Once again Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, writes a book that makes the reader look at people, cultures, and society through a different set of glasses. In this book, Bateson is looking at cultural norms of countries such as the Philippines and Iran as they compare to US culture whether it be on the issues of life, death, courtship, or parental roles. Bateson provides a thoughtful framework for engaging the reader in realizing that one culture/perspective is not the only way but we can expand our thoughts/feelings through opening our eyes to differences.
The utter simplicity of this book is deceptive. The ideas go very deep and are shattering in their implications. Yet they are proffered like cookies with afternoon tea. Mary Catherine Bateson presents learning as something directly related to the capacity to enjoy life; learning as an activity pursued throughout life, having only a tenuous connection with school as such. The quotes below give you a flavor of the depth of her reflections and of the pithyness of her expression. "Increasingly, we will cease to focus on learning as preliminary and see it threaded through other layers of experience, offering one of life's great pleasures." "The capacity to enjoy, to value one experience over another, is the precondition of the capacity to learn." "Looking, listening and learning offer the modern equivalent of moving through life as a pilgrimage." "It is hard to think of learning more fundamental to the shape of society than learning whether to trust or distrust others." "Human beings construct meaning as spiders make webs." "The solution is to take responsibility for the choice of metaphors, to savor them and ponder their suggestions, above all to live with many and take no one metaphor as absolute." "School casts a shadow on all subsequent learning. Trying to understand learning by studying schooling is rather like trying to understand sexuality by studying bordellos." "Not only don't we know what we know, we don't know what we teach." "Most of the learning of a lifetime, including much of what is learned in school, never shows up in a curriculum."
This book deserves more than five stars. It is an effective and eloquent statement of how to create personal growth through lifelong learning. The writing style of the book exemplifies the author's thesis in an effective and satisfying way. Try this experiment. Ask someone to concentrate on everything that is red in the room for 60 seconds. Then ask the person to close her or his eyes. Then ask the person to tell you everything in the room that is yellow. He or she will struggle. Focus helps us to see what we focus on, but causes us to miss most of the rest. Focus comes from our cultural preferences, our sense of attractiveness, and our expectations. Professor Bateson effectively shows us how to unfocus so that our peripheral vision becomes our primary way of sensing the visual and mental worlds around us. Peripheral vision has several advantages. It can capture more than one event at the same time. It also covers a wider field of range. And biologically, we know that our eyes perceive images better at the periphery than at the center (thus, why the reading lenses in bifocals are at the bottom of the glasses). Mentally, the same thing happens. A further advantage is that we are more likely to liberate the processes of the unconscious mind by considering things more obliquely. Walking away from issues to let them stew is a good example. The book gently leads the reader into this perception through a series of examples that spiral and recur onto one another, until Professor Bateson's examples become our own. These experiences begin with her taking her young daughter to a ritual slaughtering of a sheep in Iran, connect to her high school years as a gentile in Israel, touch on her research in the rural parts of the Philippines, and run through her two months at an artists' colony in New Hampshire. Professor Bateson (and we, as her invited guests) become outsiders in these circumstances, but with a guide to help us see the alternative perceptions of the same events. Then, she follows a winding path (like the spiral of a Nautilus shell) back into the center of what all this means. Continuing to consider sight, she also helps us to see that we are blind when we have only one perspective. Yet it is difficult to overcome that pespective on our own, so we are likely to remain blind. The cure: experience events as people from other cultures do in a nonjudgmental way. This is a sort of psychological "monkey see, monkey do" type of learning, and I agree that the jolt of this fresh vision should work. My main concern after reading this book is how I can hope to become such an acute observer without being a trained anthropologist born into a family of two genius parents. I suppose I'll just have to work at it harder. Certainly, I came away with the concept that I need to immerse myself in other cultures rather than just live like an American when I travel around. In the same way that half of my reading each year is outside of my fields of expertise, it sounds like I need to get a high percentage of my life experiences in environments dominated by people with different assumptions and perceptions than my own. Hmmmm. Sounds like fun! Now that I've got the basic concept, I do wish she had provided a few more guideposts for the individual learner. The ones she does provide are very helpful, addressing sex-based, religion-based, geography-based, and culture-based differences. I wonder what other ones there are. For those who are interested in what multiculturalism should mean, there is a fine discussion of the roles of multicultural experience that emphasizes the potential for learning rather than merely creating self-confidence. I also liked that she doesn't believe the term is a good one, and does some definitional work on the subject. The book comes from her personal perspective in many places, and you may not agree with her. Rather than having that repulse you, I suggest that you go with the spirit of the book and try to fit inside her perspective and see what you can learn from it. After enjoying this wonderful book, I suggest that you plan a vacation where you can experience first-hand a culture much different than your own or one that you have experienced before. Perhaps you should do what Henry James suggested, and simply travel to an uncertain destination until you can go no more and stop there. Then live as the people there live. And use Professor Bateson's example to see and think as the people there do. Then, come back to your own culture and see it in two ways now. Then add a third perspective, and so on. Eventually, the overlap of these perspectives will provide you with a new focus on the core of what is important and real. Overcome your own blinders to truly see all the potential around and within you!