In Memoriam: Jerome Bruner

Says Ricki Goldman:

I write this essay with great sadness after hearing of the passing of Jerome Seymour Bruner, renaissance scholar, colleague and friend to so many. I will miss seeing his cheerful smile and catching moments of his infectious enthusiasm. It was always hard to say goodbye. It is harder now.

Born on October 1915 in the Rockaways, New York City, Jerome Bruner passed away in Manhattan on June 5, 2016 leaving behind a legacy of over 15 books, numerous essays and articles, and hundreds of presentations. The quantity of these works is only surpassed by the quality of his deep dives into thinking. In 1939, soon after receiving his doctorate from Harvard, he published a clinical study of the sexual behavior of the female rat. I believe he used this work as a steppingstone to follow a very different set of epistemological possibilities that could not be answered by only by scientific method.

During the Second World War he was asked to serve on the Psychological Warfare Division of the Allies Expeditionary Force Committee to work on social psychological phenomena. Soon after Bruner moved unexpectedly to turn his lens to childhood language development within the theoretical milieu of Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Searle, and the Russian socio-interactionist theoretical, Lev Vygotsky. (I believe it was not just coincidence that Bruner’s love for conversation became part of his theory—children and adults learn to communicate with others.) Building on Benjamin Bloom’s instructional scaffolding, Bruner used the term scaffolding to describe how children build upon their existing knowledge using a spiral curriculum that enables learners to revisit a skill or knowledge of a subject over and over again. He countered Noam Chomsky’s theory of innate blueprint of languages for this more social interactive process of cultural learning.

I count myself among one of the many fortunate people with whom Jerome would share his life stories and his views on the relation between culture and education over the years and at random times. We first met at a lecture he gave at Harvard in 1989 or maybe 1990, when he presented the ten characteristics of narrative thinking (Acts of Meaning. 1990). I was just completing my doctoral studies at the MIT Media Lab under the tutelage of Seymour Papert. My study was a 3-year digital video ethnography, using Geertz’s theory of thick description, to build an interactive digital video tool called Learning Constellations to code, annotate, and represent the diverse gendered thinking of individual children’s thinking while they were using Papert’s Logo software program to construct games, create stories, and build powerful ideas about their thinking. Hearing Jerome present that afternoon convinced me that I was on the right epistemological track by having designed and used digital media tools to layer diverse perspectives and build thick interpretations of their “points of viewing.” Bruner’s ten characteristics of narrative added a missing piece of my puzzle. I believe that his narrative toolkit was the first to eloquently apply narratology to cognition and the humanities in such a convincing manner. And, I keep returning to his works on narrative, grateful of my having attended that event.

Over the last 30 years, Jerome and I met briefly at many of the American Educational Research Association conferences. And lucky for me, just two years before I became a professor in New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, he was appointed to the NYU Law School as the Meyer Visiting Professorship to help found a center and teach how the theory and practice of law could be improved by applying what he called “cognitive toolkits” gleaned from psychology, anthropology, and linguistics. We often met sometimes briefly, sometimes on wintery days when he was used a cane hold his balance in the snow. But, nothing stopped him from stopping to talk and listen.

Each one of us who knew him or read his works carries with us a unique residue of those encounters with his ideas. For Jerry, as he liked being called, conversations were opportunities to discuss not only what was possible in educational reform, but also, as he so thoughtfully wrote, “what one had to do to sustain hope.” (How we need him today!) And, indeed, Jerry’s enthusiasm for sustaining hope has influenced and inspired generations of scholars and practitioners across disciplines and in diverse countries during his centennial journey. As Jerry wrote in Acts of Meaning in 1990.

I take the constructivism of cultural psychology to be a profound expression of democratic culture. It demands that we be conscious of how we come to our knowledge and as conscious as we can be about the values that lead us to our perspectives. It asks that we be accountable for how and what we know. (p. 30)

I want to underscore that for all his prominence in the academy and with those he would influence, a conversation with Jerry was never trivial, no matter the duration. Instead, a commensurable world could be created, sometimes fleeting but most often long-lasting. Always with an intention to uncover a point of view that had not yet been described well enough. I think that is why he wrote so many books! He needed to open a new manuscript to take apart the messy layers that stood as obstacles to solving the core of big problems in society.

And he also loved telling his life story, starting with In Search of Mind: Essays in Autobiography 1983. Yes, we loved reading it, even a second and their time, knowing that we could locate our own intellectual life as threads in the cultural tapestry he had woven.

Jerry also loved contributing to practical changes in education. Starting in 1995, he visited the preschools and primary schools in the Reggio Emilio village of northern Italy working with the teaching community design learning environments for learners to become self-directed.

