“Sometimes change is directly visible,
but sometimes it is apparent only to peripheral vision,
altering the meaning of the foreground.”
—Mary Catherine Bateson, Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way (1994, p. 6)
Like anyone else, I brought perceptions from my entire lifetime to ED 800, which now will come with me in some form for the rest of the journey. I have been thinking about why Mary Catherine Bateson’s book Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way (1994) has been ringing so powerfully in my mind. It’s more than the fact that I wanted to write nearly every word of it in my notebook as I came upon gem after gem. Pulling together ideas and reflecting on her life, I have felt compelled to examine my own. Being a pen and paper man, the possibilities for technology in education are a significantly greater challenge for me. Perhaps because I’m not quite ready to face my insecurities with technology in a responsible way, Mary Catherine Bateson’s exploration of “learning along the way” seemed an inescapable choice for me.
On the heels of Professor Cusick’s work, A Passion for Learning: The Education of Seven Eminent Americans (2005), I was challenged further by Mary Catherine Bateson’s work to consider learning outside the classroom more broadly, deeply, and intimately. Considering my own learning outside the classroom was probably the most difficult, and helped me to realize, if not quite how to articulate them or what to do about them, how to begin unearthing some of the assumptions and messages that I communicate as a teacher, a parent, and a husband. Each of these roles is oddly related to each other and to what I’m beginning to see as the broader world of education. In this world, as described by Bateson, learning will happen no matter what, where, when, who, or how; but that learning can be more meaningful if you are open to recognizing it. It’s important, I think, to dig a little bit into the past in order to fill out a rough understanding of how I came to hold such assumptions as I did in those teaching and learning roles at the beginning of this course. In order to do so, I offer a few of the moments during which I was not immediately open to learning, and until recently, had not considered as a part of my education.
From the time I could remember, my mother did not eat with us. She ate what we ate, same dishes, same silverware, same time, different place. My father, my four brothers, and I sat at the table. My mother ate at her workspace on the other side of the kitchen. The table was fun. No ego went unchecked, no body part unmentioned, no gas unpassed. Our table was legendary in our school. Friends used to love being invited to dinner. Great food. Incredible conversation. No mom. No limits.
When I was about fourteen, my mother pulled a stool up to the table. “Move over,” she said. I can’t remember who, maybe it was me, but whoever it was made some room for the stool among the six chairs. We were all silent. We had never seen this sight before. Our mother at our table with her serious face on. “We are going to have a pleasant dinner,” she said. Our questions and our attempts to immerse this stranger in our dinner table culture were equally greeted with my mother’s serious face. Eventually, the questions faded away, and over time we developed a relationship with manners that were more acceptable to my mother. We didn’t think much about it, it just happened. “Now,” my mother said, “who’s doing the dishes?”
In high school, I got good grades. This was called “doing well.” If you did well, you were “smart.” If you were smart, there was likely something about you that was better than most other people. I was sure that this was true about me. Since it wasn’t that hard to get the grades that I did, I must have been super-smart, and everyone else just wasn’t trying hard enough. My parents confirmed this. My teachers didn’t question it. My friends asked me for help on assignments. Colleges accepted me. It was a no-brainer. I was smart. I earned a D- on my first college mid-term. High school was over.
My friend Bronwen used to refer to me as “that scary freshman guy.” We weren’t friends at the time. I lived next to some friends of hers. I had earned the description, being pretty much a caveman—not the man in a cave that you might find while reading Plato either. A knuckle-dragging, grunting, scratching, sexist, moderately (if possible) racist, reductionist egotist. Despite her description of me, Bronwen was persistent about pointing out alternative perspectives to my thinking across four years of various interactions. She called it “planting the seed.” My typical response was, “Whatever.”
Currently, I am in my seventh year of coordinating school-wide diversity initiatives, and supporting a variety of efforts toward equity. I often tell my students that I am “planting the seed.” After almost 30 years of nothing but boys, I became a father. We named her Bronwyn.
After reading Peripheral Visions (1994), I have felt compelled to examine what I am doing in my life more closely and to open myself up to some broader thinking. What assumptions have I brought with me throughout and because of my experiences? What do those assumptions mean for me as a teacher? What might they mean for my students? How are my assumptions conveyed to my child? What am I passing on to her? As I continue to learn from and to be thoroughly impressed by my wife, what messages do I send to her in how I approach our relationship? As two teachers of fundamental value to one little girl, are we on the same page? Mary Catherine Bateson has prompted me to rethink my role in my relationships with my students, my daughter, and my wife. Each role has profound educational value. In each relationship I can see myself as both a teacher and a learner. From each perspective, Bateson has helped me begin to develop more questions than answers.
The line that most pushed me to look inward at my assumptions is simple, yet powerful. “The self is learned, yet ironically it often becomes a barrier to learning” (Bateson, 1994, p. 66). I had to ask myself where I had learned to become myself, and whether I had become satisfied with what I had learned, and therefore resisted learning more. The stories above show change, but I could not quite classify them as learning without directly recognizing them. Bateson says, “Much of modern life is organized to avoid the awareness of the fine threads of novelty connecting learned behaviors with acknowledged spontaneity” (1994, p. 6). Bateson prompted me to look into my past as she says, “We think of the self as a central continuity, yet recognizing that the self is not identical through time is a first step in celebrating it as fluid and variable, shaped and reshaped by learning” (1994, p. 64). In the three short snapshots of my life, learning did not come easy, but crept in over time, only to be recognized years later. “Such situations of sustained contact and contrast often find their own equilibrium…” (Bateson, 1994, p. 21). Upon reflection, I can recognize the learning and be shocked at the change. As Bateson says, “…‘culture shock’…can occur in rediscoveries of the self” (1994, p. 57). What had I missed about myself in the past? What might I be missing now? How can I open myself up to see more of what is going on around me, because of me, in spite of me, with or without me? What assumptions do I make about myself in my roles?
