Home' Independence : Independence Vol 34 No 2 Oct 2009 Contents Independence Vol 34 No 2 Oct 09 41
I really wanted to be an academic. I like
being an academic. I think I could have
been an academic in a lot of different
areas -- anything from a law professor
to a historian. I don't think I was
destined to be a psychologist, which
was my doctorate, so I'm an academic
more than I am a strict disciplinarian.
I've spent a quarter of a century much
involved in education, but I don't
consider myself as an educationalist in
the sense of people who spend a lifetime
teaching in schools. I didn't think much
about the profession of pre-collegiate
education till the early 1980s.
You were clearly a gifted student.
Were there any teachers who influenced
you? What was their impact and
why was it so?
By far the most influential teacher at
secondary school was Mr Roberts,
who taught Latin. Of course he was
teaching us about life, not just about
Latin. I'm amazed at how many of my
colleagues and friends studied Classics
in secondary school -- some might
say in spite of the fact that Classics
is useless, although I don't think so.
Most of your readership would know
why Classics occupies a special place.
Once I went to college and university I
had a lot of terrific teachers. Nearly all
of them were from my own university,
and I think that's worth noting. When
you go to an intellectual centre -- any
place where there's a critical mass of
people from whom you can learn --
that's a very, very exciting thing.
Erik Erikson, the great psychoanalyst,
was the most important influence on my
undergraduate life. Jerome Bruner, who is
really the founder of cognitive psychology
and the person who most understood
developmental psychology and education,
has influenced almost everything
that I've done, career-wise. Bruner's
friend and sometimes protagonist,
Piaget, was also very influential.
I think it's important to mention that
many of my influences were men.
When I went to school 50 years
ago there were very few women in
educational roles and fortunately that
has changed. Probably the woman
who had the greatest influence on me
was a woman whom I met only once --
Susanne Langer, a great philosopher.
Those people who generally influenced
you in your development, in your
thinking, in your aspiring to be
as good as you can be as a person
and as an individual -- is there
some characteristic that you see as
significant? Is it in their characters?
If you look at the people I learned from
and identified with, a surprisingly large
number were European-American and/
or Jewish, so I think there was a kind
of commonality of life experience
which can't be minimised. I became
committed to the social sciences, which
tend, in coastal American academia,
to be peopled by those who are
European-American and Jewish. If I'd
got into, say, biochemical engineering,
that wouldn't have been the case.
Let me comment on something that
I think would be of interest to your
readers. In my student days, 50 years ago,
many people -- including me -- identified
very much with the minds of these people,
the kind of ideas they had and how they
argued about them, and what insights
they had. We didn't particularly care
whether they were nice to us or whether
we had a personal affinity with them,
in the sense of liking them or not. We
engaged with these people at the level of
ideas and intellect. My own observation
over the last 50 years is that this has
changed; engagement is no longer strictly
at the level of ideas. For many young
people nowadays perhaps the personal
relationship is equally as important. If
students don't find somebody simpatico,
or if they think the person doesn't find
them simpatico, they kind of close off.
As a teacher I first found this off
putting because it was alien to my own
experience. I've broadened in the sense
that I would now say, let there be two
equally viable routes. There are some
people who identify first on the basis of
ideas and then the personal connection
or affinity occurs later. But nowadays
more and more people feel the need first
for that kind of personal connection,
and if that's not available they're not
willing to take the next step. So, as a
teacher, if you want to be able to reach
people you need to be prepared to, as
it were, follow both routes at the same
time, to make both forms of connection.
You have produced so much work and
had such a huge impact on so many
people at so many levels in education.
Can you lead me through what
you're most proud of? I'm thinking
of an 'ah-ha moment' that led to that
work and research, what motivated
you in some sense and whether that
motivation is reflected in your work.
The first point to make is that almost
everybody tries to make sense of their
life, and I try to do so in an intellectually
honest way. The second point, which
I didn't make earlier, is that when I
was young nobody ever thought about
becoming a university professor. I
actually did think about becoming
a teacher -- to teach all grades from
kindergarten through high school.
That's a rather interesting self concept.
Bruner was very influential on me and
it was always in the back of my mind
that psychology ought to have some
connection to education. When I was
graduating, Bruner's books, Process of
Education and Towards a Theory of
Instruction were published. Also, in 1967
when I was a beginning doctoral student,
the philosopher Nelson Goodman started
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