Without a doubt, Jerome had one of the most influential careers of anyone in education and cognition over the last seventy-five years. In a letter from Howard Gardner on June 16, 2016 informing peers of Bruner’s passing, Howard accurately compares the legacy of Jerome Bruner to that of John Dewey.

“I think that Jerome Bruner is the most important American thinker on education since John Dewey and while perhaps no one was Dewey’s equal in intellectual depth, Jerry is likely to have as profound an influence on the intellectual landscape as Dewey.”

Reading Bruner, we become immersed and stand in awe of the cadence of his prose along with the clarity of his mind. For example, in Acts of Meaning (1990), he writes:

[V]alues inhere in commitment to “ways of life,” and ways of life in their complex interaction constitute a culture.… [I]t is whimsical to suppose that, under present world conditions, a dogged insistence upon the notion of “absolute value” will make the uncertainties go away. All one can hope for is a viable pluralism backed by a willingness to negotiate differences in world-view. (p. 29-30)

From my perspective, Bruner was part of three major paradigm shifts over the last half of the twentieth century; indeed he was one of the proponents and inventors of these changes.

Paradigm 1: Bruner was a central member of group of interdisciplinary scholars who instigated the Cognitive Revolution in the 1950s and 1960s.

Imagine a group of scholars today getting together to start a revolution? It would seem preposterous! But, indeed it was the revolution of our times, definitively written in Howard Gardner’s book, The Mind’s New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution, in 1987. I often cite Gardner’s book in my chapters[1] and teach Bruner’s influence. I am only one of so many professors teaching Cognitive Scientists and Learning Scientists across the world who do the same pairing in the attempt to provide our graduate students with the a handle into the complexities of this revolution. Moreover, we return to these writings as guideposts for our theoretical and practical writing.

What did Jerry do that was so influential? As you probably/may know, the Cognitive Revolution offered an alternative to the Behaviorism frenzy started first by Ivan Pavlov in Russia at the turn of the twentieth century and then developed in the United States by Edward Thorndike, John B. Watson, and Burrhus Frederic Skinner. After the now-famous Woods Hole Conference in the 1950s, Bruner and his closest colleagues and friends at the Center of Cognitive Studies at Harvard refined the ideas that have been evident in Harvard’s Project Zero.

Paradigm 2: Bruner’s delineation of the role of narrative thinking in the cognitive sciences in the 1980s.

Bruner was also part of years of discussions with philosopher Willard V. Quine, historian H. Stuart Hughes, linguist Roman Jacobson, and with Nelson Goodman, the “new constructivism” philosopher. He also interacted with the writings of ethnographer Clifford Geertz’s 1973 landmark book, The Interpretation of Culture. In fact, Bruner likens his work in education with the writings of Clifford Geertz who riffed on Oxford scholar Gilbert Ryle’s use of thick description as a way to build hierarchies of thinking. Geertz reclaimed thick description as an ethnographic tool to build valid interpretations of human activities. (One turtle upon the next, standing on an elephant!) I have no doubt that my work in developing the Points of Viewing Theory for learning and the Perspectivity Framework for pluralistic research methodology of participants being active members of the research team are rooted deeply in my readings of Bruner and Geertz.

Although there is no commensurate phrase in Bruner’s language for thick description, he certainly knew when it was time to replace Behaviorism with something else. At the Woods Hall conference and in later discussions at the Center of Cognitive Studies at Harvard in the late 1950s and 1960s, Bruner noted: “I think it should be clear to you by now, after all, that we were not out to “reform” behaviorism, but to replace it.” (p.3). As he says, the aim of the opponents to the stimuli and response paradigm of understanding how humans think was

… discovering and describing formally the meanings that human beings created out of their encounters with the world, and then to propose about what meaning making processes were implicated. It focused on the symbolic activities that human beings employed in constructing and making sense not only of the world, but of themselves. (p. 2)

As I have discussed, Jerry was a person who understood the importance of stories and conversation. And he often used the stories from his life to make an important point. In his 1983 book, In Search of Mind: Essays in Autobiography he reflects on how writing of his own childhood story is:

… dependent less upon the context in which events actually happened, … and more upon the content that was created afterward. …The past is a reconstruction rather than a recovery, each reconstruction also containing the mark of what had been constructed before. The secret of history is forever lost. (p. 5)

Paradigm 3: Bruner’s ideas on cognition and learning laid a strong foundation for the emergence of the Learning Sciences in the 1990s.

I am quite convinced that the Learning Sciences would not have developed without Jerry and close colleagues such as Howard Gardner (colleague), Ann Brown (colleague, deceased), Roy Pea (previous student), and so many others whose work led to the emergence of the the Learning Sciences.

