Saturday 19 September 2015

Gregory Bateson on Educational Management and Knowledge

At the end of Gregory Bateson's book, Mind and Nature, there is an essay called "Time is Out of Joint", in which he talks about the relationship between knowledge, science and educational management. It was written as a memorandum to the Regents of the University of California in 1978. He says:
"While much that universities teach today is new and up-to-date, the presupposition or premises of thought upon which all our teaching is based are ancient and, I assert, obsolete. I refer to such notions as:
a. The Cartesian dualism separating "mind" and "matter"
b. The strange physicalism of the metaphors which we use to describe and explain mental phenomena - "power", "tension", "energy", "social forces", etc
c. Our anti-aesthetic assumption, borrowed from the emphasis which Bacon, Locke and Newton long ago gave to the physical sciences, viz that all phenomena (including the mental) can and shall be studied and evaluated in quantitative terms. 
The view of the world - the latent and partly unconscious epistemology - which such ideas together generate is out of date in three different ways:
a. pragmatically, it is clear that these premises and their corollaries lead to greed, monstrous over-growth, war, tyranny, and pollution. In this sense, our premises are daily demonstrated false, and the students are half aware of this.
b. Intellectually, he premises are obsolete in that systems theory, cybernetics, holistic medicine, and gestalt psychology offer demonstrably better ways of understanding the world of biology and behaviour.
c. As a base for religion, such premises as I have mentioned became clearly intolerable and therefore obsolete about 100 years ago. In the aftermath of Darwinian evolution, this was stated rather clearly by such thinkers as Samuel Butler and Prince Kropotkin. But already in the eighteenth century, William Blake saw that the philosophy of Locke and Newton could only generate "dark Satanic mills"
Bateson's work fundamentally had been about justifying these claims in an ecological science which rested on cybernetics (it's interesting that he doesn't make the distinction with systems theory). I'd always felt that Bateson appeared to lack a political edge in his writing, preferring to argue the case for his "explanatory principles" rather than fighting to get things to change. However, the following passage contains some powerful political rhetoric, although unfortunately, his prediction that the "facts of deep obsolescence will command attention" has not yet come to pass:
"So, in this world of 1978, we try to run a university and to maintain standards of "excellence" in the face of growing distrust, vulgarity, insanity, exploitation of resources, victimization of persons, and quick commercialism. The screaming voices of greed, frustration, fear and hate.
It is understandable that the Board of Regents concentrates attention upon matters which can be handled at a superficial level, avoiding the swamps of all sorts of extremism. But I still think that the facts of deep obsolescence will, in the end, compel attention."
What would he say about our universities today, where the screaming voices of greed, frustration, fear and hate have taken over the halls of learning themselves, not just the world outside the ivory tower.  What would he make of the new managerial class of administrator today... particularly after having so many difficulties himself in 'fitting in' to the academic establishment. My guess is he would find it far worse - although perhaps he would not be surprised. He sarcastically remarks that this is "only 1978" and that by 1979,
"we shall know a little more by dint of rigour and imagination, the two great contraries of mental process, either of which by itself is lethal. Rigour alone is paralytic death, but imagination alone is insanity."
Perhaps there's a side-swipe  here at the 'hippy' community who embraced Bateson in his last years, when the scientific establishment of which he was clearly part, had shunned him. The hippies were lovely people, only too happy to talk about ecology and consciousness, but they were all imagination with no rigour. A similar criticism might be made of today's radicals: it is not enough for Occupy, the Greens or even Jeremy Corbyn's Labour to have bold dreams; there needs to be hard analysis too - more rigorous than anything attempted by those they oppose.

Which leads on to his comment about the student uprising in 1968:
"I believe that the students were right in the sixties: There was something very wrong in their education and indeed in almost the whole culture. But I believe that they were wrong in their diagnosis of where the trouble lay. They fought for "representation" and "power". On the whole, they won their battles and now we have student representation on the Board of the Regents and elsewhere. But it becomes increasingly clear that the winning of these battles for "power" has made no difference in the educational process. The obsolescence to which I referred is unchanged and, no doubt, in a few years we shall see the same battles, fought over the same phony issues, all over again."
Well, in reality it took over 40 years, but I suggest Bateson has been proved right! What he then articulates is a theory about education's relation to science and to politics. He introduces this theory by saying "I must now ask you to do some thinking more technical and more theoretical than is usually demanded of general boards in their perception of their own place in history. I see no reason why the regents of a great university should share in the anti-intellectual preferences of the press of media." - anti-intellectual? University management?! Heaven forbid!!!

Fundamentally, the theory reflects on what he sees as "two components in evolutionary process, and that mental process similarly has a double structure.". He basically argues for a conservative inner logic that demands compatibility and conformance; at the same time there is an imaginative, adaptive response by nurture in order to survive in a changing world. His point about time being "out of joint" is that the conservative and imaginative forces are mutually out-of-step: "Imagination has gone too far ahead of rigour and the result looks to conservative elderly persons like me, remarkably like insanity or perhaps like nightmare, the sister of insanity." He points out this this process is common in many fields: the law lags behind technology, for example. However, he argues for a dialectical necessity relating "conservatives" to "liberals", "radicals" and so on:
"behind these epithets lies epistemological truth which will insist that the poles of contrast dividing the persons are indeed dialectical necessities of the living world."
He argues that the purpose of university management is to maintain the balance between conservative and imaginative forces:
"if the Board of Regents has any nontrivial duty it is that of statemanship in precisely this sense - the duty of rising above partisanship with any component or particular fad in university politics."
Perfect! But Bateson sees the dangers too. He argues that there is a reason why "acquired characteristics"  can not be inherited in biology so as to protect the gene system from too rapid change. In Universities, there is no such barrier:
"Innovations become irreversibly adopted into the on-going system without being tested for long-time viability; and necessary changes are resisted by the core of conservative individuals without any assurance that these particular changes are the ones to resist."
The problem is that universities can be become corrupt, where the forces of conservatism take over:
"It is not so much "power" that corrupts as the myth of "power" It was noted above that "power", like "energy", "tension", and the rest of the quasi-physical metaphors are to be distrusted and, among them, "power" is one of the most dangerous. He who covets a mythical abstraction must always be insatiable!"
I don't think Bateson would be encouraged by what he would see today. We have gone nowhere, and the world of Universities, just as the world outside, is in dire straights. If Bateson's analysis is right, it is because of the "out-of-jointedness" of the two forces. In my own experience, I believe the problem lies with conservatism allying itself to mystifying allusions to 'learning' which are not rigorously inspected. His question to the board of Regents is simple:
"Do we, as a Board, foster whatever will promote in students, in faculty, and around the boardroom table those wider perspectives which will bring our system back into an appropriate synchrony or harmony between rigour and imagination?"
We have no information as to how the Californian Regents responded. Our problem today is that there too many (overpaid) Vice-Chancellors who wouldn't even understand the question.

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