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Mary Catherine Bateson’s Homepage

Full Circles, Overlapping Lives: Culture and Generation in Transition M. C. Bateson (Random House, 2000/ Ballantine Books Trade Paperback, 2001)

Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way M. C. Bateson (HarperCollins, reissue 1995)

Composing a Life M. C. Bateson (Plume, reissue 1990)

With a Daughter’s Eye: A memoir of Margaret Mead and and Gregory Bateson M. C. Bateson (HarperPerennial, reissue 2001)

Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred G. Bateson, M. C. Bateson (Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1988)

Reflecting on Experience: A Conversation with Mary Catherine Bateson Ruth E. C. Prince. Radcliffe Quarterly, Fall 2000.

In her new book, Full Circles, Overlapping Lives, I blissfully found that Mary Catherine Bateson’s revisits her previous books’ frequent themes of learning, living, and laughing and she begins to speak of the real change, personal fulfillment, and individual identity that we gain by looking close to home. She introduces us to this deeper level by examining the lives of women—old, young, black, white, married, single—who serve as prisms through which we all can glimpse facets of ourselves.

Like Bateson, I’ve become intrigued with the notion that we learn through life, not only as a result of a course or program, but by living and paying attention to how we live and the intersections and overlaps in what we hold in common.

When I had the chance to visit with Bateson in February, I was delighted to find that she takes on life as a challenge, an opportunity, and a precious gift that contributes to who she is and what she can share with others. Her sentences were as easy on my ears as her writing was on my eyes. Her message struck me with the same strength as her books, which have become old friends. Above all, I learned that this cultural anthropologist, quite possibly more famous for her lineage than for her stellar observational skills has found the thread of learning to be at the core of who we are and what it means to be human.

Conner: How do you see learning interwoven into our lives?

Bateson: There is a general problem that when you talk about learning, people tend to think about education. That is to say, the conversations drift to talking about the institutions that educate people.

But formal learning is only a tiny fraction of the learning that human beings do in the course of a lifetime. Learning is the distinctive way that human beings survive.

It's why we have adapted to every piece of the planet and why we can go into space and beneath the sea—it's because we have learned how to do that. Each new human being born has to learn to live in the environment that the previous generations have created and, of course, nowadays, we are changing our world so rapidly that the amount of learning everyone has to do right up to the very last day is higher than it's ever been.

Conner: What should business people do to adapt to the changes they face?

Bateson: Exciting things are happening in the business world in terms of programs to support the continuing education of employees. But, if you step back and realize employees are learning on the job all the time, whether the employer is planning for that or not, you begin to see that management needs to consider not just whether the whole environment is conducive to efficiency. Whether it's creating unnecessary stress or if it’s a happy environment for people to be in, management needs to look at the work environment in terms of the learning that takes place there willy-nilly—whether they planned it or not.

I think the same issue comes up for educational institutions because young people learn a lot more while they are in college than is planned for by the faculty and curriculum committee. They learn how to manage their time. They learn how to manage their sex lives, hopefully. They get involved in the whole range of recreational activities; change their views of what manners they like and develop new values. A lot of that is also true in the office or on the farm. A process of non-formal learning goes on all the time and that affects people’s performance and creativity.

Conner: Should managers then provide informal support instead of those formal education programs?

Bateson: Well I think they should offer both. Businesses obviously want to support the kinds of learning that will make people effective employees. And that goes far beyond knowing how to do word processing or whatever.

Human beings are not only born with the capacity for learning, they are born with the capacity to find learning rewarding. We lose some of that sense because learning isn't always fun in school. But mastering a new school or encountering something stimulating that's different is rewarding and, furthermore, it keeps you awake. In other words, a learning environment—an environment that is supportive of learning—is also an alert environment.

Conner: But that doesn’t just go for work. Shouldn’t it apply to all areas of life?

Bateson: Yes. We now know that people may deteriorate with aging and sometimes after they retire because the mind needs stimulation—needs to solve problems and learn new skills to keep young and vigorous.

Conner: Would you provide an example of an environment, organization, or situation where it's apparent and celebrated that people are learning all the time?

Bateson: There’s a good deal of variation in how explicitly we learn. You know, one of the things that popped into my mind is academia. What we mean when we say that faculty has to be engaged in research is that they, like the students, should be learning. Right? The trouble is that there are other things they may not be learning at times when they should. For instance, they may be stuck with prejudices they developed thirty years ago that they’ve never reconsidered while the world has changed around them. So, they are encouraged in one kind of learning but perhaps sheltered from others.

