You Do Not Need a PhD to Look at a Child and to Think About What He is Doing

In doing some research for unpublished material by John Holt I’m working on with a colleague, Akshay Ahuja, I came across this fascinating exchange of letters between Prof. Jerome Bruner of Harvard’s Center of Cognitive Studies, and John Holt. Holt reviewed Bruner’s book, Toward a Theory of Instruction, in the April 14, 1966, NY Review of Books; this exchange was published in the May 12, 1966, edition.

I urge you to read both letters in their entirety, but I want to share this line of thought that Holt develops in his reply to Bruner. I think it holds a lot of meaning to homeschoolers/unschoolers who are made to feel inadequate by educationists—those who feel that since education is such a complex, technical enterprise parents are simply not qualified to help their children learn and grow into competent adults.

It would take a book to deal fully and fairly with all the points raised in Professor Bruner’s book, and something very close to a book to deal with all the points raised in his letter. I must therefore pick and choose. Let me begin by saying that I have been in charge of children in their first ten years of life. For four years I was a regular fifth grade teacher. For another, I taught Math in grades one through five. For a large part of another, I taught beginning reading to a number of first and second graders. I have spent much time, in many families, in the company of children of all ages, down to a few weeks, and as a frequent visitor to such families, have seen many children grow over a period of many years.

Professor Bruner says I have “no particuar qualifications in what, after all, has become a fairly technical field, the development of children….” This implies that only certified experts may now express opinions about the development of children, or question the opinions of other experts. I most emphatically disagree. I know of no more mischievous idea, nor one more strongly deserving opposition, than this notion that, even on matters of common human experience, only the experts shall speak or be heard. No doubt the opinions of laymen—like me—will generally not be worth much in such fields as sub-atomic physics or molecular biology. But you do not need a Ph.D. to look at a child and to think about what he is doing.

There is a kind of spurious intellectualism to which I am very much opposed. I find some of it in Professor Bruner’s book, and a great deal more in his letter. I had expected him to say, indignantly, that of course the average classroom teacher could understand his book. I would have disagreed, but would have respected his wish and intent to be understood. Instead he says scornfully, “…An effort at constructing a theory of instruction…is to be judged in terms of whether it can be understood immediately by classroom teachers.” He might have a point if he were writing about things that, like particle physics, were so far out of the experience of the average classroom teacher that they could not be said in words she could understand. But this is not so. There is hardly anything in Professor Bruner’s book that could not be made intelligible and useful to classroom teachers if he had taken the trouble to make it so. The tone of his letter makes it clear not that he tried and failed but that he did not try. . .

. . . We must reject and resist the notion that the fewer people can understand an idea, the more important that idea must be. On the contrary, anyone with an idea has a duty to try to make it understandable to as many people as he can—not excluding the poor corner grocer, above all if it is an idea that may affect his life. The proper business of the intellectual is to make complicated ideas more simple, not simple ideas more complicated; to make the real world more comprehensible, not less so.