In Praise of Stories: A Tribute to Jerome Bruner

“A fox was walking along a river and saw fish rushing to and fro. Said he to them: ‘What are you fleeing?’

“Said they to him: ‘The nets that the humans spread for us.’

“Said he to them: ‘Why don’t you come out onto the dry land? We’ll live together, as my ancestors lived with your ancestors.’

“Said they to him: ‘Are you the one of whom it is said that you are the wisest of animals? You’re not wise, but foolish! If, in our environment of life we have cause for fear, how much more so in the environment of our death!’

-Brachot 61b

Like so many young teachers, my first few years in the classroom were characterized by a blend of arrogance with a larger helping of helplessness (and more than a dash of luck). I had no idea what I was doing, and my pride could be wounded relatively easily.

So when one of my students said my Navi (Prophets) class was one of their favorites, I felt the exhilaration of a teacher thinking their success had more to do with a student liking them/their class (important, of course) than educational goals. But they were learning! They knew the plot of the Navi cold, and were becoming more and more adept at seeing the narrative from different perspectives, a value I worked endlessly to transmit.

Imagine the let down when my student’s next sentence was: “It’s like story time every day!” My student didn’t like me or Navi, necessarily, they liked that we were learning stories. In the moment, I felt the need to defend myself. “Not just stories,” I said, “Jewish History and life lessons!” My student, sensing they had offended me somehow, agreed wholeheartedly that they had learned more than “just stories.” Contrary to the implication, they agreed that mine was a serious class and I a purveyor of serious knowledge. Not “just stories.”

My student’s comment stung me for several years, but also made me think about my subject and teaching. I understood my reaction; stories aren’t for serious students unless broken down and analyzed from a literary perspective. But simultaneously I couldn’t help but feel my student’s description of my class expressed an important truth. I wanted to understand why I and my students, let alone the rest of the world, were so transfixed by stories.

Then I discovered the works of Jerome Bruner, who passed away on June 5 in New York at the age of 100. Bruner, as I would come to discover, was one of the great minds of the twentieth century. As an educator, I probably should have known him more for the profound impact he had on the world of education. One of the founders of the so-called “cognitive revolution,” Bruner introduced and advocated for more now-standard educational practices than I could possibly enumerate (his obituaries by the NY Times, Washington Post and NYU hardly do him justice).

But the area that powerfully spoke to me was his work on narrative and its role in our lives. Over many years, Bruner wrote about what he called the “narrative construction of reality.” In short, he argues that narrative plays a, perhaps the, primary role in our understanding the world around us. He developed a model whereby we understand the world using a paradigmatic, loosely explained as scientific/ mathematical, paradigm, or a narrative paradigm, that is, we comprehend our lives through story.

There are moments where you learn something that just feels true. More than that. You know it to be true in your bones, and the more you analyze the idea the more clearly you see the world. For me, reading Bruner was one of those moments. And the more I read, the more deeply his ideas resonated with every experience I have had. As his books and articles took up more space on my shelves, his ideas became more entwined in my understanding of the world.

I became focused on how we understand narrative, and most importantly why we love narrative so much. Everyone, from the smallest child to the most skeptical adult, loves a good story. But I felt that education in general, and Jewish education in particular, belittled this love because stories often lack utilitarian or measurably impactful outcomes. Bruner articulated clearly how the shift away from fiction in Language Arts classes in favor of “practical” non-fiction endangers the well-being of students and robs them of the “cultural toolkit,” in Bruner’s terminology, that allows them to make sense of the world.

And here Bruner’s focus on narrative flowed into yet another area he highlighted: How we make meaning, and the lacking of meaning-making in education. He wrote about the interplay between stories and the individual meanings we find in the world. He bemoaned the analogy of humans to computers. He implored the educational community at large to reinvest itself in teaching meaning and allowing students to create meaning for themselves.

I wish I could say we in the Jewish educational world remains true to our millennia-tested focus on meaning-making. Unfortunately, Bruner speaks to weaknesses in the Jewish educational establishment just as powerfully as the educational world at large. Whether out of a desire to “compete” with general studies, an interminable striving for some pie-in-the-sky notion of “rigor,” or genuine good intentions on the part of countless educators (and I sincerely hope the latter is the case), many Jewish children are enduring twelve-plus years of schooling rather than thriving. Far too many leave our lavish institutions without having begun a process of making their Judaism meaningful. Yes, there are other problems in the world of Jewish education. Tuition is exorbitant in many cases, several communities confront shortages of quality Jewish educators, and we struggle with the eternal shortage of time of which every educator is acutely aware. But when our focus strays from principally being institutions that guide students’ search for meaning, other hurdles become almost irrelevant.

Finding Bruner helped me understand that focusing on narrative was not only an important use of class time, but could possibly be the best use of class time. Through engagement with narrative, and not just any narrative, but Our Narrative, my students also were given the space and context out of which they could start the process of constructing meaningful Jewish lives. And rather than simply buttressing an opinion I already held (which, while always nice, isn’t helpful), Bruner set me on a path to work on how to maximize the meaning text could convey. His thought became a central touchstone in my teaching as I understood “story time” as a tremendous blessing.

In his book The Culture of Education, Bruner wrote, “We live in a sea of stories, 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.” Our job as teachers is not only to ensure students have learned X,Y or Z. Crafting the best curricula on earth will not create a stronger Jewish People. Our job must be to help our students learn to swim and flourish in the waters of Torah; Our Story.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel with his family, Jeffrey Schrager was the Middle School Judaic Studies Coordinator at the Akiba Academy of Dallas, TX. He has developed curricula, particularly for teaching Tanakh and Jewish genealogy, and has published several articles on Jewish education. He is also the founder of L'dor Vador, an organization promoting the use of Jewish genealogy in education and a professional genealogist.
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