Modest Proposals

Toward A Theory of Instruction.
by Jerome S. Bruner.
Belknap-Harvard University Press. 176 pp. $3.95.

“What must be plain in the preceding chapters,” Professor Bruner observes toward the end of Toward a Theory of Instruction, “is that the issues to be faced are far broader than those conventionally comprised in what is called ‘education’ or ‘child-rearing.’” This observation astonished me. Until I reached this passage, I had been willing to give Professor Bruner the benefit of the doubt by assuming that he had simply brought a conventional mind to bear on a problem which he had perceived as limited and decided to attack superficially. Any author has the right to define his own task; and he may not justly be blamed for deciding to write a trifle. If he does, his critics should judge him by the degree to which he succeeds.

But in the statement I have quoted, Professor Bruner assumes responsibility for having really tried to write a set of essays worthy of his title. The result, coming as it does from the pen of a distinguished psychologist, is curiously, yet not uniquely, inadequate. The writings of Bruner, Conant, and Gardner on education seem to me almost indistinguishable. All three men write as if not merely their critical faculties but their capacity even to analyze a problem in depth had been dulled by years of official responsibility and success; and all three are drawn to devote themselves to problems of education—in Mr. Gardner's case, of course, as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. There are differences among them; Conant is a generation older than either Gardner or Bruner. But they are all mandarins; and they all share a common reluctance to consider the ways in which the deficiencies in education they propose to correct are related to and derived from the fundamental character of the social system in which they—and the deficiencies—flourish.

Such reticence may be due less to discretion than to practicality. One of the usual consequences of successful operation within a system is that the operator comes to feel it his duty to plan his policies in such a way that they can be executed within its limits. Bruner accepts the practical limits of the American educational enterprise with a bland courtesy that precludes his questioning its fundamental quality:

It is quite plain that the success of any course depends upon how well it is handled by a teacher, and this is particularly so in social studies, where the attitude of the teacher speaks as eloquently as any materials in the course itself. . . . It is one thing to describe the nature of a course in terms of its underlying discipline and its pedagogical aims, and quite another to render these hopes into a workable form for real teachers in real classes. Teachers are sufficiently constrained by their work loads so that it would be vain to hope they might read generally and widely enough in the field to be able to give form to the course in their own terms. . . . The materials, in short, have got to be made usable and attractive not only to the highly gifted teacher, but to teachers in general, and to teachers who live with the ordinary fatigue of coping with younger pupils day by day. They cannot be overburdened with reading, nor can the reading be of such an order as to leave them with a feeling of impotence.

This passage illustrates quite clearly the point of view which limits the book. It reads like a truism, but actually makes internally conflicting demands. Materials that are usable and attractive to teachers in general are not just simpler and more accessible versions of those that appeal to highly gifted teachers. They are likely to be altogether different in quality and to fill a different—indeed, a contrary—instructional purpose. Teachers-in-general like social-studies materials to be non-controversial, convenient in format—they should have the answers to discussion questions in the back of the teachers' edition—and remote enough from their pupils' real concerns not to disturb the reader in any concrete way. Really challenging materials do leave many teachers-in-general with feelings of impotence; and those feelings, honestly faced, are their last hope of becoming good teachers.

Bruner does not consider that teachers-in-general, fatigued by coping with their pupils rather than stimulated and refreshed by them, are themselves a major limitation on the power of the schools to give worthwhile instruction. He accepts them as given, as he does the structure of the school system and the customary academic content of the course of study itself; assuming, apparently, that there is nothing fundamentally inimical to education in the character of the enterprise, its personnel, or the scope of its definition of reality. His set of “theoretical” recommendations is intended simply to facilitate instruction under the conditions that exist; the recommendations are psychological—learning theory fortified with a dash of psychodynamic spirit which lends the book a faintly modern flavor but runs no risk of expanding the reader's consciousness of the educative process.

What Bruner presents are suggestions, which he justifies in terms of psychological theory, for improving the conventional academic curriculum of the public schools. These, though sound enough as far as they go, do not constitute significant steps toward a theory of instruction. A theory of instruction cannot be wholly a psychological theory. It must take into account the character of the personnel presently employed, and the possibilities of recruiting others more suitable; the social function of the school system and the social forces to which it responds and contributes. When Bruner considers these, it is as limiting conditions which psychologically astute instruction might transcend. But the school, as an institution, is not that passive; certain of its functions are anti-intellectual and hostile to human growth; and these must be changed, not adapted to.

Bruner observes, for example, that “With children in elementary school, there is often a need to . . . re-establish in the child's mind his right not only to have his own private ideas but to express them in the public setting of a classroom,” and that “Young children in school expend extraordinary time and effort figuring out what it is that the teacher wants—and usually coming to the conclusion that she or he wants tidiness or remembering or doing things at a certain time in a certain way.” Indeed. But to write of these conditions as if they were deficiencies in the system to be corrected by improved instruction, is rather like suggesting that the ventilation be improved in the San Quentin lethal chamber, so that fewer people would die in it. The problem is not technical, but moral and political.

To operate schools in which most students were encouraged to develop—or even to preserve—their native wit and sensitivity would be to betray the role of the school in their socialization. Professor Bruner's suggestions imply, however, that the dismal effects of our schools on the human potential of their pupils result from technical failure rather than from social success. This is reassuring but must, I think, be regarded as one more example of the American tendency always to interpret the question, “What is wrong with it?” as if it meant only, “Why doesn't it work?” Usually the question does mean this; but as applied to our school system, or our foreign policy, the interpretation seems morally rather obtuse.

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