Learning With Bruner

The Culture of Education

by Jerome Bruner
Harvard University Press, 224 pp., $24.95
Jerome Bruner
Jerome Bruner; drawing by David Levine


What does one say when one says “psychology”: James, Wundt, Binet, or Pavlov? Freud, Lashley, Skinner, or Vygotsky? Köhler, Lewin, Lévy-Bruhl, Bateson? Chomsky or Piaget? Daniel Dennett or Oliver Sacks? Herbert Simon? Since it got truly launched as a discipline and a profession in the last half of the nineteenth century, mainly by Germans, the self-proclaimed “science of the mind” has not just been troubled with a proliferation of theories, methods, arguments, and techniques. That was only to be expected. It has also been driven in wildly different directions by wildly different notions of what it is, as we say, “about”—what sort of knowledge, of what sort of reality, to what sort of end, it is supposed to produce. From the outside, at least, it does not look like a single field, divided into schools and specialties in the usual way. It looks like an assortment of disparate and disconnected inquiries classed together because they all make reference in some way or other to something or other called “mental functioning.” Dozens of characters in search of a play.

From inside it doubtless looks a bit more ordered, if only because of the byzantine academic structure that has grown up around it (the American Psychological Association has forty-nine divisions), but surely no less miscellaneous. The wide swings between behaviorist, psychometric, cognitivist, depth psychological, topological, developmentalist, neurological, evolutionist, and culturalist conceptions of the subject have made being a psychologist an unsettled occupation, subject not only to fashion, as are all the human sciences, but also to sudden and frequent reversals of course. Paradigms, wholly new ways of going about things, come along not by the century, but by the decade; sometimes, it almost seems, by the month. It takes either a preternaturally focused, dogmatical person, who can shut out any ideas but his or her own, or a mercurial, hopelessly inquisitive one, who can keep dozens of them in play at once, to remain upright amid this tumble of programs, promises, and proclamations.

There are, in psychology, a great many more of the resolved and implacable, esprit de système types (Pavlov, Freud, Skinner, Piaget, Chomsky) than there are of the agile and adaptable, esprit de finesse ones (James, Bateson, Sacks). But it is among the latter that Jerome Bruner, author or coauthor of more than twenty books, and God knows how many articles, on almost as many subjects, clearly belongs. In a breathless, lurching, yet somehow deeply consecutive career spanning nearly sixty years, Bruner has brushed against almost every line of thought in psychology and transformed a number of them.

That career began at Harvard in the Forties, during the heyday of behaviorism, rat-running, the repetition of nonsense syllables, the discrimination of sensory differences, and the measurement of galvanic responses. But, dissatisfied with the piling up of experimental “findings” on peripheral matters (his first professional study involved conditioning “helplessness” in a rat imprisoned…

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