Jerome Bruner 1915-2016

Professor Helen Haste (University of Bath) with an appreciation.

The American psychologist and educationist Jerome Bruner died in New York on June 5 aged 100. His innovative work constantly challenged orthodoxies. He enjoyed controversy, both academic and in education politics. His elegant writing reached wide audiences. His lectures were inspiring, and as a colleague described, “darted all over the place, one topic suggested another and so on through a thrilling zig zag”.

A theme that Jerry developed in all his work was that we actively interpret and organise our world rather than passively reacting to it. He attributed this to the experience of being born blind and gaining his sight after surgery at the age of two. In his first work in perception, he found that children’s judgments of the size of coins and coin-like disks varied; poorer children overestimated the size of the coins. This highlighted values and interpretation in contrast to the then-dominant behaviourist focus on passive conditioned learning. By the mid Fifties psychology was becoming influenced by a computer metaphor of mind; the “cognitive revolution” and Jerry’s book, A Study of Thinking (1956). with Jacqueline Goodnow and George Austin, was seen as a major impetus. With George Miller, in 1960 Jerry founded the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies, a beacon for active information processing. Jerry described intelligence as “going beyond the information given”, “coding systems that permit one to go beyond the data to new and possibly fruitful predictions”.

Jerry’s move to studying young children and how language develops led him into education. In The Process of Education (1960) he rather startlingly claimed that “Any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child providing attention is paid to the psychological development of the child.” Jerry saw development, and education, as a “spiral”: a concept is first encountered concretely, but again later with more complexity and depth; teachers must be in tune with the child’s understanding. He introduced the idea of “scaffolding”: responding to children’s current conceptual positions and facilitating their next steps.

Jerry was closely associated with Head Start, a major US initiative to give underprivileged children an early educational grounding. In the early 1970s he also introduced another innovation; the extraordinary spiral curriculum-based school initiative Man: A Course of Study. This exposed secondary school children to exploring psychology, anthropology, sociology and linguistics, and even transforming key social science concepts. However conservative forces in government, objecting both to its international and evolutionary components, withdrew federal funding. Thirty years later Jerry became closely associated with another pioneering early childhood educational program, in Reggio Emilia in Italy.

Bruner grew up on the south shore of Long Island, and spent a lot of time by the sea. In a 2007 interview he said: 'This attraction for the water has never left me. Somehow it's the perfect metaphor for your ability to establish your authority over the world while maintaining your own untouchable separation from it.' In 1972, Jerry sailed his boat across the Atlantic to take up a chair in psychology at Oxford University. He had become disillusioned with how cognitive psychology ignored the contexts in which humans live and function. He increasingly sought the larger scope of what it means to be human, how humans had got that way, and how they could become more so. In a 1976 public lecture, Psychology and the Image of Man, Jerry argued for recognising the importance of intentionality in human thought and action. His scepticism provoked opposition among psychology department members who saw it as an attack on experimentalpsychology. Nonetheless, Jerry loved his time at the newly founded Wolfson College under the presidency of Isaiah Berlin. He was deeply moved when in 2007 the Oxford Educational Studies department named its building after him.

Back in the US, at the New School for Social Research, and later New York University Jerry increasingly became engaged with understanding the role of culture, and the importance of narrative, not just problem-solving, in human functioning. Culture makes the strange familiar, and the familiar strange, each contributing to “what we can do with what we know, how we are enabled to frame possibilities beyond the conventions of the present, to forge possible worlds.” 

He foregrounded narrative and storytelling as providing “recipes for structuring experience”. Narratives provide explanations that make sense of cause and effect, justification of values, and transmit cultural ideas. By juxtaposing unusual ideas, values or outcomes they generate critical and novel insights – and questions. This work has been very influential in critical and discursive psychology.

Jerry gained degrees from Duke University and Harvard. During the second world war he worked in the intelligence services on propaganda and popular attitudes.  His life’s work drew on the social sciences, the humanities and natural science, and brought together insights, or even throwaway remarks, made by all manner of people. To the end of his life he was an active writer, and a lucid and enthusiastic conversationalist. He was a brilliant inspiration to 20th-century thought.

Jerry Bruner’s marriages to Katherine Frost and Blanche Marshall McLane ended in divorce. His third wife, Carol Fleischer Feldman, died in 2006. He is survived by his children from his first marriage, Whitley and Jane, and his partner, Eleanor Fox.

- We hope to have more reflection on Jerome Bruner's life and work in a future issue.

There must be many of us who remember the excitement that surrounded Jerome Bruner and his team’s work in Oxford in the 1970s. I recall lecture rooms packed, and a buzz when a new paper was circulating as a preprint. At the time I was a newly qualified clinical psychologist, at the Park Hospital in Oxford, working with young children who had been maltreated. And Bruner’s work on early social communication and language threw immediate light on how we might look at the social interactions of the children we were working with.

Bruner wanted to bring to life the study of the social-communicative contexts of the child’s developmental transition to language use. He saw that parents and preverbal children used games like ‘peek-a-boo’ in ways that might be regarded as supporting the acquisition of language. As Michael Tomasello wrote in his 2003 book Constructing a Language: ‘And young children seem to learn almost all their earliest language in cultural routines of one sort or another. Social interactional routines such as feeding, diaper changing, bathing, interactive games, book reading, car trips, and a host of other activities constitute the formats – joint attentional frames – within which children acquire their earliest linguistic symbols’.

Many of the toddlers we were working with didn’t have easy access to the playful formats and consistent joint attentional frames Bruner was describing.

Looking back, Bruner’s work brought new light on early language development through an extraordinary mix of philosophy (Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin), ethology (methods and ideas), and a more fully human developmental social psychology of infancy. For practitioners needing a developmental and social framework for their work, and inspiration for integrative work, Bruner was always there.

Peter Appleton
Doctorate in Clinical Psychology Course Essex University

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber