The Need for Rituals in Learning and Living

Clark Quinn in his recent post Transformative Experience Design looks anew at Post and Gilmore’s transformative experience as part of the experience economy; (the idea that the next phase of business is to sell experiences that are transformational.)  He make a great synthesizes of this idea with 2 other authors: Brown and Rappaport.  This is a comment I left on his blog.


I don’t know where this came from, but I think that the synthesis of transformational experience, JS Brown’s ‘questing disposition’ and especially Rappaport (God rest his soul) is shear genius.  The following is from a review of Rappaport’s book by Mary Catherine Bateson:

Rappaport is . . .describing the kind of ecology of ideas and actions that might include and sustain religion (or secular rituals) as an integral part of life. . .  What is needed is not new theology (though some tune-ups might be helpful) but new forms of practice and social engagement. We can talk until we are blue in the face, but that may do more harm than good, creating new polarities; what we need to do instead is to march or dance or sing, as in the great civil rights demonstrations of the sixties that forged new convictions and new unity.

I think these forms of practice and social engagement can come in many different forms and can be short lived or last for centuries, but they all must exist and tap into an ecology of ideas and actions that are at a scale that is much larger than any single individual or any single designed event.

My first thoughts on Browns ‘questing disposition’ reminds me of the institutional university.  Many of the best are full of rituals and lore, and their ancient stature towers above all who are there (think: Go Crimson).  But the way they do things and their ecology of ideas, just doesn’t fit this new world.  We go to university, graduate, take a job and hear from them in the form of donation requests.  Our educational rituals and our educational relationships need to be lifelong, just like our learning. There will come a time in the year 2020 when I need will need knowledge and practice from my university, except that the course I will need hasn’t been thought of yet.  We need university rituals that go with us into the world, and extend beyond rooting for your team in March Madness.

A second thought.  I have long thought that religion must have served some important purpose to be so widespread and this fits with Rappaport’s basic idea (at least as presented by Bateson) that ritual and religion co-evolved with language and that it did this in order to counter some of the destructive things that can be done with language (hence Bateson’s comment above that talking can “do more harm than good”).  And Bateson’s prescription also seems real to me; that religion’s problems are rooted not primarily in theology, but in the need for new practices and new forms of social engagement.  Now I admit, there are some theologies that I do have some problems with, but I believe that Bateson would say that a lot of these problems are just me letting my words getting in the way of practice and social engagement.

A third thought.  Ritual, as Bateson talks of it, can be seen as a form of distributed cognition or maybe as a form of the distributed unconscious.  Yes, I believe that just as there is much cognition that is below our conscious awareness, much of our rituals serve a similar unconscious cognitive role.

Well, let chew on that for a while.

One thought on “The Need for Rituals in Learning and Living

  1. Howard, glad if it resonated. I like Bateson’s point that we need to sing more; it actually was an idea that just came through the twitter stream yesterday (what synergy).

    I’ve often thought we need more, not less signification; my own high school graduation was a joke, yet that transition is huge and needs more recognition than just the ‘education’ part of it. The social nature is even bigger, but it’s basically submerged.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

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