Throughout our centennial year of 2013, we’ll be reflecting on the 100 significant titles we’ve chosen to represent our first 100 years. In the post below, HUP Executive Editor-at-Large Elizabeth Knoll looks back on the 1960 publication of Jerome Bruner’s The Process of Education, an excerpt of which you can read at our centennial site.
University presses seldom find themselves with spectacular best-sellers, and when they do, it’s never the books that anyone would have predicted. A technical monograph on 16th century astonomy, in a series forbiddingly entitled the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science? The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A small-town poet’s report of his conversations with an elderly Oglala Sioux man? Black Elk Speaks.
And in 1960, no one expected the report of a Woods Hole conference of eminent scientists and psychologists, spurred by the political shock of Sputnik to imagine reforms in American schools, to fascinate and inspire book reviewers, university students, neighborhood book groups, and school teachers for decades. But that’s what happened with Jerome Bruner’s The Process of Education.
The Press printed a respectable 5000 copies, “and then the astonishments began,” as Bruner said at a conference in 2011. The little book got a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review and the first edition sold 83,000 copies (notes still in the file show the Press scrambling to reprint fast enough). It ended up selling several hundred thousand copies in various editions, and has been translated into 21 languages. (The first, ironically enough, was Russian—in a pirated edition.)
How did a book on theories of learning, written by a Harvard professor, without personal stories or heartwarming anecdotes or one-liners, strike such a chord?
In part it was the grandness of the subject and the boldness of the argument. As Bruner summed it up in 2011—“the nature of mind, and how mind might be used, and the idea that the young were not idiotic because they were young, but as rational as anyone else.” Thanks to Bruner’s omnivorous curiosity and wide reading (a photograph from about this time shows him deep in conversation with Aldous Huxley and J. Robert Oppenheimer), The Process of Education surveyed the domains of academic knowledge—science, literature, history—and characterized them briefly, vividly, memorably. Paying particular attention to science (after all, it was the fear that the Soviet Union would outpace the US in science and technology that sparked plans for school reform), Bruner insisted on the part played by intuition and imagination in the discovery and creation of knowledge. “The shrewd guess, the fertile hypothesis, the courageous leap to a tentative conclusion—these are the most valuable coin of the thinker at work.”
At the same time, what these “thinkers at work” were thinking about could be within reach of teachers and children. Unlike many of today’s school reformers, Bruner understood the delicate and demanding nature of effective teaching. “It is easy to ask trivial questions or to lead the child to ask trivial questions. It is also easy to ask impossibly difficult questions. The trick is to find the medium question that can be answered and that takes you somewhere.”
“Any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development,” he declared. It’s a very strong claim, one that Bruner has had to defend and qualify for the last fifty years, as he’ll acknowledge with a smile and a groan. But in addition to being a truth claim, it’s a declaration of faith, in both children and teachers. Bruner called for a partnership between academic scholars and scientists on the one hand, and teachers on the other. He envisioned a shared effort, toward the shared goal.
And that’s another reason why readers can not only respect but love The Process of Education. It is that rare thing, a bold call for complete reform that doesn’t mock or rage at the status quo and its supporters. It sets aside anger and resentment for hope. Both his buoyant temperament and his tactical sense made Bruner look to the future, and what expansive possibilities it could hold.
Not that he uncritically loved everything new. He was skeptical about pedagogical fashions, in particularly the gee-whiz seductions of technology. His warnings ring true today: “Films, audio-visual aids, and other such devices may have the short-run effect of catching attention. In the long run, they may produce a passive person waiting for some sort of curtain to go up to arouse him.”
The Process of Education envisioned a country of dedicated and effective schools for all children, with each getting an equal chance. The text’s focus on Big Ideas says little about the political or economic strains of the time, but its embracing spirit is caught in the jacket image of the first edition, a photograph of a brand-new school with a white teacher and a cluster of children in the background, and two black girls in pretty dresses in the foreground. Bruner wanted to set aside social class privilege for a meritocracy, but foresaw the potential for short-term focus on tests and the relentless competition a meritocracy could bring.
In March of 1970, ten years after The Process of Education was published, Bruner wrote to Mark Carroll, then the director of HUP, “I have never written anything with so many consequences from the point of view of what it did to the author. You might even say that I haven’t had a quiet moment since!”
In 2011, at a conference at NYU celebrating the book’s fiftieth anniversary, Bruner looked back wryly on the Cold War origins of the American worries about education and the Woods Hole conference of scientists and psychologists (comically, to today’s eyes, all but one a white man in a dark suit). He was then the founding director of Harvard’s Center for Cognitive Studies, but had not thought about his research in connection with schools until the National Academy of Sciences called. “I have to confess that I was working with rats. You can get a lot out of rats, especially when you bring your favorite ones home for your kids to play with, and you discover that after a while the rats around the house get a lot smarter than the ones in the lab. I decided that whatever the kids were doing with the rats to make them so smart was a kind of curriculum.”
After Woods Hole, Bruner said, “The fiery dream of transforming education had me in its grip in some way that was not easily tossed away.”
The gift of The Process of Education to its readers, to this day, is its inspiring vision of curiosity and thirst for discovery and knowledge, and its optimistic description of scholars, scientists, teachers and students in a shared intellectual community, and most of all, its generous hopefulness about the possibilities of disciplined and knowledgeable creativity. The spirit of the book still shines like a light.
But its emphasis on curriculum barely acknowledges the grim realities of poverty, race, and other deeply rooted inequalities. Bruner is quick to say that it was a book of its time, and that much more than psychology is needed to understand learning, teaching, and what schools can do to shape the future. “The study I would want to do now is social and political,” he said in 2011, when he was 96. “Education is not just kid stuff. It’s going to affect the distribution of wealth, and even more, the distribution of self-respect in the next generation. Education now locks the inequalities into the system. And anyone who thinks that things are okay in the current educational system had better go see their psychiatrist.”