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By Jerome Bruner
Harvard Univ. Press, 1996

The Culture of Education brings together nine stimulating and elegantly argued essays on the subject of cultural psychology and its implications for education. Cultural psychology deals with how individuals make sense of the world, how they engage with established systems of shared meaning, with the beliefs, values, and symbols of the culture at large. It concentrates on how individuals construct "realities" based on common cultural narratives and symbols, and how reality is "intersubjective" — cultivated through social interaction — rather than "external" or "objective." This idea differs sharply from the assumption that the mind is simply a mechanism for information processing. Cultural psychology is a complex pursuit concerned with what Bruner calls "the messy, ambiguous, and context-sensitive processes of meaning-making."

Bruner begins with a lengthy essay outlining the nine central tenets or "motifs" underlying cultural psychology. These include the idea — once derided as an eccentric postmodern notion but now more or less taken for granted among educational theorists — that the meaning of all facts, propositions, or encounters depend on the perspectives or frames of reference by which they are interpreted. Therefore, to understand what something "means" requires some awareness of the alternative meanings that can be attached to it. Another basic postulate of culture psychology is that there are essentially two ways by which we organize and manage our knowledge of the world: logical- scientific thinking, and narrative thinking. Schools traditionally favor the former and treat the narrative arts — song, drama, fiction, and theater — as more "decoration" than necessity. "It is only in the narrative mode," Bruner points out, "that one can construct an identity and find a place in one's culture. Schools must cultivate it, nurture it, cease taking it for granted."

Bruner goes on to explore an "emerging thesis" in educational theory based on the concept of folk psychology, or folk pedagogy. This view holds that the way teachers instruct their students is determined to a great extent by the lay theories or implicit assumptions they have about how children learn. These intuitive theories, or folk pedagogies, are reflected in many of the common assumptions teachers have about children — that they are willful and need correction, that they are innocent and must be protected from a dangerous or vulgar society, that they are empty vessels to be filled with knowledge that only adults can provide, that they are egocentric and in need of socialization, etc. According to Bruner, once we realize that a teacher's conception of a learner shapes the instruction he or she provides, then equipping teachers with the best available theory of the child's mind becomes crucial.

He says that there are four dominant models of pedagogy today. The first views the student as an imitative learner and focuses on passing on skills and "know-how" through example and demonstrative action. This approach emphasizes talent, skills, and expertise, rather than knowledge and action. The second views students as learning from didactic exposure. It is based on the idea that learners should be presented with facts, principles, and rules of action which are to be learned, remembered, and then applied. The third sees children as thinkers and focuses on the development of intersubjective interchange. This model revolves around how the child makes sense of his or her world. It stresses the value of discussion and collaboration. The fourth model views children as knowledgeable and stresses the management of "objective" knowledge. This perspective holds that teaching should help children grasp the distinction between personal knowledge, on the one hand, and "what is taken to be known" by the culture, on the other.

Modern pedagogy is moving increasingly to the view that the child should be aware of his or her own thought processes (models three and four) and that achieving skills and accumulating knowledge (models one and two) are not enough. "What is needed," Bruner stresses, "is that the four perspectives be fused into some congruent unity, recognized as parts of a common continent. Older views of mind and how mind can be cultivated need to be shorn of their narrow exclusionism, and newer views need to be modulated to recognize that while skills and facts never exist out of context, they are no less important in context."

Several of the essays in The Culture of Education take up the current academic controversy over performance and standards. If one believes that the poor performance of our educational establishment is due primarily to the failure in the assessment of teachers and students, then reform efforts aimed at creating better instruments for measuring how well students are doing in science, mathematics, literature and other subjects makes perfect sense, Bruner says. But the plight of America's schools is rooted in a different and far more serious set of problems, and "all the standards in the world will not, like a helping hand, achieve the goal of making our multicultural, our threatened society come alive again, not alive just as a competitor in the world's markets, but as a nation worth living in and living for." What we need, Bruner contends, is a school reform movement "with a better sense of where we are going, with deeper convictions about what kind of people we want to be." Only then can we "mount the kind of community effort that can truly address the future of our educational process."

Bruner insists that the narrative mode of thinking and organizing knowledge must become a more integral part of American public education. While the narrative approach has always played a key role in the teaching of literature, history, and other interpretive subjects, it can also be useful in science education, in his view. The narrative perspective is premised on the fact that even the grand theories of science are fundamentally story-like, in the sense that they rely on metaphors, interpretive frameworks, and epistemological assumptions. The goal of narrative instruction is not to subvert the idea of objective knowledge so much as to emphasize the process- oriented nature of science, to shift the focus from an exclusive concern with "nature-as-out-there" to a concern with the search for nature — how we construct our model of nature. "What I am proposing," Bruner says, "is that our instruction in science from the start to the finish should be mindful of the lively processes of science making, rather than being an account only of `finished science' as represented in the textbook, in the handbook, and in the standard and often deadly `demonstration experiment.'"

"We live in a sea of stories," Bruner says, "and like the fish who (according to the proverb) will be the last to discover water, we have our own difficulties grasping what it is like to swim in stories." Narrative construals are not simply idiosyncratic accounts fitted to specific occasions, they follow a number of universal principles. For example, they are structured around an unfolding series of events; the characters are motivated by real beliefs, desires, and values; their meanings are always open to interpretation; and they run counter to expectancy or somehow deviate from what is considered legitimate. "Surely," writes Bruner, "education could provide richer opportunities than it does for creating the metacognitive sensitivity needed for coping with the world of narrative reality and its competing claims."

In a final essay, Bruner reflects on what he calls "psychology's next chapter." If psychology is to better understand human nature and the human condition, he says, it must master the subtle interplay of biology and culture. The next frontier in psychology is about "intersubjectivity" — "how people come to know what others have in mind and how they adjust accordingly." Human functioning is always situated in a context. It involves the shared symbols of a community, its traditions and tool-kit, passed on from generation to generation and constituting the larger culture. Traditional psychology has downplayed the role of culture, focusing instead on the causal principles of human biology and human evolution. The field has tended to view culture as an adjunct to mind, or as somehow interfering with the mind's elemental process. This "reductionist, add-on approach" has been driven to a large extent by theoretical preconceptions, in his view. "Pure memory, pure thought, pure perception, simple reaction time — these are fictions, occasionally useful, but fictions nonetheless." Rather than thinking of culture as being "added" to mind, psychology would do better to think of culture as in mind. Knowledge and action are always local, always situated in a network of particulars. Psychology must therefore attend not only to the principles of biology but also to the interpretive processes involved in meaning-making.

Bruner has an attractive way of conceptualizing his ideas and his prose is always fresh and inviting, even when writing about highly abstract concepts or when addressing himself, as he does in a couple of the essays, more to his colleagues than to the general reader. He has a gift for capturing the essence of his arguments in the form of choice anecdotes and vivid everyday examples.

Whether these essays will stimulate more public thinking about the ends and means of education is unclear. But they will almost certainly advance the thinking going on in the academy today. For scholars thinking seriously and systematically about the future of education, Bruner has provided a great service by framing the central issues today and by offering some compelling guidelines for future research and discussion. The fact that he has accomplished this task with such eloquence and economy of style merely adds to the overall merits of the book.