Seymour Papert, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who led an early campaign to revolutionize education with the personal computer, a tool he championed not as a classroom gadget but as a key to unlocking a child’s excitement for learning, died July 31 at his home in East Blue Hill, Maine. He was 88.
His death was announced by the MIT Media Lab, where Dr. Papert was a founding faculty member. The cause of death was complications from kidney and bladder infections, said his wife, Suzanne Massie.
His organs had been weakened by an accident a decade ago in Hanoi, she said, where Papert had traveled to speak at a gathering of mathematicians and educators. He was crossing a street in the Vietnamese capital when he was a struck by a motorbike. The accident left him in a month-long coma, according to news reports, and he had to work to regain the ability to walk, talk and read.
Papert grew up in South Africa and credited his father, an entomologist who invited Seymour along for field research on the tsetse fly, with introducing him to the joys of experiential learning.
As a university student, Papert dedicated himself principally to what he called “the beautiful jewel of the human spirit called pure mathematics.” But his wide-ranging studies also took him to the University of Geneva in Switzerland, where he collaborated with Jean Piaget, the psychologist who formulated pioneering theories of human development.
By the early 1960s, Papert had landed at MIT. “With a mind of extraordinary range and creativity, Seymour Papert helped revolutionize at least three fields, from the study of how children make sense of the world, to the development of artificial intelligence, to the rich intersection of technology and learning,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in a statement.
Papert first encountered a computer early in his MIT career. Fiddling around with the machine, he solved math problems that he said had dogged him for years.
“I was exhilarated by the tremendous power of problem solving that tool offered,” he told the Portland Press Herald of Maine in 1997. “Within a day or two it became an obsession – to get computers in the hands of kids.”
At the time, Papert was a lonely evangelist for personal computers. Decades would pass before computer technology began to compete in schools with chalk and blackboards, pencils and paper.
But Papert was unstinting in his promotion of computer technology, which he said facilitated an active, or “constructionist,” style of learning, as he termed it, as opposed to the passive memorization of facts and tables.
He was credited with playing a leading role in the development of Logo, a programming language that children could use to draw shapes on a monitor. By instructing the cursor, represented by a turtle, to move different distances in different directions, the children would absorb concepts of arithmetic and geometry. Papert compared the experience to learning French not by poring over a vocabulary book, but by living in France.
To parents and teachers who feared that computers would have a dulling effect on children’s minds, Papert argued that programs such as Logo would yield the opposite result.
“Logo is a program, which is to say it’s a way of making the computer do what you want it to do,” Papert told the New York Times in 1985. It “gives a child the possibility of exploring the power of the computer and mastery over it.”
Furthermore, “an important part of becoming a good learner is learning how to push out the frontier of what we can express with words,” he wrote in his 1980 book “Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas.”
“Getting a computer to do something requires that the underlying process be described, on some level, with enough precision to be carried out by the machine,” he wrote.
At MIT, Papert served as a director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab, now the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, along with artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, who died in January.
With Minsky, Papert wrote the 1969 volume “Perceptrons.”According to the MIT Press, it was “the first example of a mathematical analysis carried far enough to show the exact limitations of a class of computing machines that could seriously be considered as models of the brain.”
More recently, he collaborated with Nicholas Negroponte, a co-founder of the MIT Media Lab, and Alan Kay, a computer scientist, on One Laptop per Child, a nonprofit initiative to distribute affordable laptops to children in developing countries. The project reflected Dr. Papert’s belief that computers should be everywhere.
“Imagine that writing had just been invented,” Papert told the Times, “and somebody said, ‘Let’s take it easy. We’ll start by putting one pencil in each classroom.’ The idea of one computer in each classroom is about as absurd as one pencil in each classroom.”
Seymour Aubrey Papert was born in Pretoria, South Africa, on Feb. 29, 1928.
He received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and philosophy in 1949 and a PhD in mathematics in 1952, both from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where he joined the anti-apartheid movement. He received a second PhD from the University of Cambridge in England in the late 1950s before beginning his collaboration with Piaget.
“Piaget brought many things together for me,” Papert told the publication Technology Review in 1987. “Before I met him, I had been intellectually torn between my interest in how people came to think and my interest in more abstract ideas. Piaget showed me a way in which my caring for math, for the philosophy of thinking, and for social reform all seemed to go together.”
Papert’s books included “The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer” (1993) and “The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap” (1996).
According to MIT, Papert was married to Dona Strauss, Androula Christofides Henriques and Sherry Turkle. Survivors include his wife of 24 years, Suzanne Massie, a noted Russia scholar; a daughter from his marriage to Henriques, Artemis Papert; three stepchildren, Robert Massie IV, Susanna Massie Thomas and Elizabeth Massie; a sister; a brother; and seven grandchildren.
Although much of his work centered on children and the role of computers in their education, Papert also promoted the benefits of technology for adults who often learn alongside their youngsters.
“I do think that having a computer in their lives makes a difference to children,” he told The Washington Post in 1987. “My strongest advice to parents is, yes, get a computer for your child, but treat it the way fathers used to treat electric trains – play with it yourself.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Emily Langer