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Bartlett: The Person


Frederick Charles Bartlett had a very unconventional education, being in a good part autodidactic before going to Cambridge. In spite of his bad health as an adolescent, he was a lover of sports and excelled in tennis, cricket and golf.

He married his co-worker Mary Smith, with whom had two children. She was an early member of the Psychology Department at Cambridge and was a co-researcher and co-author with him during World War I and the years immediately after (cfr. Smith & Bartlett, 1919, 1920; Bartlett & Smith, 1920). Bartlett dedicated his Psychology and Primitive Culture (1923) to her. Their house was open to all, having students and colleagues from his department frequently over to play tennis and to have informal discussions. He was a hard worker, but always kept his work in perspective. Each Wednesday morning he would not accept any engagements because of a very important meeting: playing golf. (Welford, 2000). In spite of his commitments he always managed to spend a part of each day with his family (H.F. Bartlett, 2000).

He combined a remarkable sense of humour with outspokenness, determination and kindness. Alice Heim said that "Bartlett embodied the reconciliation of opposites. He was endlessly kind, yet he 'saw through' even the most opaque of people; he was a good politician and yet he never lost his intellectual integrity; he was enthusiastic and encouraging, yet shrewd and realistic in his assessments" (in Buzzard, 1971, p.3). His sense of humour permeated all his dealings with students and staff. Dr. Heim recalls one of his comments about the use of questionnaires in personality assessment - while his smile slowly widened, Bartlett said "I don't know. they may be all right. they always seem to me to overestimate the self-knowledge of the Subject and to underestimate his sense of humour" (in Buzzard, 1971, p.4)

Welford (2000) thinks that his professional success owed much to his personal qualities. "He was an able negotiator, he fought hard for the kind of psychology he regarded as right, he was a severe but constructive critic, and he had a facility for expressing complex ideas elegantly in simple language without loosing their force or taking down to his audience" (p. 17). Broadbent (1970) also points out that a good deal of his influence was a result of his character. He was extremely accessible to everyone, had the patience to listen to his students, listening to ideas for their value and not for the position of those who defended them. To him there were no issues that had exclusive significance. His thoughts always made cross-references, sometimes distant and surprising ones.

Oldfield (1972) pictures his personality as looking at times stern and removed, even distant, while at other times (and even more so as he aged) he seemed driven by a juvenile joy, with great and unexpected laughter and looks and expressions full of lovable irony. During a discussion he could be disconcertingly direct, and at times extremely oblique. His comments and lines of argument were finally accepted as quite valuable by those they were directed to. He was not interested in the trivial aspects of academic life, those without a useful purpose.

According to Welford (2000), "he was a complex person who combined genuine humility with clear-headed confidence, great kindness with occasional ruthlessness, sensitivity with robust attitudes to life, a rapid mind with the deliberate speech of the West Country, loyalty and trust with difficulty in distinguishing some enemies from friends, a cheerful ease of manner with a touch of sadness" (p. 17).

Eunice Belbin described Bartlett as setting out "to instil in his students a sense of wonder rather than imbue them with some doctrinal orthodoxy of his own. If he influenced us all - as his genius was bound to do - it was not simply by what he said but because of the way he encouraged us to think about our subjects" (in Buzzard, 1971, p.2)

It is worthy recalling a sentence Bartlett used in the obituary he dedicated to Craik, and that one may think also portrays himself "There are some people who take a specific problem, answer it, and pass on to something else. Their work may be very good, but it lacks true fruitfulness. Kenneth was not of that class. I do not think he ever did an experiment, however simple and small it may have appeared, which was not informed by some idea which took its issues at once into a wide field of principle" (Bartlett, 1946, p. 110).

-- Alberto Rosa, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain