In response to:

Small Wonders from the May 6, 1999 issue

To the Editors:

Alison Gopnik, in her review of Howard Gardner’s new book [NYR, May 6], conjectures that education may take off from cognitive science in the next century in the way that medicine took off from biology in the last. I think this is very doubtful, especially if Gardner and Gopnik are right about the mind-brain. If the mind is modular as Gardner claims, there’s no reason to think the powerful machinery that permits children to learn to speak their native language without expert teachers—a favorite example of school critics—could play a major role in children’s learning to sing on key, solve quadratic equations, dance, or interpret poems.

Gopnik commits a fallacy common to applied cognitive psychologists when she claims that a more sophisticated understanding of cognitive development is likely to pave the way to more powerful educational interventions. Gopnik’s own review cites evidence to expose the fallacy. She notes that we are now learning a great deal about the way the human visual system actually works. True enough, but I’m unaware that this knowledge has been or could be exploited to improve our ability to detect anger on a friend’s face or our own automobiles in the parking lot. Gopnik’s psychologist’s hubris is also manifested in her statement that John Dewey “had no empirical evidence about children.” I would say that the evidence gained through running a laboratory school for ten years at the University of Chicago counted as empirical. It was sufficient at any rate to enable Dewey to articulate the same general principles of education that Gopnik attributes to Gardner and his scientific colleagues.

I’d be the last to deny that cognitive psychology is making progress, but it speaks to educators in many tongues. For example, Kieran Egan and E.D. Hirsch Jr., who have little in common with each other, draw very different curricular implications from its teachings than does Gardner. I do not mean that we should deny the possibility of educational progress. For example, there’s solid evidence that children learn mathematics more effectively by anyone’s standard in Japanese elementary classrooms, but I don’t think that’s because the Japanese have placed their educational eggs in the cognitive science basket.

Francis Schrag


Department of Educational Policy Studies

University of Wisconsin-Madison

To the Editors:

Alison Gopnik, in her review of Howard Gardner’s The Disciplined Mind, after a discussion of coaching in school sports, suggests that coaching methods “may help to explain why so many children are so passionate about sports when they are so indifferent to school.” This statement, to use a hackneyed but appropriate metaphor, seems to be way out in left field.

I grew up in England where there was no coaching or adult intervention in sports for us boys, yet we played sports at every opportunity. We turned up at school twenty minutes early and chalked goal posts or wickets on the wall, and played with a tennis or sponge ball until school began, and school we regarded as Purgatory. We continued to play at breaks and after school. At weekends we played on a nearby field. We had to pick fair teams, referee the games as we played, and the youthful captain of a cricket team had to make complicated bowling changes. All this without any adult help.

When I have seen American Little League teams of baseball, soccer, and football in action, with coaches and parents making every decision, it doesn’t surprise me that most Americans give up team sports as soon as they leave high school. If Dr. Gopnik goes to England, each weekend she will see thousands of amateur soccer, rugby, or cricket teams playing. The players have not had their enthusiasm stamped out of them by coaches. I lived in New York in the 1960s and played rugby in Van Cortlandt Park, where on a Saturday afternoon in spring you could see soccer, rugby, baseball, and cricket being played simultaneously, but almost all the players were immigrants who had grown up playing sports in Europe, the West Indies, or South America the way I did.

The fact that Dr. Gopnik, an expert on education and obviously very intelligent, does not understand the deep-rooted importance of sport for boys suggests that we are not getting any nearer solving our educational problems.

Gerald Needham

Toronto, Canada

Alison Gopnik replies:

In Middlemarch George Eliot vividly describes how the local doctors react to Lydgate—the advocate of scientific medicine. The universal view is that he is both arrogant and foolish—doctors with years of remunerative blistering and bleeding behind them are indignant at the thought that physiological science could inform their practice. It is, of course, perfectly sensible for educators to question particular theories of cognitive science: all scientific theories have to stand up to that kind of scrutiny. And it is perfectly understandable that teachers in the trenches might have to rely on intuition and experience as much as on systematic research. But it is very discouraging to find that professors of education like Professor Schrag believe that cognitive science is irrelevant to their discipline. (Indeed, other letters from professors of education suggest that science is not only irrelevant to education but to everything else—they think that scientific physiology is no better than vitalism. This is not just discouraging, it is deeply disturbing.)


It is hard to imagine any other applied discipline with a similar attitude toward basic research—faculties of medicine that dismissed biology, engineering departments that refused to teach physics, business schools that ignored economics. Schrag’s example of vision science is an especially unfortunate one. If he wants to see the relevance of vision science for improving vision he need look no further than the end of his nose, at least if he wears glasses. In fact, at Berkeley, most of the distinguished vision scientists in psychology are cross-appointed in optometry. Optometrists, at least, assume that knowing how vision works is essential if we want to improve it.

Of course, applying science is a difficult and complex business, with its own special problems—that’s why we have separate faculties of education—and medicine and optometry. But surely the reason those faculties are in universities at all is because we assume they will take basic science seriously.

Mr. Needham’s letter takes me to task for endorsing Little League coaching. My example had nothing particular to do with sports or its many functions in the lives of boys (and girls). While it was inspired by one of my son’s baseball coaches it could as easily have been inspired by another son’s ballet teacher (I will leave a disquisition on the importance of ballet in boys’ lives to another time). The point is that we often observe very effective natural teaching techniques and that those techniques could inform other kinds of instruction. In fact, developmental cognitive science supports the idea that children often learn a great deal from other children. The teachers at Mr. Needham’s dreary school might have done well to look out the window at the cricket players.

This Issue

November 4, 1999