mary_catherine_bateson's picture
Professor Emerita, George Mason University; Visiting Scholar, Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College; Author, Composing a Further Life

Dear Mr. President,

I hope that some of my colleagues will offer you a shopping list of specific goals. I want, however, to address a broader question that requires fitting together the findings of many researchers and that resonates with popular culture and the political process. For simplicity, let me put it in terms of a single question: Can human beings learn?

Most people would answer, of course. I am sure that you yourself remember learning things from time to time, at Yale for instance, and perhaps since. But I write to point out that we are steadily reducing our estimate of what and how much humans can learn, except at a relatively trivial level. And we are making policy on that basis.

We live at a time of impressive progress in biology (especially genetics and neuroscience), which has replaced physics as the most glamorous of the sciences. Certainly you have had to take positions on applications of this new science to human beings, but you may be unaware of the indirect influence of popularized scientific ideas on our systems of child care, education, health, and criminal justice. In all of these areas we are drifting toward biological determinism, but the situation is complicated by the popular belief that, whereas what human individuals can learn is limited, scientists can learn to tinker. Thus we regard more and more problems of individual behavior as biologically determined, but we are increasingly ready to treat them biochemically, and looking forward to treating them genetically. Our fatalism about the individual capacity to learn and heal is matched only by our technological hubris.

Let me give you a glimpse of each area:

• Learning begins at birth. But in child care there is now a substantial community that says early childhood does not have the importance it was believed to have. Even though there is some continuing support for child health insurance, for daycare that allows mothers to work, and for Headstart, the programs that are actually funded are increasingly custodial and mechanistic.

• The K-12 years are critical in learning to think, feel, and interact with others. But in education we are reducing our goals to testable skills and information, diverting attention from more subtle intellectual and social potentials. In poorer areas, we are miseducating large numbers of children, and we are allowing them to grow up in impoverished and violent environments—as if we believed that an improvement in conditions would have no positive effect.

• Psychotherapy developed to promote reflection on experience and to facilitate learning new ways to cope, physically and mentally. But in mental health we are letting medication replace, rather than support, psychotherapy. We are drugging or segregating problem children and ignoring the experiential basis of many conditions.

• Learning does take place in prisons. But increasingly they are training centers for crime and alienation, because we use them as if those we incarcerate were already irreversible career criminals. Thus, we increasingly assume that rehabilitation is impossible.

• Let me add foreign policy. If we believed that terrorism, for instance, was learned rather than innate, would we not question the policies that have kept three generations of Palestinian children growing up in refugee camps? Would we not focus AID money on education and social conditions rather than armaments? How many future terrorists will emerge from today's traumas?

I can see a lightbulb flashing over your head. "She's not talking science," you say, "she's talking the liberal agenda." That's true, Mr. President: liberals are not people who spend money on government programs per se, liberals are people who put money into improving social conditions because they affirm that humans can learn—from parents, peers, teachers, and what they see and hear around them. How come? Because human biology evolved for adaptation by learning. Can all humans learn equally well? Of course not, but they can learn better. We have seen that in the case of the learning disabled over the last generation. Are humans perfectible? Of course not. But liberals tend to use government to improve social conditions (which is to say, to support the learning environment in the widest sense) rather than on coercion, incarceration, warfare—and rewarding those who have already had the benefits of privileged environments. Have you ever noticed, Mr. President, how so much of the twins research that is used to argue the determining importance of genetics depends on controlling for socioeconomic status? That little phrase is the basis of the liberal agenda: give everyone an equal chance and, yes, the genes will play a large role. Inequality blocks genetic potential.

But is this science, you ask? Indeed. Anthropologists have spent the last century assembling evidence of how differently humans behave when reared in different cultural settings—and how those differences disappear when the settings change, sometimes overnight, sometimes over a couple of generations.

Mr. President, do continue to support research in neuroscience. We need to know more about the effects of love or trauma, of intellectual stimulation or monotony on the brain itself. Brain structure may increasingly be seen as a result rather than a cause. Keep the work going in human genetics and biochemistry. Doing science is after all derived from the evolved human capacity to adapt by learning and we can hope that some of the hubris will settle down with time. But put your money into research and policy for the great long term experiment of building a world in which everyone can learn to be the best they can be.

Respectfully submitted.

Mary Catherine Bateson
Visiting Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education  
Author of With a Daughter's Eye (on her parents Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson); Composing a Life; Peripheral Visions, and Full Circles, Overlapping Lives: Culture and Generation in Transition.