A Little Learning

It would be a pleasure to be able to praise unreservedly this latest work of Professor Bruner. He is a humane, perceptive, and intelligent man, who likes children and is deeply concerned with their thinking and learning. In the controversies that divide education, his head and his heart are very often in the right place. He has arrived at some important understandings about teaching, which he here sets forth. How easy it would be to join the chorus of worshipful critics who are or soon will be calling this book great, challenging, revolutionary, destined to change the course of American education, and so on. But it is not a very good book, certainly not a tenth as good a book as a man with Bruner’s insights, talents, and opportunities ought to have written. This is not to say that he ought to have written an entirely different book; only that he ought to have written this one better.

What is wrong with it? First, the title. Why so ponderous? Why not Toward Better Teaching, or How We Can Teach Better, or Can We Teach Better? The difference is important. Few elementary school teachers read many books, as it is. Had the book a simpler title, at least some teachers might have been tempted to take a look at it. As it is, not a teacher in a hundred, unless made to, will so much as open it. If they do, they will probably feel, after the first two or three pages, that the book is not for them. As academic writing goes, this book is not badly written; but why should Bruner write like an academic when he knows how to write clear, strong English? On page 25 we have “heavy dentition.” Why not “teeth”? On page 36 we have, “These are the furbelows of documentary short supply.” Why not, “We keep such junk only because we don’t have much junk to keep.” And so on. Bruner has often said (though this contradicts much of Piaget) that any subject can be made meaningful to children of any age, and if children, certainly adults. Surely, then, a writer, whatever his subject, ought to try to make his ideas clear to as many people as he can. What use is a book about teaching that most teachers will not understand? Bruner might reply that his book is not aimed at classroom teachers, but at the administrators, supervisors, publishers, and instructors, who will one day tell them what to do. If so, his aim is bad, for no important changes in education can be made that classroom teachers do not understand and support.

The book is very loosely and weakly organized, if it can be said to be organized at all. It is a collection of speeches, made into essays. Bruner says they have been much revised and edited. They do not show it. They sound off the cuff—witty and learned, no doubt, but off the cuff just the same. They are not…

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