Conner: Do you have other examples? I find many business people write off academics as anything but alert or willing to learn though that is often quite unfair.

Bateson: How about this? One group of people that fascinates me is interviewers, like for NPR. Week after week, they interview people doing things on a whole new topic that they may never have thought about before. They have to dig in and think about it and ask questions. I sometimes feel kind of jealous of that job, you know?

Conner: Yes, absolutely. While I have the luxury of interviewing fascinating people, they're almost exclusively around similar topics. I’m quite envious of people like Terry Gross and some of the others who have to learn about a wonderfully wide array of topics such as film directors or hot air balloon pilots, electronics inventors or historians.

Bateson: Some professions really are conducive to a particular kind of ongoing learning. And a lot of companies, because their products are something that have to be revived and upgraded constantly (like, say, software companies), have to put a lot of emphasis on learning if they're going to be focused.

But that’s only part of the story. In most careers, one is in interaction with other human beings, right?

Conner: Most.

Bateson: And one way that most people learn in the workplace is through their informal conversations where everybody gets to know each other, livening up their interpersonal experience. I would think that a company that wants people to keep learning in their technical field might encourage and value the fact that they become friends with each other and tell each other stories—and that interaction is part of their learning experience.

It's through their interactions with each other that new people joining the company are enculturated, which is to say they learn the culture of the company which makes a huge difference as to how it functions. This culture has to keep on being passed on just like any other cultural tradition.

Conner: There is a real dichotomy in business today—one of leaving your emotions and your feelings at the door versus having incredible passion and excitement for what you're doing and, as you said, making friends and learning from them.

Bateson: It’s true. You know, sometimes I talk to people who never even bring their personal lives into their relationships at work. They don't find anything out about their colleagues except how to work with them in a cheerful, contented way, and feel good about that. But that involves learning, too. There's a slogan I have on my website that I’ve been saying it since the mid-90s that says, “You are not what you know but what you are willing to learn.”

Conner: That seems to speak not just to the role of the individual, but who we work with and for because there is such a strong link between learning alone and learning together.

Bateson: There are issues of learning and authority that we haven't even touched on. One of the ways that life is changing is that we can no longer assume that people in authority know the answers. That goes for the CEO and for the teacher in the classroom. It goes for parents. It goes for the Pope, frankly. Everybody in the modern world should be learning and we should hesitate to put a lot of reliance on people who are not learning.

Now what this means is that it becomes very important at every level of the organization that people be able to say, “I don't know,”

In the past, people have been embarrassed to be seen learning in public. You know, during the period back there when many CEOs hadn't taken computers that seriously, they had some “techie” type who took care of them. But, they suddenly realized they had to become computer literate themselves and they didn’t want to ask the junior technician types to teach them because that would have threatened their authority. We need a world in which admitting we don't know does not threaten our authority.

Conner: Well I wholeheartedly agree. I love the idea of learning in public. We need to live in a society where people are able to say that they don't know. We also need to discover opportunities to learn new things and to accept the challenge of finding new ways of looking at what we’ve known before.

Bateson: There's a sense in which everyone's learning all the time (unless you've got Alzheimer's or something) at least in small ways. You meet new people and quickly or slowly, you learn their names. That's a simple example. Or you buy a new item of clothing that hooks up in an unusual way with something you have had for years and you change your habit. Okay?

We take in information all the time, although it may be difficult to digest sometimes (like who is the current President) so in that sense we are learning all the time. But, in a more profound sense, we are not changing all the time—and now I’m feeling my way—we are not necessarily putting our previous learning on the line for modification and questioning. See the difference that I'm making?

Conner: Oh, yes. We may be taking in information but, from a learning standpoint, that’s just knowledge transfer. The more in-depth aspects of learning, that would help us change in some way other than adding something new into our brains, may not happen because we’re unwilling or not able to challenge our current situation or modify what we’ve learned or grown accustomed to before.

Bateson: Some learning has so little effect on previous learning that it is truly only additive. You know, just add a bit of this and a bit of that. But there is a more important question about learning. Can it be integrated into a system of knowledge in such a way that it will involve revision—realizing that learning needs to have a multiplicative effect rather than just being additive.

Conner: Can you provide an example?

Bateson: Let's suppose I grow up in a city where I walk, take buses and subways. Then I get to be 16 or 18 or whatever and I learn to drive. Okay, now I add a skill to my repertoire of skills, but my sense of the city, its shape, layout, and its possibilities, is going to be revised by that skill. That skill is going to multiply my way of knowing in that city.

I'll give you another example—from the 1960s. The 60s kind of warmed up with the civil rights movement when a lot of people became newly conscious of the fact that African-Americans were discriminated against, excluded and so on, and they said, “We have to do something about it.” Now at a certain point that awareness of the civil rights issues around race spilled over into other areas and triggered off a series of movements. It triggered off the women's movement, triggered off gay rights, triggered off an awareness of issues around ageism—and eventually triggered the handicapped rights movement. Clearly, a kind of awareness of one set of issues progressed through people’s minds by analogy, rearranging their perception of other issues. The new ideas had a multiplicative effect.

Conner: You've just shown how learning and knowing come from more than just taking in...

Bateson: It also needs integrating.

Conner: We need time for mulling over—letting us just be with that new information and finding other ways that it comes into our minds.

Bateson: Absolutely. You can't convert experience into learning without reflection. It may not be explicit, but you have to digest it somehow.

Conner: It is too bad that some of John Dewey’s early work is not acknowledged or even reflected upon in society these days.

Bateson: I’m happy to hear you mention Dewey because a lot of this really is in Dewey’s work that’s gotten lost. People think, for instance, that the progressive school movement is just a matter of indulgence or permissiveness, but in his work there was so much we need to remind people of and bring back.

Conner: That would be wonderful. Learning, after all, affects us so deeply. It’s sad thinking about how many people ignore those dimensions or those ways of looking at learning.

Bateson: We learn a lot through peripheral vision. There’s a gender issue that traditionally men have been encouraged to encapsulate and separate events into separate experiences that slows the process of integrating and also of transferring knowledge from one area to another.

Conner: You look at some of the mechanistic ways of pulling things apart instead of seeing where they overlap and integrate. The same is true of our personalities. Years ago you introduced me to the notion that we are different people in different situations. Physically, we’re the same person, but we behave and interact in different environments and different situations. If people we interacted with in those situations were to describe us (someone that we know only from work, from the community, or at home) they might describe very different people.

Bateson: You only ever meet a portion of another person. Then in a sense, you have somebody who behaves in one way at work and in a different way at home. When you always see them at home; you're only seeing a part of that person. Never mind that you're not seeing all the potentials that may develop next week.

Conner: In classes, you only see a portion of people, too. That seems to be another way institutional education lets us down, education often asks us to be students and not necessarily thinking, functioning, thriving members of a society outside of that environment.

Maybe the larger question then becomes, “How can we even begin to look at our potential to learn before we begin to see the potential for joy in learning?”

Bateson: It may sound like a simplistic idea, but I think it's important to emphasize the notion that learning is intrinsically rewarding. It's become fashionable for people to say we are all suspicious of the unfamiliar. After all, the unfamiliar is potentially dangerous. But we should never say that without noticing that curiosity is stronger than caution in human beings unless they’ve been traumatized.

And so I think we underestimate the usefulness of learning and underestimate the fact that learning responds to our deepest drive—it creates happiness. School may not have made you happy, but that's a problem with school not a problem with what it is to be human. We ought to have schools that make people happy, that are exciting moment by moment. And we ought to have more classes that are stimulating in ways that make people grow and, as I said before, be alert.

Conner: That is a kind way of refashioning it—saying that it was the school’s problem—it was not reflective of learning in general. We probably enjoyed many things during our school days, including learning. Maybe the school itself just wasn’t that enjoyable.

Bateson: Absolutely. You know, the schools are full of kids learning about Pokemon and not very interested in fractions so we believe they don’t want to learn.

Conner: Well, thank you for reminding us what it really means to learn and, maybe more importantly, what it means to be human.

Mary Catherine Bateson is a writer and cultural anthropologist who divides her time between Virginia and the Monadnock region of New Hampshire.  As president of the Institute for Intercultural Studies in New York City, she has been involved in preparations for the Margaret Mead centennial this year www.Mead2001.org. She is the Clarence J. Robinson Professor in Anthropology and English at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and Scholar in Residence at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard. She lectures around the world and has written and co-authored numerous books and articles including Full Circles, Overlapping Lives; Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way; With a Daughter’s Eye: A memoir of Margaret Mead and and Gregory Bateson; and Composing a Life.

Marcia Conner is trying to compose a life in central Virginia amongst chickens, deer, dogs, and an energetic family. She is editor in chief of LiNE Zine and CEO of Learnativity. Her work as a writer, consultant, and executive coach all stem from her fanatical drive to help people excel in life by learning all of the time and focusing on what matters most. Tell her what you’re learning at marcia@linezine.com

 

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