Daniel DeBonis

Jerome Bruner and the Textbook Wars

Blog Post created by Daniel DeBonis Employee on Jun 9, 2016

Today we in Worth Psychology are mourning the passing of Jerome S. Bruner, pioneer of cognitive psychology.  His obituary in the NY Times gives a small sense of his importance to psychology and education.  Last year I came across a fascinating episode from Bruner's career in Rick Perlstein's opus The Invisible Bridge (well worth reading if you like history and/or the 70s).  In 1959, Bruner was part of a meeting convened by federal science agencies aimed at improving the teaching of science.  Bruner became a major player in this effort, and indeed many of his ideas--such as the "spiral curriculum"--were put into practice in schools. 


As Perlstein writes, in 1964 he began writing a new social sciences curriculum to be used in middle schools called Man: A Course of Study or MACOS.  The idea behind the curriculum was to teach the chain of life starting with the lifespan of a salmon, then a herring gull, a baboon, and the Netsilik Inuit community.  Each unit stressed commonalities shared between different species such as nurturing, social behavior, and learning, while also encouraging students' critical thinking skills and questioning and by doing so fight authoritarian attitudes. 


By 1972, 400,000 students were receiving instruction in MACOS in 1,700 schools at which point it stirred up wider controversy.  Quoting Perlstein:


In Quincy, Massachusetts, the protest came from the parent-organizers of South Shore Citizens Against Forced Busing, who alleged their children were being indoctrinated in "unsavory and barbaric Eskimo practices." A Houston parent announced that these included "cannibalism, infanticide, genocide, senilicide...stabbing, wife-swapping, animal beating, bloodletting, and mating with all kinds of animals."  MACOS defenders pointed out these practices were either from a time before the Netsilik made first contact with the outside world in the 1920s, or from plots in Netsilik myths.  Course materials made it perfectly clear that present-day Inuit deplored them--just as present-day Jews and Christians deplored, say, all the smiting depicted in the Bible.  The point, they said, was to shake students from their complacent notion that theirs was the only legitimate way to view the world--a response heard on the right as but more evidence of the moral turpitude of their secular humanist foes.  Then the conflagration became national--as cries were once more heard at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, which found in MACOS another convenient exhibit of the wicked federal bureaucracy's conspiracy to undermine the traditional family.  (p 450)


The result was that Congress rescinded the $9 million budget earmarked for this and other curricula.  Perlstein connects this reaction to progressive curricula to the Kanawha County textbook wars that erupted in 1974.


The MACOS teaching materials look a lot like something you would find in a time capsule from the late 60s--but that's just the design.  The ideas presented still seem like something from the future, a sophisticated look at life and humanity's place in the natural world.  The same impulse for a "big picture" curriculum hasn't gone away.  The Big History Project is also aimed at situating humanity in the natural world--and has incited its share of controversy.   


Farewell, Dr. Bruner, and thank you for your decades of scholarship!