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Learning to Live
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Mary Catherine Bateson

      . . . cultural anthropologist. Known widely for her book Composing a Life, Mary Catherine Bateson has written a number of others, including With a Daughter's Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Her latest is Full Circles, Overlapping Lives: Culture and Generation in Transition. Originally trained in linguistics and middle eastern studies, Dr. Bateson has taught at Harvard, Northeastern, Damavand College (Tehran), Brandeis, George Mason University, MIT, Spelman College and Amherst, where she was Dean of the Faculty.

Excerpts3:48 secs

      Freedom is hard, declares Mary Catherine Bateson. Once our lives were programmed by where we were born, what family we were born into. We had little or no choice about what kind of an education we would get, what work we would do, or whom we would marry. What was unpredictable was mostly bad. Like epidemics. No more.

      Mary Catherine Bateson is a cultural anthropologist, author and professor. Millions were influenced by her book Composing a Life. It's one of a number of books she has written, including With a Daughter's Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Her latest is Full Circles, Overlapping Lives: Culture and Generation in Transition.

      The explosion of choices we all face is revolutionary, according to Dr. Bateson. And there's more. The predictable old ways are gone but we are only in the beginning stages of inventing new cultural institutions to guide our steps. We need a sense of connection that allows us to meet a very basic human need -- to feel cherished -- but our institutions lag. Consider the family. We've broken humans' fundamental 3-generational structure. Where do we turn for a robust alternative which offers the social support we all need? Meanwhile, we make due with what Dr. Bateson considers a vulnerable, fragile social unit -- the "stripped down" nuclear family.

      What's the fix? There isn't one. But there are ways to proceed. Consider a world in which human responses put curiosity on a par with fight and flight. What if we went joyfully into opportunities to learn throughout our lives? Think of what it would mean if everyone got to take a "sabbatical" in midlife, to take into account how priorities change. What if we broke the factory model in education and the workplace? When will we adapt our ethics to our new technologies of life and death? Ah, freedom.

      Are we up to the challenge of the time in which we live? Dr. Bateson's answer is, "Yes, if." If we find the will to adapt and create, we'll have the energy. She's confident we'll grow the wisdom we need to meet these challenges -- it will happen in the process of making choices.

      But first, look and listen, Dr. Bateson urges, whatever the challenge. That's the first step in learning how to dance through the new rhythms of life.

Conversation 1

Mary Catherine Bateson compares the experience of our common African ancestor "Lucy" to today's humans for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Dr. Bateson describes us as a teaching as well as a learning species. She compares the choices we have today to earlier times when the human experience was in many ways more predictable.

Conversation 2

Dr. Bateson reminds us that some people have always had to adapt, citing immigrant experiences into and within America. She gives examples of why she thinks the concept of "neotony" (which she explains) is useful. She tells us why we do well to encourage our capacity to learn and improvise in our rapidly changing society. She critiques education and offers a metaphor about developing a love of learning among children. She explains why she believes the need for community is an aspect of human neotony, along with the need to be cherished throughout life. We also learn from ourselves, she assures us, giving examples.

Conversation 3

Curiosity is as basic to humans as "fight" and "flight," contends Dr. Bateson. She elaborates and suggests we teach children the joy of discovery, not simply to tolerate differences. She suggests ways to maximize and learn from our memories, to cultivate the discovery process with familiar and unfamiliar subjects. She characterizes humans as efficient, then gives examples of when our efficiency becomes inappropriate. She describes the evolving nature of the institution of marriage, now being asked to last for as much as 80 years . She urges us to re-evaluate our lives at mid-life, giving examples.

Conversation 4

Dr. Bateson describes the "stripped down nuclear family" as vulnerable and fragile. She suggests we also need the support of uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins and neighbors. She describes how we've broken up the 3-generation family and suggests significant social inventions we need to create in its place. She uses her own life as an example. She describes the challenge she sees in finding ways to have adults present in children's lives. She advocates linking families rather than demanding that individual mothers "go home and stay home." She champions mutual care-giving between generations citing inherent rewards to building connections.

Conversation 5

Rethink death, Dr. Bateson urges. New technological possibilities bring new ethical obligations to make choices, she says, reminding us that freedom is hard work. She expresses her conviction that we are moving into a revolutionary era which she describes. She criticizes the way we educate people today and explores a non-traditional kind of home schooling which requires a network of people, not a deepening of the nuclear family model. She worries about how the factory model of education has disabled adults. She describes her own experience as a teacher. Faced with a world of challenges, Dr. Bateson gives examples of her belief that if we find the will to solve our problems, we'll have the energy and grow the wisdom to do so in the process.

Conversation 6

Dr. Bateson tells stories about what kids teach parents, suggesting what we have to learn from each other. She applies the general rule of "look and listen first" to ecology, cultural differences and conflicts within families. She explains the power of stories as a vehicle for both participating and learning.


While we recorded this conversation with Mary Catherine Bateson, we also shared in the profoundly human pleasure of "breaking bread" with friends at the beautiful Commerce Club in Atlanta. As always, the Club's hospitality was just what one might wish. We thank all concerned in making it so.

It was a pleasure to reunite with Dr. Bateson. We admire her work and thank her for it.

Related Links:
You can learn more about Mary Catherine Bateson (and her parents, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson) at her website

Dr. Bateson is offering a course on the Internet. It's based on her course at George Mason University and at Spelman College, from which her most recent book Full Circles, Overlapping Lives also builds.

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