mary catherine bateson

mary catherine bateson 2

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From Mary Catherine Bateson’s Peripheral Visions:

She decided at one point to quit prepping for all her speaking engagements. She decided that what matters most – is to practice -(vulnerabilityvulnerability in context. She said it was then that she started experiencing a aliveness. You have to be alive to confront/embrace perpetual beta. And doing that while in front of a crowd. Rather than presenting… in the moment.

It is perhaps because we have not learned to recognize and respect existing order in unfamiliar forms that we are frightened of social change, unwilling to support and work with the forms that peoples find for themselves.    



Daughter of Margaret Mead  (and Gregory Bateson)-

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.            Margaret Mead 


From Mary Catherine Bateson’s Peripheral Visions (linked below):

Learning is the fundamental pattern of human adaptation, but mostly it occurs before or after or in the interstices of schooling. Preoccupied with schooling, most research on human learning is focused on learning that depends on teaching or is completed in a specified context rather than on the learning that takes place spontaneously because it fits directly into life.                                                 –

One conspicuous strand of contemporary debate attempts to inventory what every member of society needs to know, whether in curricula and proposed standard examinations in such more fanciful forms as E.D. Hirsch, JR.’s cultural literacy, or in so-called canon. No one, it might be argued, is a full participant in American society who is not numerate and literate in English does not know enough of the rules of baseball and civics to take sides, and so on and so forth perhaps at very great length. Depending on how we define full participant, it may be essential to have read Melville or to understand the theory of relativity. It may also be necessary to know how to program a VCR or how to fill out an application for food stamps. No one, it might be argued is a full participant in American society who does not have some basic knowledge of histories and folkways of the diverse groups that compose that society. Some knowledge of Buddhism and some of Vodun. But are there any competent participants in American society? Young people must be prepared to feel like newly arrived immigrants through much of their lives. They need to know how to observe, how to learn, how to adapt, how to draw on other people’s expertise. How to improvise and cope with only partial knowledge and how to imagine alternatives.

We’re missing opportunities and brilliant minds because in our concern for covering the basics, we have become so bogged down in non-essentials to a person. And as a result, many of us have become mindless to more critical, yet natural, thinking.

What we call the basics today, what we measure and label and credit, are no longer boding us well. Major universities, CEO’s, NASA, … are seeking out self-directed learners.

The products of our conversations are as concrete as test scores and grades. (Ryan, 2007) But, as the result of a complex and interactive process, they are much more complex, allowing not only for the measurement of learning, but also for the recognition of learning. As it becomes easier to simply see what a student can accomplish, the idea of a coarse-grained proxy, such as grades, will fade to the background.

Earning a degree will, in such a world, resemble less a series of tests and hurdles, and will come to resemble more a process of making a name for oneself in a community. The recommendation of one person by another as a peer will, in the end, become the standard of educational value, not the grade or degree.             – Downes

peripheral visions

book links to amazon

post on labconnections from 2011:


pre-scribed learning

I’m currently reading Peripheral Visions: by Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead

Here’s a clip about half way through the book about chocolate milk.. what a great analogy. It drives home the main narrative of our quiet revolution: realizing our blind addiction to publicly prescribed learning.

There have been a series of experiments in educational television, devoted to packaging reading or geography in the frenetic cadences of quiz shows, cartoons, and commercials.  

It is hard to criticize programming that seems to work in conveying something useful, but children who are given chocolate milk to get calcium into them grow up as chocolate eaters, not as milk drinkers. Children prepared for school by children’s television arrive better prepared for the content of their lessons but perhaps less tolerant of the rhythms of reflection and multiple return appropriate to gradual growth in understanding, for attention that is exacted tips over easily into boredom, while learning flourishes on the subtleties of recycled attention. Recognizing that education should be enjoyable rather than punitive, we sometimes attempt to alleviate  boredom by making bits and pieces of education entertaining, instead of discovering and supporting those modes of activity to which the experience of boredom is simply irrelevant. 

How much are we doing this today.. with pbl (project based learning), gaming, technology bling…?
Not that any of those are bad if that’s what geeks you out.
But used for even a kind-hearted cohersion… we’re spinning our wheels, and missing the essence of change. We’re asking the wrong questions. And we’re answering questions that no one is really, mindfully, asking.

let’s resign from publicly pre-scribed learning.

When a people at war become mirror images of the enemy, the war is already lost.


oct 2015 – composing a life – on on being (via Courtney share):

the starting place is the sense of wonder…

when i was born.. only the very poor breastfed… i was lucky my mother had been in bali and new guinea and knew that breast feeding was good for mothers and babies

5 min – on participant observation… live with people of culture you’re studying… participants but also observing.. but also self-observing

7 min – huge benefit of being a participant observer… to go back and forth.. simultaneously be learning/observing but at same time being fully present… marvelous way to learn .. marvelous way to live

8 min – on composing a life.. talking about juggling (women working and keeping family) .. a very anxiety inducing metaphor… i was looking for a metaphor to realize that the effort they were making was an art form.. and improvisationary art…

10 min – improvisation is a high order of skill.. musicians practice improv hours on end

11 min – we now live in constant change.. so they’re on stage w/o a script

12 min – on active wisdom – harvest of a life of living/learning/feeling… it’s active.. wisdom on the hoof

16 min – on marriage – requires a constant rhythm of adaptation between two people who are changing..