It would take a book or a very long to explain, to explain the impact of Jerry’s ideas. I will save this section for another time, when my sadness subsides and I have the time to work closely with my Learning Sciences colleagues.

The capability of this singular person’s words and ideas on cognition enable us to see how our own thinking works. Reading Bruner is like coming home to a place we know and also to a place forever unknown. Few writers and fewer scholars inspire readers to reconsider their positionality enough to actually change their weltanschauung. Reading Bruner while immersed in our own writing, we select his conceptual phrases and then respectively place them within the frames of own texts. We read ourselves into his words. And we begin the conversation as if from the beginning. For me, this Jerry’s greatest gift to us: His ideas move into different cavities in our brains, flowing through our minds like a wave, interpreted uniquely for every reader.

In closing, I share a story he told me over a glass of cognac. He had been invited to become the Watts Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford in the 1970s. Being an avid swimmer and an adventurous sailor, he realized he might need his sailboat while he was in the United Kingdom. In true Jerry fashion, he sailed across the Atlantic in what was, he told, me one of the more memorable moments of his life.

In an old photo he showed me I saw him in his sailboat. Jerry, I can see you now on your sailboat…like Cortez (or really Balboa).


On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

                                    – John Keats

Rest in Peace, dear Jerome.

You could not have done more to raise the bar.

[1] Goldman-Segall, R., & Maxwell, J. W. (2002). Computers, the Internet, and new media for learning. In W. M. Reynolds & G. E. Miller (Eds.), Handbook of psychology. Volume 7: Educational psychology (pp. 393–427). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

A more recent version can be found in: Goldman, R., Black, J., Maxwell, J.W., Plass, J. L., & Keitges, M.J.  (2013). Engaged Learning with Digital Media: The Points of Viewing Theory. In  W.M. Reynolds & G. E. Miller (Eds. Vol VII ), Handbook of Psychology. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Says Courtney B. Cazden:

I am grateful to APA Division 15 for giving me this opportunity to thank Jerry Bruner in memoriam for more than 50 years of theoretical inspiration and personal collegiality.

I was first inspired to leave primary school teaching for doctoral study in education by reading The Process of Education (Bruner, 1960). Then, during that study at Harvard, I became the education member of an interdisciplinary group of Teaching Fellows for his large undergraduate course with the grandiose title, “Psychological Conceptions of Man.” Other graduate students in that  group came from psychology, anthropology, and philosophy. It seems to me now that his deliberate interdisciplinary grouping of student assistants prefigured the expanding cycle of his own developing ideas.

Three decades later, in the Preface and first chapter of another book again focused on education, The Culture of Education  (1996), Jerry reflected back–“went meta” as he might call it–and critiqued his own earlier conceptions. “I was too preoccupied with solo, intra-psychic processes of knowing. . . . Although meanings are ‘in the mind,’ they have their origin and their significance in the culture in which they are created.” A school can be considered a “subcommunity in interaction” that specializes in learning among its members” made possible by their “gift of language” and their “astonishingly well developed talent for ‘intersubjectivity’.”

Many members of Division 15 have followed Jerry as I have , in continuing to develop his fundamental ideas for education. In this work, we can draw on the availability of his rich store of writings. But for those of us fortunate to have known Jerry personally, we have only our memories of his big warm heart.

Says Roberta Golinkoff:

Jerry Bruner was the consummate scholar who lived for the life of the mind. His enthusiasm for ideas was palpable. He will be greatly missed!

Says Keri L. Heitner:

I worked as an editorial assistant for Dr. Bruner for 7-8 months in the early 1980s during a brief break from my doctoral studies. My main task was to revise his two book manuscripts using a Wang word processor. Each morning, he gave me pages that his postdoc had covered with red ink full of corrections, comments, and critique the night before. In all innocence, I asked, “Dr. Bruner, doesn’t it bother you that a (mere) postdoc tears apart your work that way”? He laughed and said something to the effect of, How am I supposed to do good work if no one gives me constructive feedback on what I write? His words totally changed how I value feedback and continue to influence how I work with my own doctoral students today.

Says Philip A Griswold:

“The Process of Education” opened my eyes to classroom learning during my doctoral program in the late 1970s. Subsequently, it served as the foundation of my career teaching undergraduate educational psychology.

Says Karen R. Harris:

As a 4th grade teacher in the early 1970s, I had the wonderful opportunity to teach with Jerome Bruner’s Man: A Course of Study, known as MACOS. Later as a Masters student in educational psychology I studied his contributions to theory and research and learned a great deal from his work. As a doctoral student with an assistantship in the educational psychology area, I taught numerous sections of Foundations of Learning, where his work was a major focus. I have followed and been influenced by his work my entire career, and continue to share his theoretical and research work with my students. His influence has been profound across multiple fields.