wanted a book that can have the good racy title, Toward Better Teaching or How We Can Teach Better. As I shall try to show, the reviewer along with a new school of impatient intellectuals, of whom Paul Goodman is a rather charming example, want no part of trying to understand what one is doing. It should all be from the guts, including the style. No-think thinking. To think before acting is to be guilty of artificialism. And so, an effort at constructing a theory of instruction—an effort that surely is continuous from Maimonides to the present—is to be judged in terms of whether it can be understood immediately by classroom teachers. If it cannot, it is wasted effort. If von Neumann and Morgenstern’s classic Theory of Games and Economic Behavior cannot be grasped right away by the corner grocer, then it can be dismissed.

I’m sorry the reviewer did not read more carefully or more dispassionately, for he would have found many things in my pages from which (I think) he might have taken a certain cool comfort. But again, the barrier of implicit anti-intellectualism proved too opaque. Take, for example, his tirade on the topic of coping and defending—the distinction between dealing with the requirements of problems to be solved and trying to protect oneself from their threat. The reviewer picks up a remark made on page 4, taken from a context in which I am setting forth some explanatory autobiography. I liken coping to playing tennis, defense to trying to stay off the court. The reviewer then goes on to say, magisterially, “Bruner’s example shows how little he has pursued or understood it,” whereupon he cites a childhood reminiscence to prove how complicated can be the course of avoiding something. He then says that it would do me good to stop turning my back on such matters. What is peculiar about this set of passages is that it makes no mention at all of the fact that one of the longest chapters in the book, “On Coping and Defending,” deals in considerable detail with a two-year-long study of learning blocks in which I treated and tutored children. These children were deeply involved in trying to protect themselves from the anxieties of school learning with an ingenuity on their part that the reviewer might have found formidable, had he allowed himself the dispassion to read my pages rather than roiling in his indignation. And indeed, another long chapter, entitled “The Will to Learn,” deals with the very issue of why it is that school provides such a difficult setting for learning. (Just by way of general complaint, it would be very difficult indeed to find out what this book is about by reading its review in these pages.) I finally decided that what was preventing comprehension was precisely the reviewer’s opinion that all intellectual learning is somehow worthless, that the only learning worth the effort is some kind of emotionally laden, personally significant, close-to-the- bone wisdom about the real things in life. Whatever is not concerned with this neo-Lawrencian aim, the reviewer puts into a single bucket, all to be dumped indiscriminately over the side. Therefore my discussion of the effort required to get children over their powerful resistance to learning so that they can then enjoy the beauties of language or mathematics or science is, in effect, the old game of fobbing off on children “words that just rattle around in our heads.”

The book’s major theme is that human beings have three ways of knowing—through action, through imagery, and through the medium of symbols. Each is a system with powers and shortcomings, but the special glory of man’s mind is that he has three approaches to grasping things, and these are often translatable into each other in a fashion that permits not only deeper understanding but the ferreting out of contradiction and nonsense. Right at the outset, the reviewer gets this wrong, very wrong, though it is a theme that recurs throughout. First of all, he misinterprets what I say by confusing these three ways of knowing as three stages of knowing. Repeatedly I have tried to rid psychology of the idea of stages, urging instead that growth is a process of elaborating three modes. They do not replace each other. Indeed, in the chapter dealing with some theorems for a theory of instruction, illustrated with experiments we have done with mathematics instruction, I go far out of my way to point out that it is all too easy for the child to learn not mathematics, but some rote clichés that do indeed rattle around unconnected in the head. So too with a social studies curriculum, “Man: A Course of Study.” But so fixed is the reviewer’s eye on the romance of no-think thinking, the revolt of the student against intellectualism, that he simply fails to grasp what is being said.

Or take another example: In an opening chapter, I set forth some benchmarks for cognitive growth. One of them, perhaps the most important of all, is that the growing child maintains an invariant response in the face of a changing stimulus environment, so that he is not the sport of distractions. Indeed, a good part of the first two years of life is given over to this development of constraints and the more we come to understand about the central nervous system, the more important this aspect of growth seems to be. This is just the kind of symbolical intellectualism that sends the reviewer into a fit of invective: “This sounds to me like Dean Rusk on Vietnam.” If the reviewer would take the time to go to a ward full of that kind of restless brain-damaged child who is not able to resist stimulus distraction, he would perhaps be a little less cavalier about such matters. Then of the same order, there is a set of fireworks that goes off in response to the fairly banal remark in that same chapter, “Teaching is vastly facilitated by the medium of language…” To the reviewer, this seems particularly wicked. He assures me that if I would only do a stretch as a classroom teacher I would know that in practice the reverse is true! Well, I have done a stretch: Harvard granted me a leave of absence last year, and I spent most of it teaching the fifth grade better to understand how to put a curriculum together. It never occurred to me that things would have been easier without language. They might have been closer to the blood or more no-think. But I had rather thought that the job of a teacher was to empower human beings with knowledge and skill and dignity, and that one uses everything in the bag of tricks, especially those compact vehicles, words.