18 min – what i talk about quite a lot – is the amount of learning that goes on thru adulthood… far as i can see (college grad) is like a kindergarten grad.. has a lot to learn

alas… one of the things we press on them (children) is competition.. we’ve so much bought into the idea that competition is a law of nature.. and the only source of creativity

20 min – endo symbiosis… earliest life forms had no nucleus.. on the whole.. bacteria don’e have nucleus.. every cell in every leaf is actually a cooperative enterprise..

22 min – on homemaking – creating an environment in which learning is possible…

24 min – what kind of world can we build for our children (margaret) – one thing biologists have said about human beings is that we maintain many of our characteristics from early lives… when wild animal matures.. loses its a sense.. human beings remain child like.. open to new learning.. and even very deep learning that changes your personality… human beings remain playful.. and play is very important part of learning.. and experimental… learning is us..

26 min – on evolutionary clusters  – margaret – never doubt change from small group of people learning together.. daring to think new thoughts.. and passing them on..

30 min – i’m working on a book – love across difference… central: love depends on a recognition of something in common and the valuing of a difference..

32 min – the god of things as they are..

33 min – i’m not happy with people who say i’m spiritual but not religious.. to me.. the beginning is the sense of wonder…

34 min – i think the point about the book of job is that he’s a virtual member of institution.. follows all rules et al.. but he’s lost his sense of wonder.. god says.. look.. just look.. realize how beautiful/complicated it is… and he wakes up..

i actually got interested in this sense of wonder.. spent sr yr in highschool in israel.. then wanted to study islam.. i thought i should do something to distill the hostility to islam.. i said.. what is it that makes me – as a christian – empathize with a muslim.. at what point are we together.. and what struck me.. is that what all 3 religions (judiasm, christianity, islam), .. have in common is the sense of wonder that leads to praise.. in spite of differences… praise is central

38 min – ritual is constantly building.. re recognizing the familiar

40 min – we talk a lot about property rights.. but little about the shares we have in each other’s lives.. (on rituals) ..

44 min – what does it mean to be human – consciousness/reflection is important.. the search for meaning.. one thing i came to believe.. death is a very important part of life that we shouldn’t deny.. in spite of our terrible hubris/greed/competitiveness.. we can learn to see ourselves in proportion… ie: don’t understand as much as we need to.. and we live in a time of real urgency… where we have to mine the insights of the past.. we have to learn to use the word… we… to include all of life on earth.. we have to learn to experience that as a terrible and tender beauty.. and shape everything we do to protect it…

on uncut version beginning – mary catherine saying.. leave pauses in.. one should not be ashamed to think in public…


Nora Bateson (sister)


2016 edge question:

Professor Emerita, George Mason University; Visiting…
the more significant achievement of cybernetics was a new way of thinking about causation, now more generally referred to as systems theory. Listen to the speeches of politicians proclaiming their intent to solve problems like terrorism—it’s like asking for a single pill that will “cure” old age—if you don’t like x, you look for an action that will eliminate it, without regard to the side effects (bombing ISIL increases hostility for example) or the effects on the user (consider torture). Decisions made with overly simple models of cause and effect are both dangerous and unethical.
Why do we believe that violence is a solution?

a nother way – deep/systemic enough – for (blank)’s sake


41 min video – on – how to be a systems thinker

5 min -our capacity to think about complex interactive systems seemed to be falling apart, that a great many efforts towards international cooperation were falling apart; states that involved multiple ethnic systems or dialects were breaking up; and, indeed, societies like the United States, with many ethnic groups and racial groups, were having a progressively harder time trying to cooperate.

7 min – americans are inclined to talk about the “war against drugs,” or the “war against poverty,” or the “war against cancer,” without questioning whether “war” is an appropriate metaphor. It’s a way of talking about complexity, but if it doesn’t fit, it will cause you to make errors in how you deal with your problems. The war on poverty failed partly because poverty is not something you can defeat, and that makes warfare an inappropriate metaphor. The same is true with the war on drugs, which has gotten us into some ugly situations.

8 min – One of the problems when you bring technology into a new area is that it forces you to oversimplify.

10 min – How do you deal with ignorance? I don’t mean how do you shut ignorance out. Rather, how do you deal with an awareness of what you don’t know, and you don’t know how to know, in dealing with a particular problem?

11 min – Once you begin to understand the nature of side effects, you ask a different set of questions before you make decisions and projections and analyze what’s going to happen.

31 min – One of the things that I’ve been realizing lately, and that I find fascinating as an anthropologist, is that if you look at belief systems and religions going way back in history, around the world, very often what you realize is that people have intuitively understood systems and used metaphors to think about them.