Education Opinion

A Visit With Bruno Bettelheim

By Daniel Meier — May 09, 1990 5 min read

Two years ago, on an overcast morning in Santa Monica, Calif., I had an opportunity to talk with Bruno Bettelheim, the distinguished psychologist, educator, and author who recently died at the age of 86.

When I arrived at his apartment for our meeting, Mr. Bettelheim welcomed me into the living room. Through a window, I could see the Pacific. Numerous books and paintings lined the walls.

I had met Mr. Bettelheim before and read most of his books; I had worked for a year as a counselor at the University of Chicago’s Orthogenic School, a residential facility for emotionally disturbed children that Mr. Bettelheim headed for 29 years.

I came to his apartment that day as a young teacher eager to learn more about his views on education, teaching, and children. He granted that wish, though not in the way I expected--he gave me neither answers nor formulas, but advanced my thinking by helping me teach myself.

Without reference to theories or abstractions, he put things in my own terms. He talked with me, not at or to me. Like a good teacher, he spoke simply, elegantly, and wisely. He gave no indication that I was forcing him to cover old ground, and he listened and responded to my questions and issues as if he were hearing them for the first time.

I began with a question about children and their interests. “A child is interested in himself and in the here and now,” Mr. Bettelheim said. “His concerns are with his parents, his siblings, and possibly with his neighborhood and city.”

He spoke slowly, his Viennese accent still strong after almost 50 years in this country, and from time to time he rested his hands on the top of his cane. He went on to describe a teacher who had let her students decide what they wanted to study--the fire, the police, or the sewage department.

“For the first few months of the year, the children discussed which department they wanted to study,” Mr. Bettelheim said. “But in the end, the children learned much more from their discussions than they learned from actually studying a department. In the discussions, the children had to convince each other of the validity of their arguments. This allowed them to learn more about each other and their interests than studying something like the fire department, which is removed from the classroom.”

In my teacher-training courses and graduate studies in education, I have found that a great deal of emphasis is placed on the content that teachers are supposed to impart--knowledge, ideas, values, problem-solving skills--but little on the ways that teachers can learn about their own teaching and their students. Mr. Bettelheim reminded me of the supremacy of the teacher-student relationship, and of the importance of teaching first as a human being and second as a teacher.

“A teacher impresses most with his personality and attitude toward teaching,” he said. “Children respond much more to personality than to teaching. What motivates you as they conceive it? Are you interested in their point of view rather than solely in your subject matter? The way you bring your life to children is all-important. And what you learn from and about them is also crucial--you must get to know your students so that you can personalize your teaching to the highest degree.”

Mr. Bettelheim raised his hand to gesture around the living room. “You see, here in my home, I like to surround myself with things and paintings that interest me and reflect who I am. When I enter a school, I can sense its ambience, much like entering a home. The classroom should have the personal imprint of the teacher. Do not impose it on the children, but make it clear what you value.”

I asked how this might be done. “If I were a primary-grade teacher,’' he said, “I would devote my time to problems of socialization. The most important thing children learn is not the three R’s. It’s socialization. Listen, listen, listen to the children and get them to talk.”

“When I was director of the Orthogenic School,” he continued, “I met with the children every day. I invited them to ask questions. How can you win the confidence of children? That is the problem. You win their confidence by asking for their opinions and taking them seriously.”

I said that I sometimes found this hard to do. Mr. Bettelheim shook his head. “In general,” he said, “children do not think enough about what is going on in school. Most teachers that I know are afraid that this will take time away from learning, but they overlook the amount of learning that can take place when children reflect on their own lives. Simply saying ‘You have to learn this today’ is your decision and not theirs.”

“You must arouse children’s curiosity and make them think about school. For example, it’s very important to begin the school year with a discussion of why we go to school. Why does the government force us to go to school? This would set a questioning tone and show the children that you trust them and that they are intelligent enough, at their own level, to investigate and come up with answers.”

I had been schooled to believe that young minds grew because children were taught “problem solving” and “thinking skills,” but Mr. Bettelheim reversed this by pointing out the value of “taking children’s opinions seriously” and “forming your own convictions.”

Again, I asked how this might be done. “Free yourself from the blinders that your training has imposed on you,” he said, “and forget about what you have learned to do, what they have told you that you must do, and ask yourself always, ‘What do I want to do? Why do I want to do it?”’

And don’t panic, he added, for there is always time to teach in your own way. “So you are given material and are expected to use it,” Mr. Bettelheim said. “But the way you teach is really left up to you. Once you go into your classroom and close the door, nobody is interested in what you do. They are only interested in the results at the end of the year. So you really have an amazing amount of freedom.”

Finally, as I saw the fog beginning to lift outside, I asked Mr. Bettelheim what he remembered from his own school days in Vienna.

“As was typical at that time under the monarchy,” he said, “my teacher was a sergeant who retired from the army and became a teacher. I remember his stories: what he did in the army and the battles he fought in. That was a life to me. It was a life to him. Sure, I learned the three R’s, but what interested me was that he told me about his own life and his own interests as a human being.”

More than 75 years later, and worlds away from his homeland, Mr. Bettelheim remembered only his teacher--not the methods, not the materials, not the things of his early school days.

On that overcast morning, Mr. Bettelheim did not impose his views on me but guided my thinking inward, helping me search out my own little wisdoms about teaching, education, and children. After I left his apartment, I crossed the street and walked out to the ocean. I thought about how different the present scene must be from the world of turn-of-the-century Vienna that Mr. Bettelheim had been forced to leave so long ago. And I marveled at how much can be learned, and taught, in so short a time.

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 1990 edition of Education Week