As I teacher, I have begun to consider what assumptions I bring to class and to my various interactions with students on a daily basis. What messages do I convey to them about those assumptions? What values and biases may be communicated in my words and deeds? What are they bringing into the classroom with them? Bateson has prompted me to open myself up to the idea that “Many tales have more than one meaning. It is important not to reduce understanding to some narrow focus, sacrificing multiplicity to what might be called the rhetoric of merely….Openness to peripheral vision depends on rejecting such reductionism and rejecting with it the belief that questions of meaning have unitary answers” (1994, p. 11).
In addition to what I bring into the classroom as a person, Bateson has also prompted me to reconsider the structure of my classroom. She says, “The structure of school emphasizes what you don’t know” (1994, p. 207). Can I build on my students’ experiences more? Should I? Can they learn from each other? Can I learn from them? Do I structure my class in too linear a fashion? Could it flow more naturally? “Planning for the classroom,” Bateson says, “we sometimes present learning in linear sequences, which may be part of what makes classroom learning onerous: this concept must precede that, must be fully grasped before the next is presented” (1994 ,p. 30). Have I trapped my students and myself in a classroom of my own assumptions? Are they “doing well?”
As she rapidly blended or changed roles in the Persian garden, Mary Catherine Bateson struck a particularly close chord with me as a parent, and opened me up to a greater receptivity of her further explorations of this role in learning and teaching. Her inquiry helped to prompt me to begin considering how my role as a parent affects and is affected by my assumptions. I really never know whether I’m more like my father at the table all along, or my mother as she reclaimed the table for herself. What messages might I be conveying if I’m either, both, neither, or something else altogether? I know that I’m teaching my daughter, but I don’t necessarily recognize what it might be. Bateson says, “Children participating in adult occasions see things adults have learned not to see and guess at meanings missing in official explanations” (1994, p. 48). Bronwyn says yes please, no thank you, and I love you; but she also pretends to blow her nose in her shirt. Did I do that? What am I passing on?
“Instead of passing on hallowed certainties and maintaining the status quo, they must make childhood an open-ended introduction to a process of continual change in which self-observation can become the best of teachers” (Bateson, 1994, p. 8). “Raising children does involve the transmission of continuities, but it also requires sustained and loving attention that welcomes particularity” (Bateson, 1994, p. 87). So, what do I do? For now, I suppose I will continue to explore what I am teaching and what I am learning from my daughter. After all, “the home…is where we learn how and what to learn and how to transfer knowledge from one situation to another….Children and traditional peoples…have vast amounts of knowledge long before teachers and social reformers get to them. An awareness of the complexity of the knowledge they already possess could in itself be a revolutionary force” (Bateson, 1994, p. 42).
Growing up in a household referred to as “The Locker Room,” I did not walk away unscathed, or unloved. I did develop a skewed view about what it means to be a male at different stages in my life. Some of my old assumptions come through in ways that have likely become invisible to me. Every now and again, the caveman comes out of the cave. “We live with a tension created by building pluralism on an ancient tradition of exclusive truth” (Bateson, 1994, p. 191). While I recognize the love and attention that my wife puts into our marriage, our child, and our lives; Bateson (1994) has prompted me to reconsider the areas in which I tend toward “ancient tradition” and where I could better support my wife through greater cooperation. “[C]ooperation only looks appealing if one adds up the benefit to all participants” (Bateson, 1994, p. 191). In order to better cooperate with my wife, I need to look beyond myself and to ask what will benefit her. What will benefit each of us? What will benefit us all? What can we learn from each other?
Mary Catherine Bateson’s work has pushed me to open myself up to greater educational possibilities. She says, “Each person is calibrated by experience, almost like a measuring instrument for difference, so discomfort is informative and offers a starting point for new understanding” (1994, p. 17). “It is not easy to use the crises of one’s own life as the stimuli for new ethnographic insights, yet we all arrive as strangers at the moments of crises in our lives, having to improvise responses from previous learning” (Bateson, 1994, 27). My hope is to recognize learning as it is happening, and to open myself up to greater and greater learning in the future. To me, this is a new educational world. Until then, I can take solace in a few thoughts:
“You will always be acting with uncertainty. You will know the future when you get there. Only so can you make it your home.”
—Mary Catherine Bateson
“‘All events are connected in the best of all possible worlds; for, after all, if you hadn’t been driven off from a beautiful country residence with great kicks in the backside for the love of Miss Cunégonde, if you hadn’t been brought before the Inquisition, if you hadn’t traveled across America on foot, if you hadn’t stabbed the baron, if you hadn’t lost all your sheep from the good land of Eldorado, you wouldn’t be here eating candied citrons and pistachios.’ ‘That’s well said,’ replied Candide, ‘but we must cultivate our garden.”
“I just keep it moving.”
—Suria Ambrose (former student)
- Bateson, M.C. (1994). Peripheral visions: Learning along the way. New York, NY: Harper.
- Cusick, P.A. (2005). A passion for learning: The education of seven eminent Americans. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.