Jerome Bruner, the George Herbert Meade Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research from 1981 until 1991, died June 5th at the age of 100. Jerry spent his century engaged in life fully. Not only was he one of the most influential figures in psychology, he was a sailor, a raconteur, and an intellectual, who easily traversed the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences without taking a breath. His passion for the sea was well known. When moving to England, he did not take the conventional route and fly or even sail on the QE II. Rather he sailed his own boat across the Atlantic. And, in his mid-80’s, when asked about whether he still sailed, he frowned, said “Alas, no,” but then smiled: “I have taken up kayaking.”
Besides the New School, Jerry spent his academic life at Harvard, Oxford, and, after his retirement, NYU Law School. Chiefly a developmental psychologist, he contributed significantly to areas as diverse as perception, cultural psychology, education, thinking, and concept learning. But what makes him exceptional is that he was at the forefront of several major paradigm shifts in psychology. Educated at the time when behaviorism held sway in the United States, Jerry provided the leadership and acumen needed to redirect the interest of psychologists from behavior to the mind. Moreover, he did so in a way that emphasized the importance of culture and context in shaping mental activities. For instance, he helped establish the “New Look” in the study of perception, showing that something as seemingly perceptually straightforward as the size of a coin can be influenced by social economic status: Poor participants in his experiments saw the coin as larger than wealthier participants. With George Miller, he carried the banner declaring a cognitive revolution in psychology, and together they turned the revolution into an institutional reality, founding the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard University. It is fair to say this Center served as the incubator for most first-generation cognitive psychologists. With many of his students, Jerry went on to outline an alternative to the dominant stage-based model of development advanced by Piaget, seeing development not as a march up through rigidly characterized plateaus but as a dynamic process without fixed stages. In recent years, while at the New School and then at NYU Law, he explored the way narrative thinking and narrative itself serve as fundamental defining characteristics of humans that anchor an individual’s identity.
Jerry’s liveliness of mind and his ability to move easily from theory to strong experimental results led to several ground-breaking applications. In several essential books on education, including The Culture of Education (1996) and the classic The Process of Education (first published in 1960 and reprinted more than 25 times, the last time being 2009), Jerry argued that if the mind actively constructs the world, then education should not treat it simply as a repository for learned facts. It should engage the mind as it makes connections between facts and “goes beyond the information given.” Rather than fit the process of learning into the confines of Piagetian developmental stages, education should respect the ability of students to grasp even complex, abstract ideas. Let instruction “spiral” up, to use Jerry’s term. In this way, difficult topics are not to be avoided, but discussed in increasingly more complex ways. This firm commitment to engagement with ideas rather than the delivery of ideas provided Jerry with a host of opportunities to play a key role in various pursuits: in developing new science education after the Sputnik panic; in advancing Head Start; and, more recently, in the pedagogical program of Reggio Emilia, which has had a profound effect on pre-school education.
As to Jerry’s interest in narratives, it prompted him to re-conceptualize the cognitive revolution in psychology, lamenting the field’s increasing emphasis on computer-like cognitive processing instead of its initial interest in the effort after meaning that he, like Bartlett before him, saw resting at the heart of most human cognition. Jerry’s interest in narrative reached into the humanities and profoundly touched everyday working clinical psychologists. It gave birth to what is known as narrative psychology. But for Jerry, there was more to narrative than just its application in the domain of psychology. After his retirement from the New School, he worked diligently at NYU Law to understand how judicial reasoning was, at its core, narrative reasoning.
Jerry touched scholars in a large number of fields: in the social sciences, the natural sciences, and the humanities. In the New York Times obituary, a quote from Howard Gardner suggests, “they do not make them like Jerry anymore.” Rather than being a narrow scholar, Jerry was a towering, ever-exploring intellectual. He will be missed by many, but fortunately, we will have the benefit of his contributions for generations to come.
One thought on “Remembering Jerome Bruner”
A few weeks ago, in Rome, I was talking about Jerome Bruner to a colleague, still using the present tense, for I was unaware that he had died. As Bill Hirst points out in this sharp, warm obituary, Bruner was a true giant who made remarkable contributions to several fields of inquiry, and especially psychology and education. I have had the chance to meet him a few times since I came to New York in 2003, and in every occasion his words invigorated my intellect and his humanity warmed my heart. In the spring of 2013, with my then graduate student David Kidd, I wrote to him asking whether he could see us to discuss a new line of research. In my mind, I was truly requesting an audience, more than a meeting, such is the gravitas of Bruner in my mind, and I am sure in the mind of many scholars. He granted it, of course. A few weeks later he welcomed us in his apartment on Mercer street, and we sat down for what we thought would be a 30 minutes discussion in which we would present our ideas and get his thumbs-up -or down. Three hours later we had talked about anything and everything. Bruner wasn’t of course interested in giving us a narrow answer; he wanted to engage with us in a fully-fledged manner about human nature, how it comes about, whether we can even speak about human nature, what makes us and what breaks us. He was interested in David’s Texan origins, and the fact that I carry an Italian passport, and told us anecdotes that related to both of these spatial and cultural environments. En passant, he told us that our ideas (about how fiction impacts social cognition) were interesting, but by then we were more intrigued by where the discussion had taken us and forgotten the reason for our “audience.” Bruner the scholar is whom I had admired for years. But that day I found out about Bruner the storyteller. “In 1944 I was on the beach in Northern France, and while I wasn’t part of the first waves that were hit the most by German artillery, bombs were still falling left and right, and all seemed so surreal. Was I really there? Later on, I was serving as cultural attaché of the U.S. forces in Paris, Sartre and de Beauvoir came to see me, and we had lengthy discussions about the nature of reality, of the reality of what we see. What is the relation between what we see and what we perceive? I was influenced by these discussions, they influenced my thinking when I moved back to Harvard, and started discussing them with friends and colleagues there. You youngsters know about the New Look?”