The reviewer has a good deal of irrelevant commentary on the relationship of Piaget and Bruner, the brunt of which is that their research on the growth of intelligence and perception is all wrong, all based on misunderstood statements made by children. I do not want to bore your readers with details that plainly don’t belong in the columns of The New York Review of Books. But I have to say something about them, for the reviewer is so glib and uninformed as to give a completely wrong impression, and again it is a misimpression in the interest of scoring work in the University of Geneva and at Harvard as finical and overin-tellectualized. To begin with, the matters that are raised by the reviewer are scarcely even mentioned in Toward a Theory of Instruction. Piaget is mentioned four times in the book, briefly, and always in the context of saluting the detailed manner in which he describes concretely what it is that a child grasps when he understands some particular idea. But to accuse Genevans and Cantabridgians of a failure to take into account the distinction between what a child says and what he knows how to do or what he understands is really too absurd to merit comment. The research objectives at both Centers is precisely to understand how knowledge gets organized in its different manifestations of action, image, and symbol. There are differences, deep differences, between the two research groups, but there is no evidence in the reviewer’s remarks that he understands what they are. As for the “eye camera project,” I am a little puzzled as to how it got into the review at all, for it is not mentioned in the book nor have there been any reports of findings from it save in technical journals. Yet, the reviewer says, “I hardly know whether to laugh or cry.” I suggest that he try a little reading instead. He must be referring to the research of my colleague Dr. Norman Mackworth, designed to find out how human beings search out the visual world for information in attempting to solve problems. To take the most recent report from this project, one done jointly by Dr. Mackworth and Dr. Eliane Vurpillot, visiting at Harvard this year from the Sorbonne, the search, for similarities and differences in the visual world changes drastically between five and ten years of age, a change that literally reflects itself in the way the eyes move, the younger children sampling the world very lightly, almost shooting from the hip, the older ones gradually learning to look for possible correspondences. I can’t imagine why this work so horrifies the reviewer, save that it is altogether too cerebral for his taste. Dr. Mackworth’s peers apparently do not share the reviewer’s quivering hysteria. They recently awarded him the Walter Van-Dyk Bingham Medal for his contribution to our understanding of human nature.

And so it goes. I would sum up the reviewer’s internal scenario somewhat like this: Children are victims. The schools and the intellectuals are the aggressors. Free the children from the verbal nonsense of learning so that their natural, instinctive wisdom can express itself. Words and things that can be put into words are destructive of the natural life of mind. What the eye sees is not so good as what the heart knows. The Great Deliverer is the classroom teacher who will become the ally of Holden Caulfield and each new catcher in the rye. The teacher will produce deliverance through an act of the heart. Who cannot speak directly to the teachers speaks only to the wind. All these matters are not amenable to study but can be achieved only through an act of intuition. And so on. This, I would submit, is the song of the anti-intellectual Left, the no-think thinkers.

Jerome S. Bruner

Center for Cognitive Studies

Harvard University

John Holt replies:

Perhaps, in the nature of things, it is impossible to write a review that is strongly critical without being offensive or destructive. I tried hard to review Professor Bruner’s book in this spirit. I have long been distressed by the venomous tone of much academic controversy, and would not wish to add to it. Still, I think few would deny that the tone of my review is more temperate, reasoned, and respectful than that of Professor Bruner’s reply to it.

It would take a book to deal fully and fairly with all the points raised in Professor Bruner’s book, and something very close to a book to deal with all the points raised in his letter. I must therefore pick and choose. Let me begin by saying that I have been in charge of children in their first ten years of life. For four years I was a regular fifth grade teacher. For another, I taught Math in grades one through five. For a large part of another, I taught beginning reading to a number of first and second graders. I have spent much time, in many families, in the company of children of all ages, down to a few weeks, and as a frequent visitor to such families, have seen many children grow over a period of many years.

Professor Bruner says I have “no particular qualifications in what, after all, has become a fairly technical field, the development of children….” This implies that only certified experts may now express opinions about the development of children, or question the opinions of other experts. I most emphatically disagree. I know of no more mischievous idea, nor one more strongly deserving opposition, than this notion that, even on matters of common human experience, only the experts shall speak or be heard. No doubt the opinions of laymen—like me—will generally not be worth much in such fields as sub-atomic physics or molecular biology. But you do not need a Ph.D. to look at a child and to think about what he is doing.

There is a kind of spurious intellectualism to which I am very much opposed. I find some of it in Professor Bruner’s book, and a great deal more in his letter. I had expected him to say, indignantly, that of course the average classroom teacher could understand his book. I would have disagreed, but would have respected his wish and intent to be understood. Instead he says scornfully, “…An effort at constructing a theory of instruction…is to be judged in terms of whether it can be understood immediately by classroom teachers.” He might have a point if he were writing about things that, like particle physics, were so far out of the experience of the average classroom teacher that they could not be said in words she could understand. But this is not so. There is hardly anything in Professor Bruner’s book that could not be made intelligible and useful to classroom teachers if he had taken the trouble to make it so. The tone of his letter makes it clear not that he tried and failed but that he did not try.

We must reject and resist the notion that the fewer people can understand an idea, the more important that idea must be. On the contrary, anyone with an idea has a duty to try to make it understandable to as many people as he can—not excluding the poor corner grocer, above all if it is an idea that may affect his life. The proper business of the intellectual is to make complicated ideas more simple, not simple ideas more complicated; to make the real world more comprehensible, not less so.

My remark about Rusk and Vietnam is not “invective,” and not even a wisecrack. Rusk cannot see the reality of Vietnam, because he is blinded by the symbol he has made for it, like the children blinded and incapacitated by what Bruner calls a preemptive metaphor. A boy looked at fractions and saw knives; Rusk looks at Vietnam and sees dominoes toppling all across Asia. We must bring out symbols as close as we can to reality, and keep them checked against and adjusted to reality, or they will lead us into trouble, disaster, and insanity. But this is just what children in school, compelled too soon and too often to manipulate symbols that are for them largely meaningless, soon become unable to do. In their anxiety and confusion, they try to turn school, and the world, into a place of rigid and reliable recipes and rules.

I did not say or imply that Professor Bruner did not study defensive behavior. I gave his ideas on this subject so much attention precisely because they were such an important part of the book. But he studied defensive behavior in its most extreme forms, in a clinic, when where it most needs to be studied is in the classroom. Hardly anything could be more useful to classroom teachers than a really good catalogue of children’s defensive strategies, and hardly anyone is better equipped than Professor Bruner, in both talent and resources, to make such a study. It is a loss and waste that he has not done so.

To be sure. Professor Bruner has spent much time in classrooms, but never as a regular classroom teacher. There are important things about the classroom that one cannot learn, coming in as head of an enormous curriculum reform and development project. To put two aspects of the matter very bluntly, Bruner did not have to worry about being fired, and his students did not have to worry about being flunked. These differences alone cut him off from a large part of the reality of the average classroom.

I leave it to readers of the book to decide whether or not Piaget’s work plays an important part in Bruner’s, and whether or not I have so badly missed the relationship between them. I leave it to them equally to decide whether my very brief and necessarily incomplete summary of Bruner’s ideas is as far off the mark as he claims.

Let me close with a word about the eye camera. We are told that it tells us how children of different ages vary in the way they scan the visual world. How is this information obtained? Using a special camera, the experimenter takes a series of pictures of the subject’s eyeball while the subject is scanning a photograph which he is supposed to identify. So far, so good. But the technique requires that the subject’s head be held rigidly immobile. To accomplish this, the subject puts his forehead and temples into a kind of u-shaped iron bar, which grips them firmly. At the same time, as he puts his head forward into this brace, another metal bar, covered with cardboard, goes into his mouth, and this he bites down on and grips with his teeth. Some of the subjects for the experiment came from the early grades of the nearby school where I was teaching. I know, therefore, that about half of these children were either so afraid of the machine that they would not have anything to do with it, or if they did, could not keep from gagging on the bar in their mouths, and thus could not be used in the experiment. But we are asked to believe that children in such a position, looking at photographs in varying degrees of unfocus, use their eyes in the same way that they use them normally. It may be that they do. However, I have seen enough of children to know that even the most casual and unforced observation of their behavior is very likely to make great changes in that behavior. When the conditions of observation are as artificial, restrictive, and productive of anxiety as these, surely we have the right to be very skeptical of the general applicability of the results of the experiment, and of the common sense and good judgment of any group of experts who seem to accept them as uncritically as Professor Bruner and his colleagues.

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