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Michael Cole: The Man Who Helped Shape Communication at UC San Diego

Michael Cole

When Michael Cole joined the UC San Diego faculty in 1978, he was already a distinguished cultural psychologist at The Rockefeller University in New York City. A private, well-funded institution, Rockefeller gave Cole the freedom to go anywhere in his academic quests with only a few, very select graduate students, to oversee. So what brought him to California and a fledgling campus that had been founded less than two decades earlier?

“I grew up in Los Angeles,” says Cole, “so it was nice to return to Southern California. But more than that, what lured me out here was the promise of coming to UCSD.”

Cole accepted a joint appointment in psychology and what was then known as the Communication Program. He was especially pleased to have the opportunity to work with a more diverse group of senior faculty.

“In my lab at Rockefeller, I was the most senior person there,” he says, explaining that the situation made collaboration difficult. “But at UCSD there were many senior scholars, including several senior scholars of color, who shared my intellectual concerns. People I could work with and learn from.”

Cole was the coordinator of the Communication Program and director of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC), where he and his team studied the role of cultural, class, ethnic and other forms of human difference in the process of development.

Initially, he devoted himself to building the discipline of Communication into what he calls a “new, trans-disciplinary, academic undertaking.” He guided revision of the curriculum and, along with his colleagues, began to develop new classes. Their efforts resulted in the program becoming a full-fledged department in 1982, the first such department in the University of California system. The department is now among the best-known communication departments in the nation and the world.

Over the years, Cole has continued to dedicate himself to the study of culture and human development. “My theoretical roots draw from a combination of American learning theory, Russian semiotic/psychological theories of development, and the ideas of American pragmatists such as John Dewey about education, as well as the work of cultural anthropologists concerned with the relations between language, thought and culture,” he says.

Trained as an experimental psychologist, Cole received his Ph.D. from Indiana University and taught at Stanford, Yale and UC Irvine before joining The Rockefeller University. In the early 1960s, he also spent a year as an exchange scholar at Moscow University where he studied with Alexander Luria, a famous Russian psychologist who is often referred to as the father of neuropsychology.

It was during a research project in Liberia, begun shortly upon returning from Moscow, that he first began to study the role of culture in cognitive development and how it relates to literacy and schooling. He had been sent to the West African country to study why Liberian children had trouble acquiring mathematics skills.

“It was said that the people lacked the ability to use numbers in general,” says Cole. “But, what we found is that Liberian children and adults had no problem using arithmetic in ways relevant to their culture. Yet, they were expected by experts to learn a curriculum that was modeled on the practices of the industrialized world, something that was completely alien from their way of life.”

He continues: “Then they were psychologically assessed using equally alien modes of testing. It was our hope to be able to provide a firmer scientific basis for making educational policies or drawing conclusions about people’s presumed cultural/intellectual inferiority.”

In the 1980s, Cole and his colleagues began to focus on the design and implementation of innovative educational activities for struggling school children during the afterschool hours as a means of reducing demographic gaps in educational achievement. Called the Fifth Dimension, the program mixed play and education, often using computers and the nascent internet. The program gained wide acceptance as a means for promoting the intellectual and social development of children and was eventually implemented throughout the University of California system and in many places throughout the U.S. and around the world.

Central to this project was the creation of special “theory and practice” practicum courses in which UC San Diego undergraduates participated with the children, not as tutors, but as friends. The undergraduates gained important research skills while also learning about other cultures and pathways of development. According to Cole, the mixture of generations and locations, as well as play and academic chores, presented an incredible learning experience for everyone.

“At the centers, the undergrads no longer can get by answering multiple-choice questions or learning just about theory — they have to deal with real people and how they navigate their social systems,” he says. “Our students learn a tremendous amount from working with these kids. They begin to develop themselves by contributing to the development of others.

Now, after a career spanning half a century, what’s next for the man who helped shape communication at UC San Diego?

“I have to back away from the heavy burdens of UCSD academic life,” says Cole who became professor emeritus at the end of the academic year. This means he retired from his position as one of UC San Diego’s rare University Professors—a title reserved for scholars of international distinction who are also exceptional teachers—and gave up his duties in the departments of communication, psychology and the Human Development Program. He also stepped down as director of the Laboratory on Comparative Human Cognition, and no longer holds the Sanford I. Berman Chair in Language and Communication.

“I’ll still be working as a research scientist and maybe teaching a little,” he says. “And, I’ll also try to help the people who are coming in to do the heavy lifting.”

He adds, somewhat wistfully: “I’ve made some crazy decisions in my life but I’ve greatly enjoyed my decision to work at UCSD.”