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
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.
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.
How do you see learning interwoven into our lives?
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.
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.
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.
What should business people do to adapt to the changes they
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.
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.
Should managers then provide informal support instead of those
formal education programs?
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
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.
But that doesn’t just go for work. Shouldn’t it apply to all
areas of life?
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.
Would you provide an example of an environment, organization,
or situation where it's apparent and celebrated that people are
learning all the time?
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
that’s only part of the story. In most careers, one is in interaction
with other human beings, right?
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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,”
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
Can you provide an example?
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.
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.
You've just shown how learning and knowing come from more
than just taking in...
It also needs integrating.
We need time for mulling over—letting us just be with that
new information and finding other ways that it comes into our
Absolutely. You can't convert experience into learning without
reflection. It may not be explicit, but you have to digest it
It is too bad that some of John
Dewey’s early work is not acknowledged or even reflected upon
in society these days.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well, thank you for reminding us what it really means to learn
and, maybe more importantly, what it means to be human.
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;
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 email@example.com
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